December 24, 2023 ~ 4th Sunday of Advent & Christmas Eve
Rev. Beckie Sweet
PRAYER: Ever-present God, on this sacred day we are in awe of your relentless love for us. Today we celebrate that you stopped at nothing to demonstrate your love for the world. In gratitude, and awe, we worship, seeking to be reminded of the gift that changed our hearts and lives with love. Amen.
Do you remember what it was like when someone important took notice of you? Charley Reeb tells the story of his experience golfing with his in-laws at Bay Hill Country Club in Florida. At the end of the round of golf, Charley’s in-laws ducked into the pro shop to purchase some merchandise while he sat outside waiting for them. He noticed a golf cart zip around the corner and park in front of him. But when he saw who got out of the cart, his jaw dropped. It was the King of Golf himself, Arnold Palmer! He looked like he was in a hurry, so Charley decided not to bother him. Arnold Palmer walked up the stairs and instead of entering the pro shop, he stopped, looked over at Charley and reached out his hand for a shake. Arnold said with enthusiasm, “He there! Welcome to Bay Hill! Did you enjoy the course?” Charley couldn’t believe it. Arnold Palmer was talking to him! Charley stated later that he was so nervous that he couldn’t recall how he replied to Palmer, but Charley will never forget that moment as long as he lives. Charley had met the King of Golf face to face, and Palmer had taken time to have a conversation with ordinary old Charley. Palmer could have easily ignored Charley. He was just another golfer, a fan. Instead, Mr. Palmer took the time and made Charley feel important.
A friend of mine who does corporate marketing told me once that every time she reads or hears the Christmas narrative from Luke 2, she wishes God had hired a Marketing Executive. One of the most amazing and loving events of all history took place in Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, and who are the ones who hear the news first? Shepherds, and their sheep, way outside of town. In more contemporary terms, we may sputter that the news wasn’t shared with the priest in Bethlehem or the High Priest in Jerusalem. The news didn’t make it to the cover of the Jerusalem Times, and was not mentioned by social influencers with millions of followers. God had just fulfilled the prophesy of the coming of a Messiah for the Hebrew people, for which the faithful had been waiting for over six centuries. Why didn’t the event get better coverage?
No, the news was first shared with shepherds. Do you know much about shepherds of that day? Within Jewish culture, shepherds have a somewhat positive history. After all, King David started his working career as a shepherd. Joseph and his many brothers were shepherds. In this location outside of Bethlehem, many of the lamb and sheep under the care of these shepherds would have been designated for temple sacrifice according to the ceremonial laws of the day. Oh, the shepherds themselves did not have the opportunity to be actively practicing Jews due to their work responsibilities. However, they were connected in the faith.
But, the Jewish people were living within Roman occupation at the time. And in Roman culture, shepherds were despised, and seen as so unreliable that they were not allowed to give testimony in a court of law, since, according to the Romans, every shepherd lacked credibility. The shepherds carried the aroma/stench of their labors. They spent weeks at a time living in the fields with the sheep. Bathing was not only low on their priority list, it just wasn’t an option most of the time. They were in nearly the lowest class of the population. AND YET, they were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth ~ worthy of an angelic appearance! The shepherds were on the fringes of society, but they are blessed to hear the “good news of great joy” from divine beings.
Our gospel text does not give us many details, so our imaginations must sometimes fill-in the rest of the story. The shepherds are in the field at night, trying to keep their nervous sheep calm in the darkness, and trying to get some sleep themselves while keeping their senses alert for the approach of any potential prey. They were ready at the first sound of an approaching wolf, coyote, or mountain lion, to leap up, grab their staff, and fight off the intruder. Imagine the rush of adrenaline!
But this time, instead of prey in the darkness, there is an amazingly bright light, containing a heavenly being! The terms for the level of fear the shepherds must have experienced should not be spoken from the pulpit!! The angel, however, must have noticed the expressions of terror on the shepherds’ faces, and began the message with “Fear Not!” Can’t you just imagine then the angel waiting for a moment, shushing the terrified shepherds, and continuing with the exciting news? “Fear Not! Shhh shhh, For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people: For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign for you. You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” AND THEN, as if one angel was not frightening enough, that angel was joined by a “multitude of the heavenly host” most likely singing in full voice, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all!”
The good news of the arrival of a Savior could have been shared first with the rich and powerful. But God chose to share this news with those on the fringes, with the marginalized, because they matter to God. There is nothing about poverty or class that prevents people from knowing God well. So, “Fear Not!” ~ you, too, matter to God and are worthy of hearing the best news ever!
My imagination continues with the rest of this amazing story. The shepherds are so excited about what the angel has told them that they have to go with urgency, and see for themselves. They probably draw lots to determine who will make the trek into town and who will stay in the field to protect the sheep. But those going into town will need to find the babe…in a manger. Well, they can’t just go peeking into every barn, stable, cattle stall, or animal cave in town, so they must have stopped to inquire about the holy child.
Imagine with me, if you will, the shepherds bustling into the “Holy Family Bed and Breakfast” and walking up to the registration counter where the overnight attendant is alerted to their presence by the stench emanating from them. The shepherd tell the attendant the wild story of angels and a babe in a manger! What were they thinking? While reaching for the can of disinfectant spray, the attendant directs them to the shed out back, from which the attendant recently heard the sound of a newborn baby’s cry. And, what did the shepherds do when they found the Holy Family? They became the first human preachers to share the news that the angel had told them, and adding to that what they were experiencing with Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Messiah.
Knowing the rest of the story, we shouldn’t be surprised by God’s peculiar approach to announcing the birth of Christ. Jesus’ ministry was defined by the attention he gave to the least, the last, and the lost—to people like the shepherds. Yes, the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds connects Jesus to David, the shepherd who became king. But for our gospel writer, Luke, those to whom the salvation and ministry of Christ means the most, are not those who would definitely have been invited to a royal birth announcement gala!
This is why Luke has the shepherds take center stage ~ if only for one night. Just imagine the joy of the shepherds! For the first time in their lives, they mattered! For the first time in their lives, they felt important. They had moved from forgotten to unforgettable, from misfits to messengers, from overlooked to overjoyed.
The world overlooked the shepherds but God did not. The world overlooked a common manger for the Christ, the Messiah, but the shepherds did not. One of the forgotten messages of Christmas is that Jesus is found in people and places the world has overlooked. Christmas is God’s call to care for those who have been forgotten and ignored. For with them, Christ will be found! Amen.