Shepherds and Such
Christmas Eve-here we are again in this beautiful church surrounded by friends and family. The question to ponder on these special days is “Why are you here?” What I mean by that is what has drawn you to St. Thomas tonight. Is it tradition? Family obligation? Why or for whatever reason you are here-Welcome! We are so glad you have made St. Thomas a part of your Christmas celebration.
It is a night of mystery. Important things always seem to happen in the dark of night. Sickness of someone dear, the touch of two lips as a couple embraces, and of course the birth of a baby. Tonight we come together to again marvel at the birth of a baby. A special baby who will change the course of human history. Then we remind ourselves babies are born all day everyday. You can rest assured that on this night long ago many babies were born. And continue to be born on this day.
This particular baby as we know is very special. All babies are special of course but how many babies are heralded by the angels trumpeting from heaven his birth? Only one that we are aware of. The whole evening has been one of chaos.
Joseph and Mary arrive to a heaving Bethlehem. People are jammed in the streets jostling and pushing one another as they too look for a place to bed down for the night. They feel desperate and frightened for where will they stay. Couples argue with one another, children wail and donkeys throw their heads back braying at the cacophony of sounds.
None are more frightened than Mary and Joseph. Joseph is scared. Near tears actually. He looks over to Mary sitting on the plump, plodding donkey, her face etched in pain. They have been everywhere looking for a place. Finally in desperation, he pleads with the owner of the inn. They will take anywhere to bed down for the night.
Through the dim lantern light, the innkeeper sees the human drama unfolding before his eyes. He too becomes distraught. Frantically thinking where where? His mind racing. He knows every moment counts he has five children of his own. Finally he remembers an old cattle shed at the back of his property. It is not ideal, but the best he can offer at this late hour. Also it offers the couple some privacy and he leads them back there all along apologizing he has nothing better to offer.
Mary and Joseph at this point don’t care. At the stable, the two men begin throwing straw on the floor of the stable. The innkeeper puts the lantern on a hay bale and shoos out some chickens and moves the cud chewing cow to one end of the shed.
Joseph takes Mary’s arm and gently pulls her off the donkey. The donkey joins the cow for some much needed rest and refreshment. They look at couple while munching away on a bale of alfalfa scattered on the floor.
Mary groans as she lays back on the straw. Joseph nervously paces and the innkeeper quickly departs. The baby is coming and Mary pushes and pants until the wriggly, wet body of a boy slips out onto the straw. All is quiet. Mary falls back exhausted and Joseph rushes in to cut the umbilical cord and clean the child off. Suddenly a cry pierces the night sky as the child makes his presence known.
Far away in the fields, the shepherds are on alert. They can hear a humming deep within the earth and feel up through their feet and their toes. The air tingles and crackles around them. Each looks at the other with a quizzical, fearful expression. On their faces they feel a sudden gust of wind. Their robes are whipped around their feet and momentarily their headpieces block their vision. A brilliant flash of light illuminates the night sky and an angel stands in front of them. Her clothes are dazzling white and her wings flap softly as she stands before them.
The shepherds clutch one another, shaking uncontrollably staring at the heavenly vision in front of them. She tells them not to be afraid that she brings good news of great joy. The savior is born for all people. The baby is in Bethlehem in a manger-go-find-see she tells them and with that the night sky is torn open and a heavenly chorus rings out through the night.”Glory to God in the highest and peace on those whom he favors.” And as suddenly as it began, it is over and quiet once again covers the land.
The shepherds do indeed, go find and see. Racing to the manger, these rough dirty men crowd around to see the baby. Mary and Joseph the proud parents look on. Mary shyly pulls the blankets away so the men can see. Their faces soften as they gaze upon the baby sleeping peacefully. Joseph though is ever watchful of these strange ragged dirty men. He knows about shepherds’ reputations.
You see shepherds were often involved in conflicts with villagers who wanted the land to grow crops and build homes while the shepherds needed the land to graze their animals. Many times, there would be violent clashes between the groups.
So imagine for a moment this lot of rough, dirty and uncouth men being told about a baby. Stranger still they are told by an angel peace on earth among whom he favors. To rush off to Bethlehem go find see Doing just that they are mesmerized by the baby before them. they gently lean in. Staring. Knowing in their hearts, this is someone special. The angel’s words ring in their collective heads “on earth peace among whom he favors.”
Wait a minute, Peace on whom he favors? God favors shepherds? God favors the ones who cause trouble? God favors the mean and the angry? In the words of Mary, “how can this be?” But it is true. It has come to be God has shown himself to the lowly and in the process created a new meaning for the word family. No longer is family blood relation alone but all of us are connected. God gathered together on this night a group of unlikely characters to share with them the news of the birth of his son.
