As Shelley mentioned last week, the lectionary texts during Advent are a little challenging, so I decided to take a break and explore our readings from our Advent Wreath this week and next week. I really love these readings because they focus on different characters in the Christmas story – everyday people who are invited into the story of God’s salvation. The readings begin by remembering those characters, and end by reminding us that those people are present in our world today. Last week we remembered the prophets from old and gave thanks for the modern day prophets. Today we remember the shepherds from old and also give thanks for those who fulfill similar working class roles today.
Most of you don’t know this, but I’ve actually been a shepherd. Well, I played a shepherd once in McCall Baptist Church’s annual Christmas play. I think I was 9 or 10. There were three of us shepherds: Me, my best friend Matt, and the pastor’s son, Ben.
Well, as shepherds, we didn’t come onto the scene until half way through the play, which meant the three of us were left in a room by ourselves for a solid chunk of time. Three elementary aged boys, alone in a room, bored – what could happen? We spent the whole time wrestling, and almost missed our cue to come out when it was our time. When we emerged from the back room to walk to the front of the sanctuary, we were all looking a little disheveled, and Ben had lost his head gear. When it came time for Matt to say his lines, he had forgotten most of them, so I whispered them in his ear.
On Tuesday of this week I began to meditate on the shepherds and their story from Luke. I was feeling pretty good. I was thinking about my brief spell as a shepherd, and about the beauty of the biblical story upon which it’s based. It’s really a wonderful story. These unsuspecting shepherds are out in their fields, working at night, and BAM! an angel shows up and gives them this wonderful news about the “Savior who is Christ the Lord” being born. As I was thinking about all this, the sun was streaming through my apartment’s windows, the Christmas tree was up in the corner of the living room, I felt like the Christmas season had finally arrived.
Then I made a mistake. I looked at the news. And when I got in my car to come to the church, I turned on NPR. And the news came crashing into my beautiful, peaceful, sunny, Christmassy day. It seemed everyone and everything was being attacked this week.
Immigrants and refugees are being banned from our country as we celebrate the birth of our Savior, who was born in a manger because no one would make room for his parents, who was a refugee in Egypt when Herod tried to kill him.
We’re awakening to the fact that women’s bodies have continually been sexualized, objectified, harassed, and assaulted to an extent that many of had never dreamed of (and others of us know all too well), in the midst of a season where we celebrate Mary, and the sacredness of her body, a body God saw as valuable enough to house the Divine.
As we belt out the words “Joy to the World!” about rocks, fields, and trees repeating the sounding joy, and heaven and nature singing, two of our natural national monuments in Utah have suddenly been reduced without any warning or discussion.
While we read, today, the story of angels appearing to the poor, working class shepherds, our government is in the process of passing a tax bill that will give tax breaks to the wealthy and hurt the poor, the working class, and the elderly.
Then, yesterday, Duke lost, Chelsea lost, and the Blazers lost!
There’s just so much bad news.
I was completely deflated on Tuesday morning. It felt like the crisp, sunny air had cracked and shattered – that all that bad news had broken through the rich story of Christmas, and presented me with a stark reality that seemed so much bleaker – the reality that out there, beyond my control, the powers and principalities were weaving a future I cannot escape – we cannot escape.
News has the power to do that – to break into our days and completely alter our outlook – whether it’s personal news, local news, national news, or international news. News comes from out there. It pops up on our TVs, on our computers, on our phones, and on our radios. It comes in the form of text messages and phone calls and conversations over coffee. It comes in hospital waiting rooms and in office buildings and in cars. It has no respect for what’s going on in our lives, who we’re with, or what we’re in the middle of doing.
It tells us that something has happened – sometimes outside of us, sometimes inside of us – that we didn’t know about before, but that will affect us.
I was going about my day on Tuesday, when news – bad news – broke in to tell me about events that can and will affect me, those I love, and those we as a church are called to serve and care for.
The shepherds in our reading from today were also going about their work day (actually their night) when the news broke in. But for them it was good news. An angel appeared in a flash of glory – the glory of the Lord – and proclaimed “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Now, the shepherds are no strangers to bad news. They are living in a nation under Roman occupation, so, as Israelites, they are oppressed by a foreign power. As working class people, they are also marginalized by their own community because they are of a lower socio-economic standing. Their lives are hard.
I think I’ve already told you the story of how the best job I ever had – I mean the second best job I ever had – was doing sheep survey’s for the Forest Service. My days would consist of hiking around in the woods of Central Idaho by myself, looking for herds of sheep that were roaming federal land. When I met up with them I would ask the shepherds questions about how things were going, whether they had come into contact with big horn sheep, whether they had had any wolf attacks, and a few other questions the Forest Service wanted to know.
I don’t think I’ve told you much about the shepherds, though. There was only one shepherd per herd of sheep. These shepherds I spoke to lived out in the mountains by themselves. Most locals didn’t even know they were there. I didn’t until I started doing the sheep surveys. Most of them were from Peru and were making money to send back to their families who they hadn’t seen in years. Their camps consisted of a tent, with a cot and a wood fire place that they could break down and pack on their two mules. They had no electricity, no running water, and no human companionship.
