The Text Says:
Today’s Advent worship is based on the over-familiar, ever-new story of Luke’s nativity. In Chapter Two, the gospel highlights the two-fold significance of the birth of Jesus: “glory to God and peace on earth.” Mary finds herself taken away from home, in a lowly stable, enduring the labor pains of childbirth. Unlike the annunciation in Chapter One, this time there was no comforting angel named Gabriel. Instead, she hears of the shout from heaven from some unknown shepherds. Perhaps God gave a front-row seat to the unlikeliest recipients first as a portend of the One who later would preach, “the first shall be last and the last first.” And then … all heaven breaks loose!
The Preacher Says:
The cardinal hazard of Christmas is familiarity. Mastering something often causes us to lose interest in it. And also to lose its power to enthrall us. That happens with events and with people. Each time I tell the Christmas story, I wish I could start from scratch, to preserve some of the wonder. But we’ve lived way too long for innocence in that regard.
Imagine the shepherds adoration. “And there were in the same country, shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Lk. 2:8). This bunch of nameless herdsmen have the affection of the world. Plain ol’ Vermont Country Living guys. Strong, silent, outdoorsmen appeal to us. I have a brother like that. Like Willie of the wildly popular “Duck Dynasty.”
Only God would think of the first telling of the good news of the Savior’s birth to be to those looking after the animals in Bethlehem; and not to the elitists in Jerusalem. Neither the political nor religious authorities have a monopoly on the truth. They might think they do. But not according to Luke.
It’s natural to warm-up to the shepherds, because they’re the rough-hewn, under-dogs. Considering their hours, it’s a safe-bet that they neither kept the Sabbath, nor attended church. The irony of Christmas is that the angels’ serenaded them. But they had something else going for them that merits our attention. And that is the ease in which they embraced unscheduled interruptions. And even more significant is how they eagerly met the truth half-way. How rare is that quality in today’s world? Not bad for a bunch of uneducated commoners.
The air waves are flooded with propaganda, talking points, and media memes, but the shepherds believed truth has no agenda. Neither right nor wrong, it just is. So they took seriously the ineffable words of the angels: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” They didn’t know what to call it. Just “a thing that happened.”
It was not customary for shepherds to leave their sheep on short notice to go into town. They had a flock to look after and a living to earn. And even though they didn’t punch a clock, their job had a routine. All work does. That’s what makes it work. Today we live with the myth of vocational indispensability. But they had as tough a time vacating the premises as anybody else would. How could they know if anything would come from tripping to Jerusalem? In hindsight, we count them wise. But at the time, abandoning their flocks and running over the Judean hillside, based on the word of heavenly messengers seems so implausible.
The shepherds highlight one of the characteristics of the God revealed in the scriptures, namely, that he speaks — through the scriptures and persons. But communication is a 2-way street. There has to be a speaker and a listener. Transmission and reception. What if the shepherds hadn’t picked up the signal that night? What good are angelic choruses if no one notices? There were plenty around the area who didn’t hear a thing. The efficacy of the communication of God depends on the hospitality we accord it. The strongest signal in the world won’t convert to music in your radio unless it’s tuned in.
So after experiencing their unscheduled interruption, these guys are troopers: “Let’s go over to Bethlehem and check out this thing that has happened.” That’s how they handled their intrusion. How do you handle yours? Interruptions are inconvenient, aggravating. Some are surprises, others are shocks. But all are distractions. Everyone has routines. We’d be nervous wrecks without them. And we get a lot done because of them. But when our routines become security blankets and subservient to our habits, that is a lose/lose.
Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is about a couple of fellows bound by their routines. A priest and a Levite came upon an injured man in need of help, but they “passed by on the other side,” on their way to what must’ve been a very important religious engagement. Then there’s Martha of Bethany, occupied by being a hostess in the kitchen; too busy to “sit at the feet of the Son of God,” like her sister Mary. Are there not times when a meal might be better delayed? Routines can blind us like Jacob: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I didn’t know it!” Can you imagine being in the presence of Almighty God, creator of the universe…and not know it?
Jesus said to the sheep in Matthew’s Gospel: “If you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” And the sheep and the goats said, “When did we feed you or clothe you or visit you in jail?” I find it striking that neither one knew! The sin of unawareness put Jesus on the cross. “Father, forgive them,” for what? Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Well they should have known! The knock that interrupts might just be the knock of opportunity. Or God, “knock, knock, knocking on earth’s door.”
We all wrestle with the connectedness of things. Everybody has a world view. Nobody starts each day void of categories; without rank or preference. God gave us brains, to help us arrange information and differentiate reality from hoaxes. Some people use them! Depending on what happens to us, some things are good, some are bad. Some are possible. Others are not. Some values are worth defending. Others hardly matter at all. Some ideas should be better known. But others, we’d be better off without. Some folks merit cultivating. Others, we ‘d do well to be suspicious — especially if a gang of teenagers approaching us, looking for some publicity. We might be the next knock out victim! Some are friends that bless us. Others are enemies, intending to do us harm, for no real reason.
