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Good News of Great Joy

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 24th of Twelfth Month, 2022

Speaker: Brian Youth

Scripture: Luke 2:1–20

Good morning, Friends!

Luke 2:1–20, NRSVUE: 1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.

8 Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19 and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.

It’s good to be with all of you this evening, though the weather conditions mean that our Zoom congregation is much larger than our in-person congregation tonight. I want to repeat the welcome to members of Clear Creek and First Friends meetings; thank you for joining us here for Christmas Eve. Even as we are gathered, there are a number of West Richmond households where sickness is keeping people from family gatherings and this time of worship and fellowship, and perhaps this is the case for your meetings as well. Let’s please keep these various Friends in our prayers for healing and wholeness.

Christmas Eve: once again we hear the story, of a decree from Caesar, and of Mary and Joseph’s journey to the city of David; of the birth of their child, and his place in the manger, for there was no place elsewhere; of the shepherds and the angels, “Do not be afraid,” and “good news of great joy for all the people"; of “Glory to God in the highest... and on earth peace”; of the shepherds’ haste to the manger; of amazement and pondering and treasuring in the heart.

Tonight I want to focus on the middle part of the story, on those shepherds. I have just a few things to consider, regarding those whose took it upon themselves to go straight to Bethlehem, and see the thing that had happened, told to them by a host of angels.

First is a question of audience. Why do God’s messengers appear to shepherds? Here I think Luke is telling us something about “top-down” and “bottom-up”: the methods of empire versus the methods of God. Remember that the passage begins with that decree from Rome, that “all the world should be registered” for a census. Thus the empire exerts its will upon its subjects, ordering that all the people should be counted, so that they can be taxed.

That imperial decree would have gone out first to generals and governors, then through the ranks of civil servants, to Roman citizens, and then, eventually, the common people. Joseph and Mary probably would have heard about it from their local tax collector, or perhaps there would have been an announcement in the Nazareth town square. But they certainly wouldn’t have been among the first to know. And the shepherds probably would have heard about it last of all, as isolated as they were, keeping to the hills with their flocks in most seasons of the year.

By contrast, God's message here goes directly to this group of nobodies. God privileges these marginal folks, making them the first to hear of the birth of the Christ. We might think again of the song of Mary, when she learns she is pregnant with Jesus in chapter one of Luke; part of her proclamation there is that God “has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51–52). Already, we sense that the “bottom-up” ways of God are at work, over against the “top-down” method of empire.

And that the angels’ word comes to shepherds resonates in the history of Israel. If you’re from West Richmond, you've heard me say quite a bit about this in recent weeks—please bear with me for a bit of review:

The shepherd was a royal symbol for the Hebrew people, at least as far back as King David, who was a shepherd boy before he was a king. And many places in the prophets, the shepherd is a metaphor for any leader of the people—kings, but also priests and judges. Overwhelmingly, when the prophets use this image, it’s because someone in authority has screwed up: invariably, the leaders of the people are miserable shepherds, for instead of thinking of the people's interests, they think only of themselves and what they can gain from their power.

So for the prophets, the God of Israel is the only true shepherd, the only one that can really be relied upon. Yet in their writings there is still the yearning for, and the expectation of, a Messiah: the anointed one of God, the Son of Man who will shepherd the people in just the way that the Lord would. And Bethlehem, the city of David, was understood to be the place from which the Messiah would come.

So this is not only an announcement to shepherds, it is an announcement of a shepherd. Both in how the message comes, and who is chosen to hear the news, we see that the “bottom-up” reign of God is going to be built in a way completely different from the “top-down” methods of the world. The one born in David’s city is not a new emperor, who will oppress the people with more taxation and forced labor. This is instead a true shepherd, whose coming is good news for all people—not just a powerful few.

So that’s the announcement, and the audience. Next, co