Call to Worship/Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)
1Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Shepherding God, guide us through this season of anticipation and hope. Comfort our troubled minds and strengthen our tired bodies. Restore the hope this season offers that we might lift our voices with strength and joy. Straighten the crooked paths that we might walk in your ways. Level the rocky ground, that we might prepare for your arrival in our world. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Luke 2:8-20 (NRSV)
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And 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!” 15When 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.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Message/The Great Bethlehem Birthquake
When I was a kid, I remember that our annual Church Christmas Pageant was something that caused a degree of excitement that was often overshadowed by greater feelings of disappointment. There was always a good deal of stress and anxiety involved. There was never enough time to get everything together. Costumes and props had to be secured. Lines had to be memorized. All of this on top of the usual headaches of the holiday season. I must have been about nine or ten years old and was selected to play the part of one of the shepherds. Now, while I always liked participating in things, being a shepherd wasn’t something that I was very excited about. Usually, we just kind of stood there and blended into the background with little or nothing to say. We were simply a part of the chorus and, while I liked to sing—especially all the familiar Christmas carols—I really wanted to play another part. I wanted to be a wiseman! But that, you see, wasn’t possible. I wasn’t old enough. The parts of the wise men at our church had traditionally been portrayed by older, usually male, teenagers. It was a rite of passage, so to speak. One had to graduate from playing a part as a simple shepherd into becoming one of the more mysterious magi. They always got the best costumes, robes of purple, crowns of gold, and really cool looking gifts to present to the Christ child. And there I was, standing in what was basically a burlap sack with a hole cut out for my head with crooked stick for a staff and sandals made of cardboard through which holes were punched for the rough, jute strings that tied them to my feet and ankles. So much for my chance at stardom.
But I distinctly remember the night of our performance on the Sunday before Christmas. We lined up in the fellowship hall and prepared to go into the sanctuary through the door that connected them. We would process in singing Joy to the World at the top of our lungs and the pageantry would begin as we moved down the long center aisle towards the front of the church. Of course, there was always commotion as we awaited our cue to begin. We talked and giggled. We rehearsed our lines out loud with one of the Sunday school teachers who was trying to coach us up. And of course, as kids and adolescents do, there was the typical teasing and horseplay like knocking the scarf off Mary or Joseph’s head or hooking someone’s arm with one of the shepherd’s crooks and trying to knock them off balance or out of line. In my resignation to the role of lowly status of shepherd, I don’t remember being very excited. I would sing the carols and deliver the short line or two that I had memorized, but I wasn’t going to enjoy it. If only I could have been a wiseman.
Suddenly there was a commotion and a crash accompanied by the sound of shattering glass. One of the wisemen, who was the teenage son of the Kingsport City Manager, had gotten careless with his gift and had dropped it on the hard, tile floor of the fellowship hall. The real problem wasn’t the glass—it was the stench that quickly overtook the room. It had been a generously sized, square, glass bottle of blue-colored, extraordinarily strong crème de menthe scented perfume. The pungent odor emanating from the blue puddle on the floor could have knocked out a horse. Of course, the adults who were helping with the program scrambled to procure paper towels to sop up the spill and brooms to sweep up the sharp fragments. The accident led to a frenzy of activity, embarrassment, and frustration—everyone scurrying to avoid the glass and struggling to keep our place in line, all while holding our props and our noses as the organ in the sanctuary began to play the first notes of the carol that was our cue to begin the procession. It was in that malodorous moment that I came to my senses—maybe being a shepherd isn’t all that bad.
There has always been a great deal of speculation about the Shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story. In Bible commentaries and sermon collections, we discover different theories as to their origins. Some point out how the shepherds represent the common folk, the ordinary person-in-the-street or on-the-hillside; someone just like you or me. Still others have theorized that these shepherds were outcasts, disreputable scoundrels whose work conditions made it impossible for them to observe the cleanliness requirements of the Jewish law and who therefore represented the very sinners Jesus had come to save. Others maintain that they were sacred shepherds who were chosen for a particular task of tending the select and holy flocks of the Jerusalem temple—thusly providing a symbolic link in which the newborn Lamb of God is greeted by the sacrificial lambs of the old covenant. Now, I agree that these are fascinating theories. But they are merely speculative at best and fail to give us an honest assessment of their origins. After all, Scripture is the only real evidence we have, and Luke chooses not to include their backstory.
