Christmas: A Thin Place

“And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger…Then they returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” Luke 2:16, 20

Shepherds have a place in every Christmas play, and, especially when children are involved, the part is charming. Shepherds have an appeal to us. They’re cute.

But not in the first century. The vocation was difficult, dirty and derided. Shepherds worked long hours. They were not able to attend at the temple or the synagogue. When they did, they weren’t especially welcomed. Fellow worshipers did not line up to sit next to them. Their calling was not an exalted one, owing in part, I suppose, to the fact they smelled of sheep.

But when God chose the first audience to hear about the birth of His Son into the world, He selected shepherds out in a field. Not the nobility. Not the community leaders. Not the clergy. He didn’t choose the wealthy, or the professionals or the beautiful people. Gabriel to God, “To whom shall I announce the birth?” “To the shepherds,” God said. “Tell the shepherds.”

You can learn so much about God from the simple fact that He wanted the birth of His Son first announced to shepherds.

Their response, after some initial fear, was to “make haste” and go see the child. They were excited! This was something incredibly new, mysterious, wonderful, magnificent! After seeing the baby, their response was no less exuberant. They glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen.

I doubt they immediately realized this was the Messiah. I do believe it was an event so powerful they would always remember it and talk about it. In fact, it awakened a deep longing and met that deep longing.

If I were to define it with one word I would say that they experienced joy that night. They were surprised by joy.

Joy is one of the great words in the New Testament. Paul said it is the second fruit of the spirit, right after love. Etymologically it is from the same root as the Greek word for grace. Grace elicits joy. When we drink deeply from grace, we find our greatest need met, and we long for more. Grace is the living water Jesus offers. Joy is the relief we feel afterward.

C. S. Lewis said that certain events in life will awaken in you a longing for something sublime. Nothing else will satisfy you. It is more desirable than any other satisfaction. That is joy. It is neither happiness nor pleasure. Once you have experienced it then you will want it again.

Here is the challenge. Most of us wouldn’t recognize joy if it were right in front of us. We don’t think in those terms. Joy is not usually a part of our vocabulary. It’s as if we have forgotten that something so wonderful is actually available to us. Look at most Christians today and you will not see anything akin to joy, and I’m not simply talking about the time of year and its attendant busyness. Look at most Christians any time of the year. Do you see joy? It’s akin to what Charles Spurgeon said about heaven and hell. “When you speak of heaven, let your face light up. When you speak of hell, well, then your everyday face will do.”

We can do better! Most of us don’t spend 10 solid minutes thinking quietly about matters of the Spirit. No wonder we don’t feel joy! So let’s try this: Try to imagine yourself as a shepherd. See an angel in the night sky. An angel! Then a whole host of them. Run to the manger. What do you see? What do you feel? In your soul? Take your time. For God so loved the world. For God so loved…you. Think about it. Accept it. That is joy.

Celtic Christians wrote of the “thin places” where the spiritual world draws very close to the physical world. I believe Christmas is that kind of place and time. I know this time of year elicits a special feeling in me. I call it joy.


Dr. Terry Ellis
December 13, 2015