When we think of shepherds around Christmas time, we usually think of children’s plays and Christmas cartoons with smiling shepherds serenely watching their flock in the beauty of a clear, sparkling night before the angels appear to them. But the shepherds in Luke’s story probably had more in common with the shepherds I ran into in Idaho.
Being a shepherd is a hard, lonely job. It requires one to spend large chunks of time away from friends and family. Notice that the shepherds were “living out in the fields.” They weren’t “working” or “staying,” they were “living” in the fields. Being a shepherd means protecting the sheep from wild animals, as David tells Saul when he wants to fight Goliath. It means constant movement and simplistic living.
But there is one significant difference between the shepherds I came across in Idaho and the shepherds in Luke’s story, and that is that the shepherds I came across in Idaho were alone, but there are a group of shepherds in Luke’s story.
I think this is significant, especially as we think about the implications of this story for our own lives, especially when it comes to how we deal with intrusion of news – both good and bad – in our own lives. After the angels appear to the shepherd, the shepherds decide how to respond together. “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 happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’”
This week, as I was saying, I was feeling a bit down because of the news, but this week was also full of wonderful times with many of you. On Tuesday afternoon I went and hung out with George and Shirley at their apartmen. On Wednesday I spent some time with Jean. Wednesday night we had Wind Down Wednesday. On Thursday I got coffee with Alison and Slayden. During these times, whether we spoke specifically about the news or not, I was continually pointed toward Christ by all of you. It seemed that, whether you knew it or not, you were saying to me “Let us go and see this thing that has taken place, which God has made known to us.” In other words, “Let’s go to Jesus.”
This may seem like a Sunday school answer, “Go to Jesus,” but that is what the shepherds do, and that is where we should start as well when the news intrudes on our lives. The shepherds have to believe what the angels say, and then they have to leave their sheep for a few hours, and go out and seek Jesus and find him in the manger. The angels don’t tell them exactly where Jesus is. They have to do some searching.
We also must leave behind our anxiety, fear, and desire for control, and seek out Jesus in our midst. We must believe the testimony of the angels, the shepherds, the apostles, and the Gospel writers, who tell us that Jesus is here, in the midst of our broken, messy world. A world filled with news, good and bad, that seems utterly out of our control. Jesus is here, even in the lowliest of places, like a yucky feeding trough in a rundown stable.
The good news of Christmas is not dependent on the politics of our world. In fact, the worse the political news is, the more we need the story of Christmas. The good news the angels brought didn’t change Roman occupation. Rome continued to rule long after the shepherds died. The shepherds never saw a change in politics, but they received good news that caused them to return to their old world “glorifying and praising God.”
The message of Christmas is that God is with us now and always, and while the good news of God’s salvation may break through at times and surprise us like a choir of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom [God’s] favor rests,” those moments will often fade away quickly, just as the angels did, and we must decide, as the shepherds did, how we will respond.
Will we seek God out? How are you seeking God out in your own life?
My dad sent me an email this week, and he said something that really struck me. My dad began by talking about how there is both a horizontal and a vertical element to our faith, meaning that there is an element that has to do with how we relate to others (horizontal) and another that has to do with how we relate to God (vertical). Then my dad said, “Just as the horizontal dimension has many avenues to pursue (poverty, equality, education, etc.) so does the vertical dimension. These would include the spiritual disciplines like prayer, time in God’s word, fasting, meditation, submission to God, solitude, confession, and worship. The goal of all of these is to help people form and feel a connection with Jesus, their Creator and God. This is no small task. But without this connection we lose our life line.”
What struck me from my dad’s comment was the fact that we need to invest time and effort into our spiritual life, the same way we pursue justice, or education, or anything else we care about. It doesn’t come easy. That probably sounds kind of obvious, but it isn’t really obvious, is it? Do we actually invest time and effort into our personal spirituality? Do we spend as much time seeking God out as we do watching the news? This is something I’m not always the best at, but I’ve been working at the last few months. I’ve been trying to spend some quality time every morning praying and reading Scripture.
Jesus is here, in our world, just as Jesus was there, in the city of David. But Jesus rarely bursts forward with a flash and a bang. More often, he’s found in the run down alleys and dirty stables of life. Finding him takes effort, it takes spiritual practices. If we are to experience Jesus we must seek him out.
There are times when the Good News the angels brought to the shepherds seems difficult to believe. When Christmas rolls around, but there’s no magic. The bad news in our lives seem to overwhelm all that is good. So we emerge on the scene half way through, like me and my friends twenty-some years ago in a play, our hair a mess, our clothes disheveled. We find ourselves in the middle of Christmas and we’ve forgotten our lines. We’ve forgotten why this all matters.
That is when we need each other, just as I needed all of you this week, to whisper in our ears the lines we’ve forgotten. To say, “Let’s go and see this thing that has happened – this thing that is still happening – which our Creator has told us about. Let’s go and find Jesus.”