So, what do we really know about these shepherds? If we can’t discover who they were, or why they were out there with their flocks in the middle of the night—when any sensible and responsible shepherd, any keeper of the flock who could tell the difference between a fencepost and a crook, would surely have had the sheep tucked away into the safety of the fold—one thing, at least, is clear: we do know what they did. And that, it seems to me, is all we need to know.
The text says, “the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” But they weren’t so terrified that they were afraid to listen. Despite their anxiety about the appearance of the holy messenger in the middle of the night, they paid attention to the message. Is that such a major achievement? I think we would all like to think that, had we been out in those same fields, we too would have also listened to the message of the angel of the Lord. But would we have? An angel is simply a messenger, a bearer of the Word of God and such messages are coming to us all the time, but we do not always take the time, or dredge up the courage to listen. In Truman Capote’s short story, A Christmas Memory, Annie, the old spinster who is out flying kites on Christmas morning, says to her youthful companion: “I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are… just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him.” God’s word, then, comes to us through “things as they are;” God’s messengers appear right at the heart of the everyday. But unless we are listening, unless we are prepared to set aside our busyness for a moment and attend to the angelic pronouncement, we will never hear the angels’ song.
It’s almost as if that angel had already tried the innkeeper but he had no time to even hesitate; already tried the solders in the tavern down in Bethlehem, but they were having too good a time; so finally, as a last resort, had come upon this ragged group of shepherds. And these, at last, were folk who could hear—could hear the best good news this world has ever heard. They were far enough away, far enough removed from the fuss and bustle, jostle and hustle of the marketplace—just far enough away to enable them to hearken to eternity.
The second thing the shepherds do may be as much as a miracle as anything else in the Christmas story. They responded by going. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Then, in the beginning of the next verse, it says, “so they went with haste.” There is a sense of urgency here. As if they were caught in some sort of life-or-death situation, swiftly and decisively they made their way towards Bethlehem. There was no stopping to decide if they should form a committee, a task force to investigate, elucidate, and evaluate this unprecedented incident and report back at the next regular meeting of the shepherds’ council. There were no putting things off until more information was available. Certainly, there are things in life that take time, decisions with which we are faced that need thought and reflection, for which there is the need for time and further study, but sometimes our overcautious approach can cause us to miss the moment. Given that these shepherds were privy to something happening beyond their imagination, they took the chance and abruptly left behind their flocks to start out for Bethlehem. The joy and the excitement that they felt led them to act.
Just this past week, the board of the Giles County Christian Service Mission met via Zoom to act on an opportunity that would have been lost to us given a noticeably short grant deadline. Within about a ten-day period, a plan had to be written, supplies secured, and receipts provided. There was no time to argue over paint colors or blather back and forth over brands of ceiling tiles. Time was a luxury we didn’t have. Because of this decisive action, the Mission will be able to feed even more people in Giles County through the renovation of a recently acquired adjacent property and will be able to transition to a client-based model of service. Instead of being handed a pre-filled food box, those who qualify will be able to come to the Mission and shop from the variety of food items on its shelves. Offering choice restores human dignity—and reduces waste as the individual or family will be able to pick items that they will enjoy rather than receive a can or box of something that no one in the household will eat. The shepherds showed up. And because they did, they became witnesses to one of the most glorious moments of human history.