I believe everyone is a theologian –whether they know it or not. Anybody with priorities, or who takes phone calls, people you’ll see, things you’ll do. That is your theology. And everyone has one. The problem is not having an outlook, philosophy, or theology. The problem is letting it crystallize, and harden in concrete. So it becomes irrevocable. Big problems arise when our world-view absolutizes; when our viewpoint becomes unchangeable. That’s when we shut off the intake valve and forfeit the ability to learn something new. We can live by logic or evidence that leads to other conclusions. But most of us generate our own verdicts of events as we encounter them.
This shows up most often in football games with replays of close calls by the referees. Now they have this ref up in the booth, far removed from the action on the field. But he has the final say over calls down below and the power to over-rule a call based on a review. And sometimes, after a closer examination of the evidence in slow-motion, the call is reversed. And it has changed the entire outcome of a game! Regulations, even though accurate, have a way of holding us back. But we don’t have the luxury of slow-motion-reviews in our daily lives. I wish we did. There’d be a lot fewer mistakes. It falls to us to interpret events with only what we have to go on. History, evidence, intuition. Even prejudice about what can or cannot be.
Suppose our shepherds were that way about the angels. Based on their world-view, they’d never seen heavenly beings before. Even in slow motion! So we’d expect them to believe there’s no such thing as angels. Or nothing is more important than my job. Or when the Messiah comes it’s gotta be like the glory days of King David. No way can it be as an infant. Uh oh. To their eternal credit, they didn’t respond with those assumptions. And we are forever indebted to them, if for nothing else than not allowing their pre-conceived notions to color the outcome. Instead they properly investigated for themselves, “this thing that has happened.”
There’s plenty of pre-conceptions out there today. “All those dudes on Food Stamps are lazy.” Despite studies to the contrary, will you read them? It’s so hard to change the thinking of a made-up mind. Maybe you read what Oprah said about prejudiced old white people need to die off before we’re rid of racism. She’s convinced that “Whites are in a racist conspiracy against blacks,” that only death can cure. Yet on two occasions, our first black president garnered the highest percentage of white voters, since 1976! What do you do with that? Don’t bother me with the facts? Tell me some o’ those sweet lies and make me feel good. To believe something is so because we want it to be so? I guess that’s preferable to some when reality is too harsh.
Ah it’s much easier to stay with the sheep we know; the job we can handle, the system we’ve built, than to expose ourselves to those pesky unscheduled interruptions. We’re slow to accept that no routine, however tried, is bigger than life. No system of thought, no matter how comprehensive, is truer than life. “Let us go over to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened.”
What they saw that night was uniquely theirs to see. But it’s not their seeing, it’s their disposition about what they saw, that holds a continuing lesson for us. They went “to see,” and when they saw, they worshiped. In that regard Christmas is like Easter, which is where Luke is really taking us. On Easter, it was to fishermen not shepherds, but they’re cut from the same cloth. Neither would the disciples take anybody else’s word for it. They went to see for themselves. And once they saw, they worshiped, just like the shepherds. Interesting parallels.
The gospel story has a rough beginning but a happy ending. And in-between God’s purpose is a good outcome in all our lives. Christmas was only the beginning. It ends with Easter. But that’s a beginning too. Which is why we keep re‑telling Luke’s take on Christmas. It’s a faith‑story that gives us confidence ‑‑ to take what happens to us in stride; when we get knocked off‑stride; that good can come out of all our “things that happen” to us.
Providence Prayers: (12/8/13)
O God, the light of the world and life of the world, we come one and all, to ponder again what’s been sent to us from heaven. Spare us from allowing tight schedules and closed minds to be excuses for doing what’s right. Grant to us more of the adventureous-ness that belongs to faith; along with the joy of discovery, and always the humility to revise ourselves.
In an era where so many are cynical about divisive leadership, we recognize Nelson Mandela’s global voice of moral authority. His passing is not to be celebrated by exclusion and vindictiveness but inclusion and forgiveness. His vision of a nation with no outcasts and the irreversible march to freedom for all is not unlike the founder of this very church. And even THE Church.
May this worship make us aware of all you went through to make Christmas a reality. So we pray for all living on the edge during this season: the unemployed, the addicted, the aging, the broken and bereaved. In this season of presence, spread your grace upon all feeling a sense of absence, some from Thee and others from their loved ones, recently lost. When we are alone and feeling empty, fill us with your Holy Spirit. When we are hurting, heal us with the touch of the Great Physician. When we are lost and our way is uncertain, point us to the Good Shepherd. When the bush glows, like Moses, let us reflect on it. Then act on it. When the angels speak, like the shepherds, let us leave the sheep and go check it out. There might just be a surprise waiting on us! Through Christ our Lord…