So are you here tonight on this night of mystery for comfort, challenge or peace? Maybe a mixture of the three? Are you here because you need to hear the story again? Like the shepherds are you in awe of what God has done?
Most of us come here tonight in hope. Hope that if God can come to a group of outsiders, a bunch of rabble rousers, misfits. He can come to you and to me. There is no one who God won’t be with. When we are unlovable-he loves us. When we don’t love ourselves, he does it for us. He sees all the goodness and loveliness in each and everyone of us here tonight.
And it is His Son who came down to be like one of us. But it is not the end of the story. The birth of Jesus is like any human life the beginning of life-our life. Our lives of messy, strange and wonderful stories. Our lives of being with one another and sharing this one wonderful moment together on this beautiful blue marble hurtling through space. We have each other and we need each other but we also need to have Jesus in our lives. Without him, it is just not living, it is existing.
In his poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio the British poet WH Auden writes, “He is the Way. Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures. He is the Truth. Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years. He is the Life. Love Him in the World of the Flesh; And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.”
Tonight is your opportunity to be like the shepherds in that cold, dark field long ago. When the angels said peace to those whom he favors. God is speaking to you. So whether you are here because you think you ought to be or its your tradition or again you are just a little curious about the mystery. Welcome we are glad you are here. We want you here among us as we all Seek Him. Each of us does this time of year like the shepherds did long ago to go, find and see.
Staring in wonder. Reflecting in joy and finding peace.
Today we hear again the story of John the Baptist. We will not hear from him again until after Christmas. John the Baptist is a rather bittersweet character. We know he is quirky. Wearing rough clothes, eating locusts and wild honey. He is unshaven and has a wild-eyed look about him. Asked repeatedly by the authorities, he gives them maddening answers. Telling them he is not the Messiah. In fact, John says he is not worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah's sandal.
Unusual language both then and now. Most people do not take talk about themselves as being unworthy but rather they are very worthy. In fact they are the most worthy person they know. Humility is not something we see everyday. Instead we see jockeying for position be it professional or social. Being humble is a sucker's bet. Society laughs at those who are humble. The word authentic is tossed around quite a bit which is code for, saying and doing what we please because this is who we are warts and all. Take it or leave it.
I don't know about you, but I think the world could use a little humility. If people were humble there wouldn't be the need for men or women to take advantage of the vulnerable at work. We would be judged on our merits and not whether or not we were willing debase ourselves for a job or friendship. The powerful would as Mary says lift up the lowly. The third Sunday in Advent is a point to take a breather and reflect on what has happened so far in Advent. What have you done this Advent in order to live out the words of John the Baptist. The who is coming is greater than all of us and we are unworthy to untie the thong of his sandal. But that is beside the point, Jesus came to be with us to show us a better way and to teach us exploiting our planet and her inhabitants is not humble or authentic. It is arrogant and rude. As you prepare a place in your heart for the coming Christ child, make it a soft place for him and for all.
Who is a prophet?
If it is the second Sunday in Advent it must be time for John the Baptist. His call to repent transgressions and sins to begin life anew. For those who are to be baptized and those of us who already are. Prophets are by nature difficult people. They insist on calling out the ills of society. We think of prophets as those who are perpetually unhappy. Unable to view the world as a glass half full. The result is people naturally get tired of hearing prophets. We turn the channel of our minds to something else. We ignore them. And we laugh at them.
Laughing at a prophet was what the parishioners of St. Thomas did to George Whitfield. Let's face it there was plenty to laugh about-the man carried his coffin around in the back of his wagon. Well as we know the parishioners and townspeople got tired of hearing his haranguing about their bad behavior. They jeered him and threw things at him, basically they ran him out of town. As we know he stood at the bridge, took off his shoes and shook the dust from and cursed the town for 100 years. We are all pretty proud of that curse. And how is George Whitefield remembered? A laughing stock. A sourpuss. Not much fun to be around.
But prophets do not have to be like George Whitefield. The psalmist tells us that God will gather the lambs to his bosom and will gently lead the mother sheep. No shouting. No stamping of feet. A simple imperative to follow Him. In our broken, noisy world, this is who I want to follow. I don't want to follow someone who makes me feel bad about myself-I do a pretty good job of that already.
This past week on the news there was a story of two four year old girls who consider themselves twins. They have come to this conclusion because they are four; their birthdays are close together and they like the same things. When they attended a birthday party, an older boy came up and said you can't be twins, you don't look alike. You see one girl is white and the other black, to which one responded, "Yes we are. We share a soul." That is prophetic for we all share souls.
Prophets don't have to be the people on the corner who stand with the floppy Bible pointing out society's ills. A prophet is someone who says we are alike, for we all share a soul.