The final thing the shepherds did, and perhaps maybe even the most important of all; they returned. Verse 20 says, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Just as urgently as they had made their way to Bethlehem, so the shepherds left Mary and Joseph and the baby to return to their flocks. After all, there was work to be done. Turning the stable into a shrine or transforming the manger into an altar was not an option. Just as the shepherds had to return and deal with all the responsibilities associated with raising sheep—so Jesus had important work to do too. He had to be nurtured and protected by his earthly parents—growing and maturing into the person that God had called him to become. As Luke would share later in this same chapter, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Like Peter on the Mount of the Transfiguration, who upon seeing Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah wanted to build shelters for all involved, it may have been tempting for the shepherds to linger, to somehow remain in this high and holy moment, to forget about the sheep and the fields and the monotony of their profession and bask in its heavenly light into perpetuity. But, even as life had to be resumed, the shepherds could never have been the same. They returned to those fields and flocks not as simple shepherds but as heralds of the good news of Jesus’ birth. They had been serenaded by the heavenly chorus, the very glory of God shining upon them from that angelic host over the fields and from the face of the One in the manger and returned with a new song to sing to the world. They had been bathed in the light and the promises of God and returned to offer praise to God for this most precious of all gifts. When redemption is bursting forth around you, one can’t help but be transformed by the experience. And through one’s transformation, the world itself, experiences something new too.
In a few weeks, the season of Christmas will be over and a new year upon us. The trappings and trimming of the season will return to the closet or the attic, and we will shift back into our old schedules and routines. The festivities and accoutrements attached to the Christmas season accentuate the ironies of human existence. For all their beauty and warmth, the traditions of this season cannot wipe out the bleak realities that affect our lives. Jesus was born into a world of travail, and pain, and grief. The fact that we live in a world of travail, and pain, and grief is the very reason God comes to us in the flesh in the Christ event. Jesus was born into the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial, to working class parents, surrounded working class people in the backwater of the Roman Empire. Maybe, if we can look beyond the wreaths and the candles, the tinsel and the lights, to a cold, unattractive cowshed, a hasty, ill-prepared birth; maybe if we can catch amid the bewilderment of pain and fear, the clear confusion of this refugee couple, Mary and Joseph; maybe if we can catch and hold a moment the almost indescribable reality of God, the Eternal One, born in our midst to save us, as we are right here, right now, in all of the ongoing pain, bewilderment, and confusion of our own lives; then we will have something to offer, something that will last beyond the holidays, beyond the taking down and storing of the Christmas decorations.
We have a God whose cradle led him to a cross and then to an empty, shattered, finally defeated tomb. We have a God whose love for us will never let us go, will search us out along all the paths upon which life takes us. Here is the word of Christmas, the strength in which we too—just like the shepherds—can return glorifying and praising God for all we have seen; the faith and hope in which we can rejoice; not only in this blessed season, both on every blessed day of life from here until the consummation of all things. So, perhaps what I learned over four decades ago is true—being a shepherd isn’t that bad indeed.
Eternal God, we cry out today for a word of hope. Open our eyes that we may see you through the anxieties and uncertainties that often feel so overwhelming. Remind us in this time of pandemic to look for you in the small things, in acts of love, generosity, kindness, and compassion. Because of our own abundance, we find ourselves embarrassed to think about what others lack. By your grace, help us to become the answer to our prayers. Empower us to boldly offer ourselves on behalf of others, to be part of the process of the healing and redemption that you bring into the world through Jesus. We pray that the promise of your birth—that your peace shall reign on earth—may soon be fulfilled, both within our troubled hearts and across our unsettled world. We pray especially for those dear to us who are sick, or anxious, or grieving. Comfort, comfort your people, and fill each heart with your love. We pray for the needs of the world into which you came—a world that you continue to love. Touch us anew with the hope that is the heritage of all who love you and trust your promises. Through Jesus Christ, who is the joy of those who are glad and the comfort of those who mourn, we share with one voice the prayer he taught us:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Through word, prayer, and praise, we have heard the message of the angels and have experienced the glory of God. Let us now go forth and let that glory shine through our thoughts, our words, and our actions.
May the God who appears to us in human flesh this Christmas strengthen you in faith.
May the brightness of the Christ child fill the places of emptiness within you.
And may the Holy Spirit who offers words comfort and joy, inspire within you the hope and promise that is Christmas.