Christmas Eve 2014

December 25, 2014

Shepherd’s Lives Matter
Luke 2:1-20

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.

We’ve got a beautiful picture here. We’ve all seen it a thousand times on Christmas cards and in crèche’s of all kinds. This scene of the baby Jesus lying in a manger with kind people and well-behaved animals all standing around in a soft barn with perfect lighting provided by a star. Who wouldn’t want to begin life in that place?

Unfortunately that is pure make-believe. And I’m not talking about the supernatural elements of this story. I don’t care to debunk any mysteries about the way in which Jesus was conceived or how Joseph and Mary ended up in Nazareth – stranger stories get told every day about where children come from. I’m not disturbed by the extraordinary part of this story. What bothers me is how cozy and disinfected this barn is portrayed, and how revered the shepherds have become.

You need to erase the quaintness of herding sheep from your mind. I know the idea of shepherding gets good play throughout the Bible, but don’t kid yourself about the work – it was not the career choice of people with options. The contrast between the metaphor of shepherding and the reality of the work couldn’t be more extreme. It’s remarkable that the most highly revered Psalm is the one that speaks of the Lord as our shepherd because actual shepherds weren’t welcome in the synagogue. It stunk to be a shepherd – literally and figuratively.

Jesus was born at a time when it was really important to the leaders of Israel to follow the proper cleaning rituals, to do nothing on the Sabbath, and to show up at the Temple for all of the major religious feasts. The Pharisees kept close tabs on those who were following the proper religious protocols of the day those who weren’t. And if you worked as a shepherd your name wasn’t on the good list – it was on the other list.

It’s fine for the Lord to be a shepherd, but God forbid that your son become one. You became a shepherd when other jobs weren’t available to you. It may seem strange to us that a community which depended on having sheep would have such contempt for the people who took care of their cherished commodity, but I don’t think we have to look far to see another community that disregards the people who keep the economy operating.

First century Israelites needed wool and mutton in the same way we need gasoline and high-fructose corn syrup, and I’m thinking that the people who keep our cars running and our minds racing through the night are treated in much the same way the Pharisees treated the shepherds. I’m thinking the shepherds of Jesus’ day are much like the late-night convenience store workers of our day. Where would we be if we couldn’t drive at any hour on any day and trust that we are within reach of gasoline and a bottle of Starbucks Mocha Frappuchino? I don’t think anyone aspires to work the graveyard shift on Christmas Eve at a convenience store, but what would we do without the people who do that work? It’s one of those essential occupations that few people long to have.

Shepherding was dangerous work that was poorly compensated and completely unappreciated. And I’m thinking this is also true of many occupations within our society. People who work the graveyard shifts at convenient stores come to mind because I think they probably have about the same social standing as the shepherds of Jesus’ day. Convenience store clerks aren’t as religiously stigmatized as shepherds were, but I don’t think anyone thinks it would be quaint to stand behind the counter of a convenience store at 3am.

We’ve turned the shepherds in to characters fit for Hallmark cards, but God didn’t choose to include them in this story because of their good looks and respectability. God included them in this story to remind us how differently the Kingdom of God is organized, and what kind of savior this baby named Jesus would grow to become.

It’s natural for us to turn this dirty makeshift shelter in to a lovely nativity scene because it is a beautiful story in so many ways, but we don’t need to lose sight of the real beauty of this story. We need to be reminded that Jesus wasn’t born in to a proper and quaint situation and his birth was first announced to the least significant people in the community.

Fortunately we don’t have to remind ourselves of this truth. In spite of the way this story has been disinfected and made respectable, God continues to find ways to reveal the scandalous nature of this story.

The United Methodist Church I attended when I was growing up in Wynne, Arkansas was a remarkably proper place. And it was full of fine people – many of Wynne’s finest attended the United Methodist Church. And I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. That church had many nice people in it – and it had one person who really didn’t fit the standard profile. Rual Cook was his name, and he didn’t blend in with the community. He had been psychologically damaged in WWII (shell-shocked is how I remember him being described), and it left him in a world of his own. He lived alone in a very dirty house. He did yard-work for people, and he didn’t clean up very well, but every Sunday he would put on his one suit and come to Sunday School and church. I could show you where he sat every Sunday in that sanctuary. In fact there’s probably a spot on the pew where he sat.

As a young person, I never had a lot of interaction with Mr. Cook, but every Christmas my mother would fix a nice box of food for him and she would get me to deliver it. Stepping in to Mr. Cook’s house wasn’t like stepping in to anyone else’s house that I knew, but I can still remember how gracious he was, and how blessed I would feel by that experience.

Mr. Cook was one of the most insignificant players in the life of the city, but he played a powerful role in the story of that church. When Mr. Cook died I was asked to help conduct his graveside service and it was then that I came to the realization that it wasn’t the church that took care of him – it was Mr. Cook who brought a great gift to that church. He was the worst dressed man in the church, he was the most disenfranchised member of that community, and he provided us with the best news that any of us ever get – which is that God doesn’t function in the same way that this world operates. God doesn’t measure us the same way we are measured by other people, and God invites us to see one another in this new and holy way as well.

This nativity story isn’t quaint – it’s revolutionary. It’s the story of how God chooses to be with us and how God intends for us to become. It’s not just a beautiful story – it’s a story that has the power to move us in new ways, and to change how we treat one another. It’s a story that reveals the true nature of our God, and how well we are loved – how well we are all loved. This isn’t a quaint story of something that may have happened a couple of thousand years ago – this is the story of how God continues to arrive in our world. Jesus continues to show up in the most out of the way places, and God uses the most unlikely people to remind us of how things are in the Kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God for the gift of this reoccurring story that disrupts our order, stirs our hearts, comforts our souls, and renews our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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