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.
In this morning’s gospel reading,
the angel appears to the shepherds.
The shepherds talk.
The shepherds go together to Bethlehem to see.
And the shepherds,
like John the baptizer after them,
and like the angels,
and Mary and Elizabeth before them,
testify to the light.
Like the “publicans”—that is, the “tax collectors...”
Like the publicans,
the shepherds were despised and distrusted.
The shepherds were accused of being thieves, pilfering crops.
They were known as liars by trade—
mothers told their children, “Don’t talk to that man,”
if she saw him coming down the street or at the grocery store,
his smell and his dress giving him away as
“one of them”—you know, “one of those people.”
Not to be trusted.
or hyperbolizing to really get through to you
in this year’s Christmas sermon,
Historians, writing to us from centuries ago, tell us that Shepherds in Jesus' time were not even trusted to be witnesses in court, or to hold a judicial office.
Caring for sheep wasn’t just a job.
It was an identity. It’s who you were if you were a shepherd.
And just by existing as a shepherd,
a shepherd was suspected,
and of course
stereotyped, caricatured, marginalized,
and devalued as a human being.
in relation to another “group” who, in the gospels
are referred to as “friends” of Jesus—
that group, of course, is “the prostitutes.”
Perhaps those in this group were more marginalized by the faith community than any other community —
the faith community—those “faithful,”
the ones we might call puritans,
or pietists, or orthodox,
(or maybe even “Lutheran,”)
“the clean,” “the holy,” the “righteous.”
those deeply sick and troubled people
who shout from the street corners and pulpits
about “sin” and “sinners”
and repentance and wrath, all day long,
but whose despising turns into desire in the night,
when they run to those they spent all day condemning for some sort of “fix” for their void.
These characters are quite prevalent in our news outlets today—
mostly because many of us enjoy judging them.
I mean, I know I do.
I share that stuff all over facebook.
It feels better than looking deep into our own hearts.
pretending there is nothing hidden
or nothing dark
or nothing… human, in us,
for which the general population might feel
shame or guilt or remorse,
and willful forgetfulness, and memory loss… and denial…
the ones who clearly see the things
which most people hide even from themselves,
flawed as they are,
imperfect and sick and hurting like the rest of us,
perhaps more, perhaps less.
to whom Christ, the light appears,
shining in a manger, at a meal, on the cross—
these are the ones through whom we hear a testimony to the light,
the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
The ones who shout from Mountain tops,
and deep, bright, encounters, that Jesus Christ is born.
with Jesus and his family.
says the gospel this Christmas morning,
“were living in the fields.”
Like Mary and Joseph and Jesus,
the shepherds also had
“no place to lay [their] head.”
They, too, slept among the animals.
For the shepherds, as for the parents of Christ,
there also was no place.
no welcome at the Inn.
“Nobody wanted them.”
after Gabriel and the choir
delivered the good news of great joy,
and then proceeded to go out with a twelve-minute drum solo
and amps turned up to eleven,
“glory to God, and peace on earth…”
when the shepherds, once again,
were left alone to clean up after the show...
the shepherds talked.
these men—not even trusted to testify in court,
not even trusted as a witness to a crime…
Not even trusted by their fellow humans,
realize that they have been called and trusted by God
to both witness and testify to the birth of the Savior.
They have been trusted to witness and testify
to the “good news of great joy for all people.”
But as they spoke to one another, the decision came quickly.
And these shepherds “went with haste,”
looking for the “sign” the angels had foretold—
not a star in the sky,
or even Mary’s face on an underpass or on a temple wall,
but a child wrapped up, in cloth,
in a manger.
The shepherds went with haste
to welcome a prince, a messiah, a savior,
whose arrival into this world
was perhaps not at all unlike their own.
to the baby wrapped in cloths in Bethlehem,
they witnessed and testified
to the boy’s parents—
to Jesus’ parents, they testified about Jesus.
They relayed the news that had been given to them.
(not gold or frankincense or myrrh,
but their words)
were received as treasures,
in the depths of Mary’s heart.
at the stable, in Bethlehem.
It’s clear that life before the shepherds arrived
was different from life after the shepherds left.
But the experience itself was hard to describe,
even sort of uneventful—
a “watershed moment,”
a revolution of the Spirit,
an encounter that would bring light to every corner of their hearts,
life would never be the same again!!!,
this event is hardly described at all.
With our Christmas hymns and songs
we try to embellish, or imagine, or empathize—
the story invites us to. How could we not?
What were they feeling?
How were they rejoicing?
Were there little drummer boys present?
Did Santa also bow down or lie prostrate before him?
Was Rudolph there?
What kind of animals were there…?
Were they all wearing their fathers’ bath robes and sneakers?
the birth of the Light that no darkness would ever outshine…
well, two and a half.
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…”
these notorious liars and thieves and untrustables,
and, it seems,
spoke to them a word of Truth
that was received more deeply
and more clearly
than any they had ever received before.
they were amazed.
on the way back
they were still glorifying and praising.
They were happy.
In their encounter with God as human,
they, the marginalized,
were brought to the center of God’s story.
were charged with delivering the most precious gifts—
the words of angels, the message of God.
They, the distrusted ones,
at Christ’s birth,
were the first to testify,
the first humans to testify to the light.
all of the nonsense that had been thrown in condemnation
at the shepherds,
and at the publicans,
and at the prostitutes,
and even at Mary and Joseph—
all the accusation, the hate,
the guilt, the dehumanization,
all that religious baloney was lifted,
discarded, disproved, devalued.
Not only does the savior save,
but God does not despise the flesh,
God actually dwells within it all.
God is born in it, among it, among us.
God dwells in the body. God loves through bodies.
forgives, resurrects, feeds,
comes not to condemn,
but to Resurrect—
not to make bad people “good”
Those who judged them,
those who judge you,
or us “bad” or “sinful” or “not good enough” or whatever—
Those who still spend all their energy judging
and condemning and obsessing over sin,
They missed the point!
They missed the point of the gospel—
the good news for all people. The good news of great joy.
We have all felt the weight of sin
We are all broken,
and in need of Resurrection.
Resurrection shows up—the Light shines. The New Day dawns;
in the Christ child,
in a manger,
among the poor and the oppressed,
displaced and discriminated against,
among those who have no place,
for whom there is “no room,” in the inn or anywhere else
among those ones that nobody wants;
to those who know the darkness more deeply and intimately that most,
in an angel to some shepherds,
to the lost, and the heartbroken,
in unexpected moments we can’t adequately describe in 2 sentences,
but that reverberate through a lifetime,
even through centuries and centuries in story and symbol and song.
the birth of Resurrection shows up, the Light shines, a New Day dawns,
in a dark world,
filled with violence, and war, and fear—
filled with hate that seems impossible to finally shake away
(it just keeps coming back!),
but so does the Light keep coming back!
So does the love,
so does God,
in flesh, in bodies,
with nowhere to lay their head
or to belong,
in these God chooses to dwell,
to live, to become—
striving among us toward healing,
and sanctuary and home;
calling forth “light and life, in which God takes delight;”
up toward Life,
toward the center of God’s story,
with which we are all trusted,
lights, testifying to the Light
that burns within and beyond us,
and into eternity.
And may we point to and participate in
the birth of Resurrection
that this world badly needs.
That they speak with one another.
That they go and see,
and that they testify to the light.