In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets
at many times and in various ways,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,
whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being,
Hebrews 1: 1-3a
Dear people of God, it’s Christmas morning and we are gathered to meditate upon and celebrate the birth of our Savior. For our text we are taking the opening words of Hebrews and this wonderful painting, “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” painted by Gerrit van Hontorst in 1622. I can think of no better work of art to illustrate the words of the Hebrews 1:3 —“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory.”
Before going any further take a moment to look carefully at this painting. What do you notice? What grabs your attention?
Jesus is the focal point of this painting. The eyes of Mary and Joseph, the three shepherds and even the eyes of the ox are all fixed on Jesus.
Jesus is not only the focal point, he is also the only source of light. His face is illumined, not by a candle nor a lantern, but by an inner light of glory. It is a holy light, brighter than anything that appears on earth. His body, his garments and even his blankets shine like an angel. It is clear that he is the radiance of God’s glory. His glory illuminates everyone else in this scene. He is the light of the world, the light of our eyes.
Our eyes are next drawn to Mary who is intently gazing at Jesus. She seems oblivious to everything except Jesus. She is beautiful but to my mind she also looks a bit tired after the rigors of childbirth. Her arms are stretched wide, pulling back the blankets to reveal Jesus to Joseph and the shepherds. But her arms also look like they are ready to scoop Jesus up and embrace him in a big hug. She has carried him in her womb for 9 months, but now she will carry him in her heart all of her days.
I love this picture of Joseph. His hands are clasped around the horn of the ox and he himself looks as solid and strong as the ox. The look on his face is the look of a proud and protective father. Clearly God chose well when he made Joseph the earthly father of Jesus.
Look next at the three shepherds. At the back right is a teenager holding a staff. You can tell he is young because his face is fresh and he has no beard. His eyes are bright with excitement. He points at Jesus and looks at the man behind him (perhaps his father?) as though to say, “Look at that!”
Behind the teenager is a middle-aged man wearing a red cloak. His mouth is opened and his brow furrowed as though he is dumbfounded by what he sees. He is doffing his hat in reverence and he stares intently at Jesus, trying to comprehend what it all means.
In the foreground is an old man, his face and hands weathered with old age. Perhaps he is the father and grandfather of the other two shepherds. He kneels before Jesus, hands clasped in worship and prayer, the look in his eye one of adoration and love.
It seems to me that these three shepherds represent three phases of the Christian life. When we are young we greet Christmas and the Christ child with excitement and joy. As we grow older, we learn to ponder and to dig deeper, with a growing sense of reverence and gratitude. And when we reach old age, the story becomes so deep and so familiar that all we can do is bow in worship and prayer.
Which one of these shepherds represents you this morning?
In front of the manger there is an empty space. The artist has left it there, not only to let us see what is happening but to also give us an invitation. You are invited to step into this picture, to kneel at the manger and to worship the Son, who is the radiance of God’s glory.
O Come Let Us Adore Him.
From a sermon preached on Christmas Day, 2019,
at United Reformed Church of Clifton, Clifton, New Jersey.