Christmas Eve B 2011
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Despised. Outcast. Employed by others to manage flocks, rather than owning the animals themselves. Fouled by and smelling of animal waste, excluded from polite company and from religious services. Moving from one grazing land to another, sleeping outside among the animals, poor, generally considered to be thieves and liars, barred by reputation from giving testimony in legal proceedings. They were the lowest of the low, avoided by good people. Parents warned their children to stay away, lest they be kidnapped or harmed.
And yet, when the heavens open and angels announce the miracle, it is not to kings and princes, not to the rich at ease in their warm and comfortable homes, not to the priests in the Temple compound, not to the artisans and farmers and fishermen. It is not to the clean, to the righteous, to the mannered, to the people who would be at church that week. When the angels sing, they sing to the shepherds. When the angels choose the bearers of the good news to the world, they choose those whose testimony is banned in court. When the angels sing Gloria in Excelsis, they invite to the chorus ragged wanderers who smell like sheep.
It fits the rest of the story: God’s great reversal of everything that the world finds holy and valuable and important. The King of Creation is born to an unwed peasant girl miles away from her home. The Son of God is laid in an animal’s feeding trough. Ignored by the priests of his own religion, he is worshipped by pagan astrologers who bring, at his birth, spices used for his embalming. The Lord of Life will be hunted by soldiers, sent by a paranoid king to massacre hundreds of infants. The baby and his parents will become illegal aliens in a foreign country before they finally come home after the death of the tyrant. The Messiah will grow up in an obscure village, become a wandering teacher who calls people to lives of compassion and mercy, and be executed by politicians collaborating with religious authorities. And three days after his public execution, he will rise from the dead, proof that everything the world finds of worth – power, wealth, influence, greed, fame, pride, lust – are fool’s gold. And all the things the world despises – mercy, justice, humility, faithfulness, kindness, self-sacrifice – turn out to be eternal treasure.
The angels announce God’s incarnation to shepherds. It is like a great cosmic joke: the very people whom no one would believe are entrusted with the task of announcing the most important message ever delivered. The first visitors invited to worship The Lord of the universe become flesh are despised people on the margins of the society, smelling of sheep offal. But shepherds were not always so despised: again and again, God describes himself to the Hebrews as their shepherd: the Mighty One of Jacob, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel (Genesis 49:24); the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want (Psalm 23); Give ear, O shepherd of Israel (Psalm 80; He shall feed his flock like a shepherd (Is. 40.11). The great King David, the ancestor and model of the promised Messiah, was a shepherd, and all kings were commanded to shepherd the nation as their flock: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel (2 Sam. 5:2). Israel was a shepherd people, and the allure of the Promised Land to the Hebrews crossing the Sinai desert was the flowing streams and green pastures of Canaan, where they could graze their sheep.
What had once been a divine calling – to care for the defenseless and lead them to safe places to feed and sleep in peace – had become a despised and marginalized life. Disenfranchised, excluded, and condemned, shepherds kept to themselves at a distance from town, synagogue, and home. So, on this amazing night when the heavens open and the armies of heaven sing songs of praise, it is any wonder that the shepherds rush to obey the command of the angels to see this thing that has happened – so say the angels – to them? Hear the words anew: Let us go – NOW – to Bethlehem, and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known – TO US! The least trusted members of the society have been entrusted with the greatest secret in history. The very people farthest from the heart of the nation have been invited into the very center of the new world that God has begin that night.
Some of us are here tonight sitting at the edges of the congregation and of the community. Some of us live outside the safety of enough money, of good health, of happiness, of peace. Some of us know what it means to be despised and rejected, shunned by polite people, without power to change our circumstances. Some of us are mourning empty chairs at the Christmas table, chairs emptied by death or by divorce or by estrangement. Some of us feel as though we are covered with the world’s excrement, or maybe by our own, and we are hurt, angry, ashamed, and helpless. Even the wealthiest, the healthiest, and the happiest here tonight somewhere deep down inside feel like lost shepherds: lonely, rejected, and misunderstood.
This story, tonight, is for you. The angels still sing, and tonight they are singing to you. Listen as you have never listened before; hear these words down in that barren hillside of your heart where you feel hurt and ashamed and all alone: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing YOU good news of great joy for all the people: to YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for YOU: YOU will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The Lord of heaven and earth has come to be with you for ever and ever, and has sent all the choirs of heaven tonight to sing, just for you. God has become one of us: despised, lost, and rejected, so we will never be outsiders to his love – and to his people – ever again.
Don’t waste another second. Run, as fast as you can. You’ve been invited to the manger, to fall down in wonder at this miracle, for you.