Out to the Shepherds

Isaiah 9:2-7,
Luke 2:1-20

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

2: 1 “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:1-20, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of all ages, in the birth of Christ your boundless love for all your people shattered the power of darkness. So, we pray that you be born in us with that same love and light that our song may blend with all the choirs of heaven and earth to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

 

Mike Rowe is the actor who was the host of the television show, Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel.  It was a show where the host Mike Rowe went to work with people who had the jobs most of us would never consider taking.  Rowe performed these difficult, strange, disgusting, and often very nasty jobs right alongside the regular everyday employees.  Some of the dirty jobs Mike did included but were not limited to: Catfish noodler, golf ball retriever, crawfisher, underwater lumberjack, bat cave cleaner, house mover, and his personal favorites for sheer grossness, were working with roadkill removers and sewage pipe repairman.

 

If Mike Rowe had been able to do his show in biblical times, he surely would have covered a day in the life of a shepherd, because in that day and at that time it was the hardest job around.  By the time of Jesus birth, shepherds were people from the bottom rung of the social ladder.  Shepherds were people who could not find decent work or respectable employment.  Shepherds were stereotyped as liars, degenerates, and thieves.   The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from entering their city limits.  The religious establishment was particularly harsh on shepherds since the very nature of their work kept them from observing the Sabbath which made them ritually unclean.   The Pharisees classified shepherds along with tax collectors and prostitutes, as persons who were “sinners” simply by virtue of their vocation.   As modern day hearers, we have romanticized shepherds; and made them into sweet and nostalgic characters, like the cute kid in the play who dresses like a shepherd complete with his bathrobe, crook and fake sheep.  This modern romanticized view of shepherds has caused us to miss the amazing truth of the birth narrative of Jesus.  It is to these wayward, dirty shepherds that the angel of the Lord visits to announce the birth of Jesus.   It is these “outsiders” who receive the message that the Savior is born.

 

You can just imagine these lowly men in the fields watching their sheep that night when they see the angels and they hear the startling announcement; “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.”  The shepherds had to have been confused, not to mention terrified, , wondering why in the world the message was coming to them, but once they heard the message all they could do was to go and find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

 

Luke wants to make it clear that the angel did not visit the royal palace or even the temple.  Luke’s message is that if one wants to experience the newborn Christ then the last place to be on Christmas Eve is in church, because Luke emphasizes that Jesus is being born where people need him most. Wow! Not exactly what you expected to hear tonight is it?

 

So, I am your brand new preacher; preaching my first Christmas Eve sermon and I am actually saying from this pulpit that the last place to meet the new born king is in Church.  I know it is heresy isn’t it!  But the message of Christmas Eve is if we really want to see the baby lying in a manger, more often than not it won’t be in the glorious warm glow of a tree-lit sanctuary nor the sentimentality of carols and candles nor the warmth of the family gathered together on the same pew.  These are all wonderful and inspiring and good and faithful things, but they are only the preparation, the preparation to see Jesus which will instead drive us out into the fields with the Shepherds.  You see, it is in the fields with the shepherds where we find the least, the last and the lost, the lonely, the isolated, the disenfranchised and the forgotten.

 

It is out into these fields where we encounter our own painful places, of hurt, of death, of loss, our own spiritual wilderness, because God speaks the good news of Christ’s coming there.  It is out there where God speaks good news of great joy to those who need it most.

 

You see, the good news of Luke’s Gospel is that God does not just speak to us when we put on our happy church face and dress up and look great, and we push down all the issues of our lives to become presentable to our friends, the world and God.  See the good news is precisely that God speaks his good news of great joy out there, in the fields of brokenness…

 

Where we are honest and vulnerable and real, God speaks to our pain and our hurt and our spiritual wastelands.  And God does even more.

 

God sent the angels to speak to the shepherds, or the outsiders who have spent enough time in the field, who no longer even make the effort to put on their church face and no longer bother to be presentable because they have been so disappointed before, disappointed by the church, disappointed by God, who are overwhelmed by grief, and they have grown numb and have stopped caring that they are outsiders.  Those outsiders can even be you and me.

 

In many cases these shepherds, you and me have given up trying; given up on religion, given up on the church and worst of all given up on God — because what is the point!

The pain never goes away,

The hurt doesn’t heal,

The relationship is worse than broken,

The grief is overwhelming,

And so, we just want to get on with life.

 

 

 

But God does not give up! God doesn’t give up on the shepherds, on you and on me.   That is why God sends his angels to the people who have given up on God. Imagine if you were a shepherd in the field that night, how would you respond to God sending angels to you when you’d given up on God?  Like the shepherds, I’d be terrified.

 

So, you see, in the birth of Jesus, God smuggles himself into our world, and into our lives – in a way that is the total opposite from frightening. God comes in the birth of a helpless and vulnerable “infant wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

 

Hearing this as you sit in this glorious church on Christmas Eve is good news because you and I know and love people who have been outside so long they have given up on God.  You and I know people who are so down and blue this Christmas that they cannot come to worship.  Maybe we are one of those this Christmas and we need this message more than ever.

 

I can think of one person in particular tonight that has given up on God and moved on. Tonight she is dealing with the ravages of cancer that have already taken members of her family, her father, her brother and now she is stricken herself.  She was raised in the faith and in the church but as an adult has left both and now as she is in this difficult battle with death it is my prayer for her that she will hear the angels message of good news of great joy…

 

So, yes, it is a challenging message to preach on Christmas Eve to you my new congregation but I suspect that this startling news that, even now, while we are here in worship, God is sending angels out into the fields, to the shepherds – with good news of great joy, that Jesus is being born among people who have given up on him.  It is my hope that you and I will be inspired so that we will sing with even greater joy about the birth of our Savior coming to the world and to sleep in heavenly peace.

 

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