Harrowing Of Hell
December 24, 2022

The Solid Ground on Which We Stand

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Merry Christmas Eve!

I’m glad to see you here this evening. For some of you it may be the first time at Epiphany.  Welcome. For many of you this is your spiritual home, and I am glad to be on this journey with you. There may even be a few of you for whom this is the first Christmas Eve service you’ve ever attended.   I hope you experience some of the awe and reverence it is meant to inspire.

You’re all welcome, of course, and welcomed equally, because we are all made equally, with love, by God, with purpose and providence. It is no accident that you are alive at this time in history, and present in this city, and maybe even present at this church tonight. I’ll leave that for you to contemplate.

This service, as you know, celebrates the birth of Jesus. Each year the remembrance of this historical event draws my eyes to the skies in search of the angels on high, whether real or metaphorical, while also reminding me of the solid ground upon which I stand because of the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Tonight, the focus is his birth. In this story, the people I most identify with are the shepherds in the field keeping watch over the flocks by night. So, this evening I’d like us to consider them, the shepherds, and how their actions from witnessing the heavenly hosts, to visiting the manger establish the solid ground upon which we stand in reverent awe of God.

Solid ground is the phrase I’m going to continue to connect with this evening. It is a phrase that I hope gives our minds cause to consider what is solid beneath our feet; what we believe to be immovable, what we can fully and completely trust in always, and in every circumstance. Solid ground is the foundation above which the shifting and swirling sands of wealth and poverty, health and illness, celebration and isolation, peace and war, and maybe even life and death blow about. Solid ground is that which we can count on irrespective of our context at any given moment in time. And at least I maintain, solid ground is most clearly revealed when reverence and awe are experienced. We will get to more of that in a moment.

First, let’s return to the shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night. We meet them on the barren hills around Bethlehem. It is a place some of you have visited. At Epiphany, every two years, we take a pilgrimage to the  Holy Land; and we always make a stop at Shepherd’s Field near Bethlehem.

If you were here at Epiphany Christmas Eve 8 years ago, you heard me talk about the shepherds who roamed those hills 2000 years ago. They were a unique community of people. They were different, and we know this because they stayed out all night.  Regular shepherds wouldn’t stay out all night. Too dangerous. In the evening the sheep were returned to the manger for safe-keeping. But these sheep stay out all night. The shepherds did so because they had a particular charge. They were responsible for guarding the sacrificial sheep reserved for slaughter on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at the temple in Jerusalem.

Now, in addition to these sheep being without blemish, which was the base qualification for a sacrificial sheep, they were required to live their entire lives outside, under the watchful eye of God, eating only organic grass (also known as grass that grew in the fields). And so, these special sheep needed special shepherds.

They were the bravest and most capable of shepherds, fighting off bandits and wolves and bears and mountain lions that prowled the shadows of the darkest nights. These shepherds weren’t a bunch of star gazing ne’er-do-wells. They were watchmen; alert, capable, and skilled. They were people like you. They knew their job, they worked hard, and they cared about what they did. And their work was important to the community. It mattered. They weren’t romantics. They weren’t frivolous. They weren’t easily impressed. Hardly anything surprised them, and nothing startled them, and very little caused them to fear. The ground upon which they stood was their own competence and their experience. They were the captains of their kingdom and the masters of their dominion.

Until one particular night, when the skies ripped open and something appeared above them. Angels, we are told. Maybe. But something happened out there. Song erupted, or at least that’s what it sounded like to the shepherds. And they were afraid. And I believe it. But, they were also in awe. The word for afraid in this text is nuanced, and can also be translated as awe. They were in awe of what was happening around them.

Maybe you know what it feels like? I do. Eyes satiated by something that seems to be embracing your soul; feet locked in place, stopped, transfixed.  In awe.  It is awesome.

Awe captivated the shepherds in the field and caused them to drop to their knees. That is the universal response to awe, incidentally. It is a pose that situates the soul on solid ground. They knelt, and when the moment passed they saw in the eyes of their colleagues liberation; no longer being bound to sheep for redemption. And they said: “Let us go and see this new thing that has taken place!” They left the sacred sheep, no longer bound to blood sacrifice, to visit a child in a manger whose name means: “God with us.”

What they had sought through sheep and sacrifice was now revealed through the incarnation of God. They arrived at the manger in silent awe on a silent night and again knelt reverently, souls satiated by the presence, by the love of God. They knelt. Even then, I suspect, kneeling was countercultural. Certainly not an exercise practiced by captains of kingdoms and masters of dominions. Just the opposite.

It makes me wonder about kneeling. How often do you kneel? When? Why? In front of whom? At board meetings? Law briefings? Examining rooms? Parent teacher conferences? During an interviews? Not likely.

Kneeling is a posture reserved for moments when we acknowledge that our strength comes from some place beyond ourselves… in honest recognition that the most solid  ground upon which to stand is ground touched by bent knees in moments of reverent awe; when our souls are satiated by the presence and reality of God.

The shepherds knelt in acknowledgement that God is with us. They knelt because they  knew the signs revealed on that silence night, in the presence of a newborn child, changed everything. Now their God was with them and had a name.

That is the point of our celebration this evening. God with us is the reality behind any situation we find ourselves in… God is always the thing behind the thing, the solid ground upon which we stand irrespective of the shifting sands round about us.

God with us broke into the world on the darkest night, in the smallest nation, in a place far away. And to the most unlikely parents was born a child that would reveal through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension the most solid ground upon which to experience reverent awe on bended knees.