Shepherds (Sermon for December 24, 2019)

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Tonight is Christmas Eve, today is the last day of Advent, the season when we look forward to God coming into the world: long ago, as a baby, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land and on a day no one knows, in triumph and glory, to usher in the kingdom of God.

And on Christmas Eve—on the last day of Advent—we light a candle and we tell a story.

And the story starts like this:

God loved the world this way. God called the worlds into being, and planted a garden, and saw that it was good and beautiful and whole. God gave the work of art that is the cosmic order to us. And then we broke it… and sin entered the world… and there was a chasm between the world that was and the world as God wanted it to be.

Tonight is Christmas Eve, today is the last day of Advent. It is almost Christmas. We have hung the wreaths and put out the nativity sets. We have trimmed the trees and sung the carols. We have lit the candles for hope and peace and joy and love.

We have waited in holy anticipation. Now it is the night before the dawn. And any minute now, the messiah—whose name is wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace, king of kings and lord of lords, who shall reign for ever and ever—will come in triumph to remake the world!

And when the angels appear to deliver this news, the first people they tell… are shepherds.

Tonight is Christmas Eve, today is the last day of Advent, when we light a candle and tell a story.

You know the story. You’ve heard it before. You have heard it from the Gospel of Luke on Christmas Eve and in Christmas pageants a few weeks before Christmas. You have heard it in the archaic language of King James and in the modern words of the New Revised Standard Version. You have seen it on Christmas specials on television and sung it in Christmas carols.

You have heard Linus recite it as he stands in a spotlight on a stage in a school auditorium, near a sad little Christmas tree on Schroeder’s little piano.

When God saw that the world was broken, God laid aside glory and came into the world. Not as a king in a castle, or a prince in a palace, or a powerful emperor, or a conquering warrior, but as a baby in a manger in a stable, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, to parents who were far from home and unable to find a room for a night. And, somehow, that chasm between the way the world is and the way that God wants it to be… got narrower.

And when the angels appear to deliver the news of this miracle, the first people they tell… are shepherds.

Now, there are pastors who will make a lot out of that. 

Some of us were taught that the shepherds of that place and that time were social outcasts; that the other people of that place and that time thought of shepherds as dirty and lazy and dishonest.

And that’s probably not quite right. After all, Abel was a shepherd. And Abraham was a shepherd. And David was a shepherd. When Jesus grows up, he’ll be called the good shepherd. Pastor is another word for shepherd. God is portrayed as a shepherd: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Others of us were taught that the sheep around Bethlehem were destined to be sacrificed in the temple… that the shepherds watching over their sheep were watching over lambs that would become Passover sacrifices… and that these shepherds were chosen precisely to remind us that the messiah himself would become a sacrifice.

And that doesn’t strike me as right. Luke was writing to a gentile audience after the second temple was destroyed. If he was making some clever allusion to Jewish practices from a decade or two or three before he wrote, he would have been clearer about it.

So let’s take the middle ground. These were shepherds. Ordinary shepherds watching over their flocks. People just like me. People just like you.

And so…

Tonight is Christmas Eve. Today is the last day of Advent. Tomorrow is Christmas. And there are two parts to Christmas.

The first part of Christmas is a baby in a manger in a stable, born to a dispossessed people in an occupied land. Born to parents who are far from home and unable to find a room for the night.

God comes into the world as one of us. And not just as one of us. God comes into the world as a beggar. As a dissolute child in ragged clothes. Hungry and thirsty and naked; weak and in danger and in desperate need of someone to care for him.

And not just on that first Christmas, so long ago, but every Christmas. And not just on Christmas, on that one special day each year, but every day.

If you want to see the face of God, it is the face of our neighbors in need. If you want to see the hand of Christ, it is the outstretched hand of a person hoping for mercy. This is how God enters the world. This is how God lives in the world. This is God with us. Emmanuel.

And the second part of Christmas is you.

The angels who appeared to announce the birth of the messiah did not appear to rulers. They did not appear to priests. They did not appear to the powers of the world. They appeared to shepherds. They appeared to ordinary people.

If you want to see the face of a shepherd, look at your friends and neighbors in these pews. If you want to see the face of a shepherd, look in the mirror.

Because tonight is Christmas Eve, and today is the last day of Advent, the season when we look forward to God coming into the world: long ago, as a baby, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land and on a day no one knows, in triumph and glory, to usher in the kingdom of God.

And on Christmas Eve—on the last day of Advent—we light a candle for Christ, our wealth in poverty, our light in darkness, our succor in abandonment. We light a candle to remind us that Christ is in this world. Wherever there is need, wherever there is want, wherever there is compassion, there is Christ.

We light a candle because it is by that light that we see the world.

And on Christmas Eve—on the last day of Advent—we tell a story. You know the story.

God loved the world this way. God called the world into being and gave it into our care. And we broke it, and sin entered the world, and now there’s a chasm between the world that is and the world as God wants it to be.

And God loved the world this way. When God saw that the world was broken, God laid aside glory and came into the world, as a baby in a manger in a stable, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, to parents who were far from home and unable to find a room for the night. And because God is in the world, somehow, that chasm between the way the world is and the way that God wants it to be… gets narrower.

And God loved the world this way. When this miracle of a birth happened long ago, God sent messengers to shepherds. And when this miracle of God’s presence happens every day, God gives this message to ordinary people. There is good news… of great joy… for everyone.

The kingdom of God is coming. And the kingdom of God is already here. And we in this church—we ordinary people in this little consulate of the kingdom of God—are called to take that good news into the world. To be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, a candle in the darkness, and a beacon in the night.

And so on this Christmas Eve, on this last day of Advent… and on Christmas morning… and every day… 

Let us see the world by the light of this candle, by the light of Christ, who came into the world and made himself low for our sake. And seeing the world by that light, let us share this story, in word and in deed, that everyone might know the love and grace of God.

And let us glorify and praise God for all that we have heard and seen. Thanks be to God!

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