Sermon delivered by The Rev. Ronald Botts on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2001 at the 7:30 p.m. Pageant Service.
Reuben and Miriam and their son, Aaron, lived in one of the shepherd huts clustered in the hills a few miles from Bethlehem. Living near them were Reuben's two brothers and, together, the three men tended the largest of the flocks that grazed outside the village.
Aaron, Reuben's son, was eight years old. He was straight and slender in build, resolute and eager, and even as a boy he had the keen eye of a shepherd.
One morning Aaron presented again the request that he had been making for many weeks. "Mother, I'm old enough to go. I wouldn't be in the way, would I father? I could help, really I could."
The boy glanced from mother to father, and then back to Miriam again. "And mother, father was just my age when he went out for the first time. He told me so yesterday when I asked him."
Miriam realized that her son had found a bargaining point now in his argument for going. She turned for help to her husband as she raised her hands in mock prayer. Reuben laughed and put his hand on her shoulder.
"Well, I guess he has to begin sometime. He won't come to any harm, Miriam. We'll watch over him, just like my father and grandfather looked after me. I think you're going to have to say `yes' this time."
Life could bring no greater joy for Aaron than to know that tomorrow he would be out in the fields with his father and uncles helping to tend the flock. He also knew that this was the first big step toward being a man and he was filled with excitement. He also thought of the little orphaned lamb that his father told him about. Taking care of that little animal was to be one of his jobs.
And so as Miriam watched the three men and Aaron the next day stride away toward the fields, her eyes were filled with tears. She thought about the baby that she had nursed and now saw him embarking on the next stage of his life. They were tears of sadness and happiness all mixed together.
It seemed to the men that Aaron was everywhere. Every time you'd turn around he had another question. And no matter how many other questions he had, there was always a constant one, "What can I do to help now?"
The thing that seemed to make Aaron the happiest that day was when his father took him to where the orphaned lamb lay. His father said, "See, here is the lamb that is without its mother. We've been feeding it by hand, but now she is your responsibility. You watch over her, help her grow, and the lamb can be the beginning of your own flock. She is now yours, my son."
Aaron's father had few worldly goods, and gifts had necessarily been few: a toy or two whittled out by a shepherd's knife, a few bright stones, his clothes - these were all the things which Aaron could call his own.
But now he had a lamb and it was his, and his only. His fingers wound their way through its soft wool and he began to love it immediately. After supper he fell asleep exhausted, cradling the little animal next to him.
As the early hours of the night watch passed, the three men poked at the fire from time to time. And near midnight, they too had dozed off.
Suddenly, Reuben sat up in astonishment. It was too early for the dawn, and yet the countryside was lit up as if the sun had already begun to rise. An exceedingly bright star was directly overhead and lighting up the entire sky. His brothers now also stirred and awoke just as bewildered by what was happening as he.
"What's going on?" Reuben cried out in the direction of the heavens. Then he was taken aback by a loud, yet reassuring voice which said, "Don't be afraid. I am here with good news for you, news which will bring great joy to all the people. This very day in David's town, your Savior was born - Christ the Lord! And this is what will be its evidence: a child who is wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
After the heavenly message had ceased, the brothers looked at each other dumbfounded. Then it occurred to Reuben that all this came directly from the scriptures which governed their lives. "This, my brothers, is what the prophets long ago foretold. Let us go straight to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has made known to us. And we must take some tokens of our devotion, limited as thought they may be to us now. Here, here is my shepherd's staff and bring that sturdy water bag. And this shawl, too. It has kept me warm even on the coldest nights." And without further words the men were on their way.
"Wait, wait for me!" a shrill little voice cried out. Aaron: In the excitement they had completely forgotten about the boy. "Well, then, hurry lad. Hurry. We must be on our way." Aaron pulled himself together as quickly as he could, but just before he took the first step he felt a nudge against his leg. "The lamb," he thought to himself. "I can't leave it here without protection." So hurriedly he picked up the animal and began to run off after the men.
As the shepherds reached Bethlehem they tried to follow where the star's light appeared greatest. It led them down the narrow streets of the town and finally to an inn. There behind the inn, in the stable, they saw the flickering of a light inside and they approached the door carefully.
They looked inside, and there in one of the stalls, they saw the figures of a man and woman, and more than that - a baby. They knew instantly that what lay before them was more than coincidence. The men knew that they had been led right to this spot and to this child. So the shepherds knelt down before the couple and told them of the star and the heavenly message. Then they offered the gifts that they had carried with them from the fields. The shepherds knew that what they brought were commonplace and of little value, but they offered each with sincerity.
The shepherds were about to leave when the woman spoke in a soft voice, "And who is this young one with you?"
"My name is Aaron. I am Reuben's son. He is the one who told you about the star. I am just learning to be a shepherd. I have just gone out into the fields this very day. I am becoming a man."
"Oh, so I see," replied the woman. "And is this little one you carry part of the flock?"
"She's mine. My father gave her to me. She's the best present I've ever received. I must take care of her, for she cannot fully care for herself yet. She's been orphaned."
The young woman smiled, "Then care for her well. I, too, know what it is to have responsibility for another life. Each of us has something very important to do. Thank you all for coming to see us, to see our child, tonight."
Again the shepherds nodded in homage and left. They started to retrace their steps when suddenly Aaron stopped. "Father, I must go back to the stable. Please wait here until I return."
Quickly he ran back thought the winding street and again poked his head inside the stable. "It's me, Aaron. Can I come in?"
"I came back to give you something. I don't really own anything - well, except one thing. And I want to give something to the baby because I know he is someone very special. I want to give him my lamb, which I love very much. She has made me very happy in the one day I have had her and I hope she will make the baby happy, too. She's a good lamb and will make a fine start for a new flock." And with that Aaron held out the small shivering animal.
"Come near to me Aaron, son of Reuben," said the woman. "Come and lay down beside me where I can put my arm around you. Now, that's better. You make me very happy, Aaron. You offer my son your most precious possession. I can think of no greater gift that could be given. But I am sure, that if my baby could speak tonight, he would tell you that he would want you to keep that lamb for him. Give it your love and care. Watch over her the way God watches over us. Go now, and may the Lord's blessing be upon you for your kindness."
With that, Aaron stood up, and pressing the lamb tightly to his breast, he smiled and said, "I will never forget you, never." Then he ran to catch up with his father and uncles.
That night Aaron learned that a gift from the heart, whether or not anything tangible changes hands, is the truest gift of all. It is a lesson we learn again each Christmas as we remember the present God has given to us in the new-born child who grew to be our Savior. And it is an example that the Lord hopes will not be lost on us. Amidst the joy of all that we receive, we ought not to forget that the greater happiness always comes from what we give - freely, generously, lovingly.
The very first Christmas gifts were the gifts of shepherds watching over their sheep by night. With each present under the tree this year we extend that tradition. We give in grateful response to the very greatest gift of all.
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