And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. -Luke 2:8
It was an uncharacteristically romantic St. Louis Christmas scene. Snow covered the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, whose waters rippled past the windows of the nursing home I was visiting that late December evening. It was well after most of the residents had retired, and I was seated in the now-darkened lobby, admiring a river boat as it drifted past.
Truth be told, it was actually more a barge than a river boat, but the writer in me conjured up images of Mark Twain's river boats, and those images morphed into the scene before me, turning the modern-day barge into a 19th century vessel.
I'd just finished sitting with an elderly man who was convinced there were sins in his past that were simply beyond God's capacity to forgive. All my assurances, and all the testimonies I presented from people who also once thought themselves too far gone, just couldn't shake his belief that now-in the twilight of his life, when he knew he needed God-that he was beyond God's reach. For him, as for so many others, Christmas was a puzzling and disheartening time, when the hope for what could be collides with the reality of what is.
So I sat by myself in the place where we'd chatted, watching the river boat drift through my thoughts. The memory of God's redemptive story, in God's own words, cut into the moment.
"I will take the things you've done wrong, and I will move them as far as the East is from the West", He wrote, in His poetic way. "Not only that, but I give you My word that never again shall those sins be remembered by Me." This was God, giving voice to the start of the only Christmas message that matters. These were the bread crumbs leading us to the path that takes us to the place we've always wanted to be: "Peace on earth, goodwill to men."
Later, God would describe Himself in the story of the prodigal son: "Once upon a time there was a loving father who saw a wayward son coming down the road. The wayward son had hurt him in the deepest way possible, but when the father saw the son, he raced to greet him. That, my children", God wrote in Scripture, "is how much I love you."
"Please", He continues, "come back to Me." Knowing His words were not sufficient to call all of us back, He continued the story in Luke. "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." With that, He goes on to recount the birth of Jesus, the first moment in history where humans can see that the hope for what could be will one day become the reality of what is.
They were words to make a grown man cry, and they'd done so in that nursing home this Christmas.
As the barge drifted front and center, a string of Christmas lights flashed on and off, greeting whomever might be looking to the river that chilly December evening. Even a barge in the middle of the mighty Mississippi seemed to declare His glory.
It was a fun way to celebrate Christmas that delightfully silent night.