Every year we pastors can sometimes find ourselves asking, “What am I going to say this year on Christmas Eve? Is there some new, creative spin I can put on the same ol’ same ol’ story?” The best answer I’ve heard to that question is: “Just tell the story. That’s why we’re all here.”
That’s why we’re all here: to hear the story again, to receive and dare to believe once again the good news.
The Christmas story in Luke 2:1-20 is one act in three scenes. Tonight we’re going to focus on scenes 2 and 3. The first scene tells of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and of Mary giving birth to Jesus. The second scene asks: Jesus is born – now what?
The answer in first-century Middle Eastern culture was: you had to go and tell someone. A royal birth required a royal birth announcement by a herald in the palace. That’s why, when the wise men came looking for Jesus, they instinctively went to Herod’s palace. That’s where his birth was expected to be announced. That’s where they’d find all the high-society people to whom the announcement was expected to be made.
But the herald didn’t go to the palace. He went to a place no one expected, a place no one cared to look, because no one cared about who was there.
When we tell the Christmas story today, shepherds hold a place of honor. At our children’s stable service two weeks ago, we had a dozen or so kids eager to put on shepherds’ costumes. In the first century, no one was eager to be a shepherd. There was no glory in being a shepherd. It was an undesirable job for undesirable people. They were the lowest-ranked class of citizens. The only people who ranked lower than shepherds were shepherds on the night shift. That’s when predators were on the prowl, and the risk of death was highest. The only people you’d put on duty at night were those whose lives didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.
In studying this text with a small group once, I asked: who are the shepherds of our day? Some said fast-food workers, janitors, sanitation workers, restaurant dishwashers, gas station clerks. One person said police officers on the night watch. An interesting thought. While we appreciate our first responders, we sometimes take for granted those who put themselves in harm’s way so that we can sleep in peace.
There’s no glory in being a shepherd on the night shift. It was an undesirable job for even more undesirable people…
…which is why it’s so remarkable that the royal birth announcement began here. Not in the palace. Not in the temple among the religious types. But in a dark field among a bunch of shepherds.
The good news isn’t just that a child is born; the good news is also to whomthe child is born. The good news of God’s love always shows up in placeswe least expect and to people we least expect. Jesus is constantly going to the least likely, redrawing lines, rewriting guest lists, redeeming lost sheep – and lost shepherds.
Why is that good news for us tonight? Because I imagine some of us feel like those shepherds. You’re in a dead-end job or dead-end relationship. You feel unnoticed, unloved, like no one cares or your life doesn’t make a difference. You don’t fit in. Whether it’s because of how someone else has judged you or how you’ve judged yourself, you feel unworthy.
Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve walked through the doors of a church. Maybe this is the first time you’ve ever walked through the doors. You’re wondering what those around you are thinking of you, what’s Godthinking of you.
And yet….you still showed up. That’s always a good first step.
Let me suggest it’s not so much that you and I choseto show up today. God wantedyou to show up. That little nudge or family tradition or sense of obligation, whatever it was that resulted in your being here, ultimately, it’s Godwho brought each of us here for a reason. God led each of us to show up – because God has shown up, and God wants to show forth his glory for us just like he did for those shepherds.
When God showed up in the fields that night, it didn’t seem like a welcome thing at first. Scripture says the shepherds were terrified– and understandably so. Fear is an entirely normal reaction. If any of us were to see something that extraordinary, we might be a little freaked out, too.
Beyond the emotional reaction, there’s the spiritualreaction. All throughout Scripture, whenever people encountered the holy or divine, they often were afraid. Those experiences of fear in the presence of God go all the way back to that originalexperience of fear in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they did, they saw that they were naked, and they hid from God – because they were afraid (Genesis 3:10).
Ever since then, we humans have been wrestling with a desireto know and be known by God in a deep and personal way – and yet, at the same time, we’re terrified: if God saw who we truly are, what might God think of us?
Perhaps you’re feeling some of those mixed emotions tonight, wondering: Do I dare risk believing once again – or for the very first time? Do I dare to believe that there is good news – and that it is truly good?
In Scripture whenever people encountered the holy or divine and were afraid, they were immediately told, “Do not be afraid.” Those were the angel’s first words to Zechariah and to Mary and now to the shepherds. We’ve been talking about this command “Do not be afraid” in Sunday worship the past few weeks. What we haven’t said yet is that the command “Do not be afraid” is, of course, more easily saidthan done.
So what dowe do?
The answer comes, not in doing, but in seeing. The angels’ opening line to the shepherds didn’t stop with, “Do not be afraid.” The angel continued, “Do not be afraid, for see.” See what Godsees. The shepherds looked up and saw a multitude of the heavenly host shining God’s glory in the highest. God, on the other hand, looked down and saw God’s glory in the lowest.
While we’re looking up to the heavens and marveling at God’s light tonight, God’s looking at and marveling at us, saying, “I do see who you truly are: you are my child. You are loved. You belong. You are precious and valuable beyond anything you can imagine – because you are mine.”
What is this good news of great joy the angels call us to see? A child has been born for us, a Savior given to us. Jesus left the glory of the highest heaven to come and show his glory to the lowest on earth – including you and me. If we want to overcome our fear of rejection and failure and be filled with his love, if we want to experience forgiveness and the freedom of no longer having to be our own savior, then look to the manger. See the God who loved you so much that he sent his Son – for you.
See his love for you, and then let what you see compel you to do.
That’s what the shepherds did. When they heard the angels and saw God’s glory shining all around them, they didn’t form a committee in good Presbyterian fashion and say, “OK, you be in charge of navigation, you be in charge of food – the goodstuff, don’t go cheap this time – and we’ll meet back here next week and come up with a plan.” No, they said, “Let’s go now!” Just like when we hear some good news, we can’t wait to pick up our phone and text someone, they couldn’t wait to get to Bethlehem, to see what was in the manger, and to make known what God had told them. But they didn’t stop there. They turned right back around, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard.
And there ends scene 2.
But the storydoesn’t end there. The shepherds have done their part. Now it’s our turn to take the stage. What will the world see in the next scene?
It all depends on what we see tonight.
It can be tempting tonight to listen to the music, look all the pretty lights, be reminded of God’s glory in the highest, and leave, simply thinking, “Wasn’t that beautiful?”
God’s glory isn’t just something to admire. It’s not the end itself, but a means to an end.
Much like when you walk into a room and turn on a lamp, you don’t stand there staring at the lamp, thinking, “My, what a nice lamp.” The lights in the choir loft? When we walk in, we don’t notice the lights. We notice the choir because of the light. Or later, when we’re singing by candlelight, yes, notice the pretty candles. But also notice what the candles do: they allow us to see the faces of all our sisters and brothers that surround us.
The purpose of a lamp is not to call attention to itself. The purpose of a lamp is to shine light on everything around it: to expose dark corners, to give warmth, and to help others to see more clearly. That’s a light’s purpose.
Tonight, we celebrate that God has given us his Son Jesus, the Light of the World. But a gift is only a gift if it is received and used, and a light is only a light if it’s used for its purpose. We’re not just supposed to stay here looking up at the light; we’re called to look out at the world and shine that light for others. Just as God’s glory in the highest gave glory to the lowest some two thousand years ago, we’re now called to share the good news of God’s love by doing those same things a lamp does: exposing the darkness of this world, displaying Jesus’ love and truth, providing warmth and comfort to those in need, and helping others to see more clearly the way home.
What are those circumstances and relationships God has given you to glorify him? Don’t settle for the obvious or easy ones. Look for good news where you least expect it. If you don’t see the good news, then maybe that’s where God is calling you to bethe good news.
….and if you’re still struggling to believe there is good news to see – and that it really is good – then get up anyway. Go and see and tell, for sometimes in going and seeing and telling the good news to others we discover the good news for ourselves.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see.” See the manger. Behold what God has done and is doing. To the degree that we behold it, grasp it, and treasure and ponder it in our hearts, to that degree all fears will start to diminish, and only Jesus’ light will remain. Thanks be to God. Amen.