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, consider the shepherds’ response: right away, they go. Once they've heard this good news for all people, they want to see it confirmed! They don't make excuses; they don't find reasons to put off going to see the child; they don't consider what is convenient for them and then schedule their visit around that. ““Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place...” (v15).
Now, if most of us had the kind of revelation that these shepherds had, we hope we would react in the same way. But the reality of our spiritual lives is often that when God communicates with us, it is generally more subtle. It is the still small voice rather than the earthquake, wind or fire. And it's a lot easier to ignore that still small voice, or to procrastinate when you do hear it, or to think that you've heard wrong. Yet that voice still speaks glad tidings of great joy to all people, and those tidings are meant to be shared—we are still meant to go when we hear good news.
Third, consider what the shepherds take with them: I've always wondered, what did they do with the sheep? This is one of those things that Luke just doesn't tell us, and anywhere the Bible leaves a question like that unanswered, people will speculate. Just think about all of the various details that we've filled in with our imaginations through the centuries because the Gospel accounts don't bother to. This is especially true in the stories of Jesus’ birth. So we can't know the answer for sure, but let's just think for a moment: what were they going to do with the sheep otherwise?
Now, I have say that I don’t know much about sheepherding. But recently, as I mentioned, I’ve been speaking a fair bit about shepherds and sheep here at West Richmond. And when the Bible gives us the metaphor of God as the true shepherd, the corresponding image is of the people as the sheep. It’s pretty unavoidable. But this image doesn’t always sit well with us—are we really sheep? The last time I spoke about these metaphors, one of our people (Trudi, our usual accompanist) came up to me afterwards and said, “You know, I grew up on a sheep farm. I always had to take care of the sheep for the annual Christmas displays. And the thing about sheep is... they’re not very smart.”
So—certainly, we don’t want to be seen as stupid, and obviously, we are smarter than sheep (most of the time). Like any metaphor, saying that we are God’s sheep has its limitations. But all of the ins and outs of that image, in what ways it’s true and in what ways it isn’t, are a matter for another time. Trudi’s observation from her experience is the relevant piece: sheep aren't the smartest creatures in the world. They really do need someone around to watch out for them. That means that a good shepherd never leaves the sheep. Those creatures have to be cared for, ‘round the clock.
So getting back to Luke’s shepherds, I don't think there's anything they could have done but to bring their big, stupid, smelly flocks into Bethlehem to find the Christ child. In most nativity scenes, there’s a weak, pale allusion to this; they will include a few docile lambs around the manger, sleepily inclining their heads in adoration. But really, I think there would have had to have been many, many more animals—you can’t bring just one or two, the whole flock would have to come. It had to have been noisy and inconvenient for the new family—it would not have been a “Silent Night”! So when the shepherds came, they brought all the sheep. I don’t think there would have been any other way to do it.
In the same way, when we come into Christ's presence, we bring all sorts of things with us. We can’t avoid bringing all of the mess of our daily lives: the noise, the stinky things, the things that might distract us, the things that we've been carrying that we can't quite put down. And God would have it no other way. We are not to wait until we have it all together, until we have that embarrassing personal problem straightened out, or until we know more about that worrisome medical condition. If we wait for those things, there's always going to be something else to keep us away. God calls us with good news of great joy and expects us to come with all that we are—successes and failures; victories and defeats; strengths and sins alike. When we hear that good news carried by the still small voice within, we are to respond, right away, and not worry about what we're carrying. God will see to all of our burdens, in the fullness of time.
And—having some experience of the presence of Christ birthed amongst us, what then are we to do? One counsel, I think, is the first thing that the angel says to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid...” We often fear sharing our spiritual experience with others; in today’s polarized society, we may be afraid of being mistaken for something we are not; of being judged; of being rejected. And yet, the still small voice still speaks: “Do not be afraid...” Perhaps as we relate what we have heard from God within, what we have to share will spark amazement, and pondering, and treasuring in the heart.
The birth of Jesus; the “bottom-up” reign of God; the inward presence of Christ in each of us; these are all part of God’s good news. It is for us to discern how to live out of this good news into our broken and beautiful world.
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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