The Nativity of Our Lord
December 24, 2011
First Reading: Isaiah 9:2–7
Psalm 96: 1-4, 11-13
Second Reading: Titus 2:11–14
Gospel: Luke 2:1–14
Christmas Eve. I am hoping that many of your expectations for this festive occasion are being fulfilled. My guess is that you’ve expected to wrap, and exchange gifts and cards. You’ve probably sung a lot of songs you hoped to sing and seen a lot of the people you expected to see, and eaten a lot of the food to you expected to eat. And you are here at worship, as you probably expected to be—possibly even in the exact pew in which you expected to sit.
But I think it’s worth remembering that on that very first Christmas Eve, the only people who were expecting anything extraordinary were Mary and Joseph. Certainly the shepherds weren’t expecting anything unusual. They were probably anticipating a night much like any other, hanging out with sheep and the usual other shepherds around a fire. They weren’t expecting special cookies or visiting family. They certainly weren’t expecting a choir of angels.
If you think about it, Jesus is possibly the only person in the Bible ever to be comforted by a visit from an angel. Usually people are terrified at the sight of angels. And since angels are messengers of God, and often call those they visit to do daunting and extraordinary tasks, it’s no wonder. That’s why the angel’s message to shepherds began the same way an angel’s arrival always begins: “Don’t be afraid.” But I’m sure they were. Shepherds were the last people to expect angels to speak to them.
For one thing, shepherd’s work often kept them out in the fields on the Sabbath or at other times when people worshipped in the Temple, the religious community tended to distrust shepherds–the way we sometimes distrust those who don’t regularly attend worship. And because bandits and ex-convicts and other unsavory characters were often able to attain jobs shepherding when no one else wanted to hire them, society in general distrusted shepherds. Shepherds dealt with cloven-hooved animals, which were considered unclean by strict Jewish laws. Shepherds were so marginalized in their community that they were not allowed to testify in court. They literally could not bear witness in because they were considered unreliable.
All of which makes us wonder why the angels chose THEM to be the first to hear the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ. I mean, surely the people sleeping in the inns of Bethlehem were a better class of people. And on a purely practical level, they were certainly much closer to the stable where the Messiah was being born. Why go all the way out to the fields? Why didn’t the angels start at the top of the social ladder? Why not begin by announcing the Good News to people who could have made a difference on a large scale? Why didn’t God send the angels first to the High Priest at the Temple? Why not King Herod? For that matter, why not start with Caesar Augustus? Why start with the nobodies?
Of course, we don’t actually know that the shepherds WERE the angels first choice, do we? Last week we considered the possibility that Mary’s next-door neighbor might have been the first young woman Gabriel visited, but she wasn’t interested. Perhaps that is happening again. Maybe the angels had been trying to spread the news to all those other folks, banging on their windows and fluttering around their gardens, and calling to them. But maybe their inns, their lives, their hearts were so full that they had no room for God’s message. Or maybe they simply didn’t listen. It could have been that the angels tried to sing to the dignitaries of the town who were so busy with their shopping and their parties and their families that they did not look up to see the angels in the sky. Maybe the generals and the politicians and the religious leaders were so consumed by their own plans that they could not hear the unexpected voices. Maybe the angels sang to the shepherds as a matter of last resort, because they were a group of people in a position to pay attention. They were outdoors, and had chosen silence and solitude in the midst of a noisy, busy world.
OR—maybe the shepherds were chosen to be the first to know of the birth of the new Savior Jesus Christ!
In the Old Testament, the profession of shepherding was often used as a metaphor for leadership, especially the leadership of a king. The prophet Ezekiel chastises bad rulers by calling them false shepherds, scolding them for neglecting the sheep in their care while fattening themselves on choice lamb and dressing themselves warmly in the sheep’s wool. In other words, Ezekiel was calling to account the religious and political and social leaders of his time. He concluded his complaint with the promise that God intended to send a good shepherd, one who would take care of the weak and vulnerable, seek out the lost ones and put his charge’s welfare ahead of his own.
And, when the time was right, God did indeed send a good shepherd. As the angels informed the shepherds on that first Christmas, Jesus Christ arrived in our midst, uninvited and uncelebrated, and out of place. Through his whole life, he continued to take his place with others who did not seem to belong, who were rejected because they were regarded as weak and unsuitable. He surrounded himself with people who were discredited, denied status, tortured, or exterminated.
It’s a clue for us in these days too. Are you looking for Jesus? Remember that, along with Vince Gill, he’s got friends in low places. Jesus makes his home on the margins. He was and continues to be mysteriously present in those for whom the world has no regard. As an adult, Jesus even calls himself The Good Shepherd, connecting himself both to the prophetic understanding of a good leader and to the social outcasts who were his first visitors when he was a baby.
So, for whatever reason, the shepherds were the first to hear the message, “Don’t be afraid; God has made a home among mortals, and that is very, very, very good news!” but they are certainly not the last. What did they do next, after the angels disappeared? The shepherds didn’t sit there and talk and sing about the Good News among themselves. They knew that in order for good news like this to be experienced fully, it had to be shared with others, especially others who might feel left out in the cold. “Let’s go to Bethlehem and find Mary and Joseph and the baby!”
Those shepherds, peering down at the Baby Jesus, must have wondered why the angels came to them with the most unexpected news of his birth. They must have wondered at the awesome responsibility they now had, having seen the arrival of a new era face to face. They, who had never been trustworthy, who had lived in the deep darkness of exclusion, had seen the brilliant light of acceptance and inclusion. Jesus had come to them. For them. Among them. How mysterious. And wonderful! They had to tell others.
And they must have, because we still know their story. Because they told others what they had seen and heard, this Christmas, we again celebrate Jesus coming to those who live in deep darkness. To those who feel unimportant or lost. Jesus comes to people huddling in the dark places of abuse or addiction, to those who struggle with secret pains or public humiliation, to those injured by violence and injustice, to refugees, to the fragile and the sick and the sad. Jesus comes to us. To you. Jesus shines the beacon of acceptance and inclusion on each of us, saying, “Don’t be afraid. I am here with you.”
Like the shepherds, we have heard the angels song, bringing us the Good News of Christ’s birth. We know that God has entered the world to be with us, like us, and for us. What do we do with that Good News? We could do worse than to follow the example of those shepherds. Let’s seek out the “Josephs and Mary’s” in the stables of our world and invite them into the warmth of our hearth. Let’s bring them into community, not reprimanding them about “thinking ahead and making reservations the next time you travel to Bethlehem,” but celebrating with them how Jesus makes his home among those who feel least worthy or respectable.
Let us be emboldened by those brave shepherds, who acted on God’s desire even when the rest of society doubted their reliability and relevance. Let us be willing and eager to tell the world that has not heard the angels singing what the Good News is: that the Good Shepherd leads people in ways of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, acceptance, and compassion. The Good Shepherd beings even the most recalcitrant sheep into ways of mercy, righteousness, hope, and light.
Among all our expectations tonight, let’s make sure there is room for something completely unexpected and marvelous to break in. That we will be open to the music of the angels as they sing to some of the least likely candidates to be emissaries of God’s work. My Christmas prayer is that once again, a blinding light of radical love will come into the darkest, most fearful places of our world, and change everything! And that we, who are recipients and witnesses of God’s expansive and inclusive grace, and who are called to be mini-shepherds, will get up and go, to share the good news with all who need to receive it. Go, tell it on the mountains, over the hills, and everywhere! Jesus Christ is born! Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider