Christmas Eve—December 24, 2012
Preached at the Lutheran Church of Framingham
Let the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and redeemer. Amen.
“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.”
An angel of the Lord proclaimed this to the shepherds in the fields a couple of centuries ago, at a time when shepherds were one of the lowest and most looked-down-upon occupations. You see, as one seminary professor put it:
“Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds’ duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, persons who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation.”
So I find it ironic that it is people from this group that are the first non-family members to hear the news of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel. They are the least, the lowly, the castoffs, the forgotten. Who are they to be first in line for this good news?
But you see it does make a whole lot of sense, because this is the part of the population that needs this good news the most. They are only hearing insults and disappointment from everyone else around them. They are being told by society that they are not good enough, that they are not trustworthy, that they are not welcome. They are being told by the leaders in the Temple that they are ritually dirty, that they are bad Israelites because they cannot fulfill the prescribed temple activities, which is the only proper way to be in relationship with God at the time.
So it really does make sense that they are the first to hear the good news, that there is a new religious paradigm in town, one that focuses on what God does, instead of on what we need to do or how we fall short. Jesus was born, became human, and lived among us to usher in a new way. He came to save the world and to show that it is God who is the primary actor in the universe, that it is not just up to us to do the right rituals and eat the right foods and avoid the wrong people in order to please God, earn salvation and eternal life, and that God loves us so much and wants to be in right relationship with us that he sent his own son, a piece of himself, to earth, to die, and rise again so that sin and death might be conquered.
Who else would be a better first audience for this news?
Who else would make a better first audience to visit the newly born Messiah?
For you see, the story does not stop at the news telling, no, Luke continues telling a story that seems too illogical to be true. For not only are these shepherds the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, but they are also the first preachers of this good news. They do not stay in the fields with their flocks discussing the crazy thing that just happened to them, and the unlikely news that they just received, NO! They agree that they need to “go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Something about this momentary encounter with the angel, and then the multitude of angels, changed the shepherds’ lives. And they went on to spread that good news of the birth and the change that comes with it.
“So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger.”
And what they saw did not require further explanation, they saw the sign that the angels told them to look for. Mary & Joseph did not share more good news with them or even confirm that good news they were seeking. Instead, the Shepherds shared the good news that they had received from the Angels with Mary & Joseph.
In just the time it took for them to make the trek from the fields into town, the shepherds changed from nobodies to preachers, bearers of the good news! In spite of the fact that they could not testify in legal courts, they were the first humans to testify to the miraculous workings of God in the world, specifically God’s work that came in the form of a little baby, “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And just as the shepherds’ lives had been turned upside down by their momentary encounter with the angels, so too Mary was deeply affected by her momentary encounter with the shepherds. Because even though she had previously been visited by an angel herself, she, and everyone else present “were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” And so “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart;” she too had her world turned upside down by the news of a Messiah born this day in Bethlehem. The world of this young girl, an unlikely candidate to bear God, to give birth to Jesus, was preached to and moved by some shepherds, who are themselves unlikely candidates to bear the good news of this birth to the world.
But that is how it happened. God showed up time and time again in the last place you would expect in order to support God’s people in their hard lives and inspire them to do great things, to be part of a momentary encounter that changed the world, and continues to change the world today. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and for that the whole of creation rejoices. And you can be assured that when it feels like you are living “in a land of deep darkness,” God is with you too, and will bring the good news of the Messiah to you too, and God’s light shines on you too. It just takes a momentary encounter with God, most of the time, through the most unlikely of circumstances, with the last person you would expect, to change your life.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Amen.