Thursday, December 26, 2013

Of Shepherds and Angels

This is the Christmas Eve sermon I preached at Presbury United Methodist Church as part of a lessons and carols service complete with communion and candlelight. It is short and sweet. May you find beauty in it as well as a challenge to Go, Tell It on the Mountain...

The Adoration: Luke 2:8-20 (NRSV)

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.

Do you ever think much of the shepherds? For me, on Christmas Eve at least, I keep coming back to these shepherds--- and not just because I'm a duck farmer from North Harford. But that the Good News came to shepherds, shepherds of all people, says to me that maybe the Good News can come to me too.

According to many scholars, shepherds at the time of Jesus' birth were looked down upon in the same way tax collectors and prostitutes were looked down upon. They were thought to be lazy and even dishonest. They were pushed around by wealthier landowners, often excluded from religious rituals because they were thought to be unclean, and even deemed unsuitable to testify in court. Shepherds were poor, lonely, dirty; they did not expect great things in their lives. They did spend much of their lives watchful, even through the darkest time of night, but they were not awaiting some magical prize. They were just trying to keep their sheep, which are dirty and smelly and not the most intelligent of animals, from running off. And yet it was to these people, a people walking in the darkness of exclusion and exhaustion, that God sent messengers to proclaim peace.

While not all of us know the kind of exclusion and exhaustion the shepherds must have felt, we have walked in some kind of darkness--- that of grief or illness, financial stress, bullying. We, too need to see that light the shepherds saw, hear the words of the angels, rush to find the promised child who will change everything. And this story offers all of that too us.

Yet, for us, this story has become an ordinary story, one we have read so many times it is difficult to see the good news within it. We read it year after year and sing the same carols. I can't read the story in a different translation because these words are written on my mind and any other translation sounds wrong. We have to sing Silent Night and Joy to the World or it just isn't Christmas. We get into a rhythm the way those shepherds must have done, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And so the wonder of this story wears off for us, and we get used to living in darkness We forget that there is a message of light available for even us. But then angels, God's messengers, come and mess everything up.

That's God for you. God messes things up, turns the world upside-down. This is what Christmas is about, turning the world upside-down, kings born in barns, shepherds becoming God's messengers, light shining on those who have lived in darkness. But even when we need that light so badly in our own lives, when we see it, we are often terrified, as the shepherds were. We may even try to shut our eyes to it. At least in our darkness, we know the rules. If we are sick, we know that we must go for radiation for a set number of days and a set amount of time. If we are grieving, we know what kinds of things will set off our tears. If we are being bullied, we know in what order the taunts go. If we are struggling financially, we know how to avoid bills and stretch food. The rules to these kinds of games are horrible, but sometimes they are less fearsome than this unknown, topsy-turvy world that the angels proclaim when the speak of a child-king wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

But, for all the fear the shepherds had at the sight of the angels, their story ends with them glorifying and praising God for all they have heard and seen. Rev. Vicki Flippin, a United Methodist pastor in New York City, writes, “We have no idea...what it will look like after the world turns. All we have and all we need are the glimpses of glory shining off each other’s faces in the darkness, assuring us that God is still in this, birthing something beautiful and significant among us.”1 The shepherds glimpse the glory of God in the faces of those around them, and they knew that, frightening as this world the angels proclaimed might be, they were not alone. They had one another. And God was with them.

But God being with us is not always a comforting thing. In the case of the shepherds, it meant responsibility. The shepherds basked in the glow of the choirs of angels, then they went and worshiped the baby Jesus, perhaps even cradling that baby, that God-with-us, in their arms. The Gospel of Luke does not tell us what happens to those shepherds, not exactly, but we are told is that the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. They became the messengers, the angels, sharing the good news.

Picture by Aaron M. Harrington, 2013
And we, too, are given the same responsibility when we come to this place on Christmas Eve. For the real work of Christmas, to paraphrase a poem by theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman,2 begins when the shepherds are back with their flocks, and we begin to search out others who are lost, broken, hungry, or prisoners and we bring light to them, offering healing or food or release. The real work of Christmas begins when we rebuild our communities, when we work for peace, when we reach out in love to one another.

And so we will begin that work right here in worship tonight.

As we pass the peace, I will be giving you angel pins made by the Leafs to remind you that the Christmas story has transformed us from shepherds into God's messengers, the angels. We are to glorify God, sharing with everyone we meet about this baby in a manger who signified how God comes to us no matter how far gone we feel. And then we will come to the communion table together, choosing to leave our land of deep darkness for the land of Light and Love.

1 Vicki Flippin, 
2 “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman, page 23 of The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations 
When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks, 
The work of Christmas begins: 
To find the lost, 
To heal the broken, 
To feed the hungry, 
To release the prisoner, 
To rebuild the nations, 
To bring peace among people, 
To make music in the heart.

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