In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After Old Testament prophesying and angel-promised pregnancy we are back at the stable. This is a classic ‘royal birth’ story. A king’s son is born in the palace; heralds are sent out to the city and nation to announce the event; the rich and famous come to offer their presence and presents. Except here the palace is a stable, the heralds are angels and the rich and famous are the ‘bottom rung of the ladder’ shepherds. God’s version of the world is so different from ours. His way of seeing and valuing people turns our status, class obsessed world upside down. This birth as a homeless person into insecurity and poverty and his welcome by the shepherds all point to Jesus’ future. His life and his ministry will all be lived out amongst the poor and the struggling, they are the ones who will respond to him. He will not be centre stage, he will not have political or religious power and authority, wealth with all its supportive relationships to other wealthy people will be denied him. He will live, operate, minister and work on the edge.
After all the excitement of the birth, the announcements and the visiting, the angelic host return to heaven. The ‘New David’ lies in the manger in the royal city of Bethlehem. The shepherds become, in effect, the first evangelists as they share their story and amaze their listeners. Joseph is stolidly in the background. Mary sits and ponders all.
The story is so well known to us that it loses its importance and sense of mystery. Each detail is loaded with significance but we often miss it.
So perhaps we should be like Mary and (as one translation puts it) ponder over everything. To ponder means to weigh, to balance, to reflect on. It involves deep thinking; going over something time and time again; not necessarily coming to quick conclusions. Pondering is a gradual business involving lots of remembering and reflecting. Spiritual people are all great ponderers. So ponder on all these birth stories. Stable, angels, shepherds, what did they mean then, what do they mean to you now.
I can still remember when Jesus was born into the inner heart/stable of Robert. It was my first job as a clergyman, my wife and I were doing lots of youth work and Robert was the leader of the pack. Cleverest at school, strongest personality, best at football and cricket and most indifferent to God, he was the leader.
After months of just playing footie and listening to loud rock music he had eventually started sniffing around the Jesus end of our youth ministry. Gradually he started attending on a Sunday night, joining in the discussion and asking questions.
Six months later we saw him stand up and open up. He invited Jesus to come and be born in his heart – he has never looked back.
Pondering or deep spiritual thinking is like slow cooking. We like fast food, microwave ‘2 minute’ dinners, even better if someone delivers it to our house. Slow cooking takes patience, but has a deeper, richer flavour.
So slow down, find some room and think deeply in a ruminating sort of way, pondering, rolling it around, about what is happening inside your stable. Allow space for the spiritual expectancy in your inner place to grow slowly. Stop, ask questions, talk to God, talk to a friend, practice slow cooking deep in your soul.
‘The heavenly babe you there shall find.
To human view displayed.
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands,
And in a manger laid.’
So, here are the questions for today.
What are you pondering right now?
How far advanced is the slow cooking?
Lord God, Heavenly Father,
As you sent your son into the world,
Send him into my life.
As he was born into a stable,
Enable him to be born into my heart.
And as Mary pondered,
Slow me down that I might ponder.