Note: This text is a transcription from the recorded audio.
Gracious God thank you for loving us enough to take on flesh and dwell among us. On this Christmas Day give us fresh eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to receive, and lips to proclaim you. Amen.
I think it’s no coincidence that God chose the shepherds to begin to tell the story.
“The angels and the heavenly host came to visit the shepherds, giving them great news and great joy of the birth of the Messiah, and with haste they made their way to find Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger. And then they told everyone what they had heard, and all were amazed. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
The nativity of our Lord has to be one of the best known stories in all of Christendom, and as a consequence I think it presents a challenge for us. We’ve heard this story so many times that, in some ways, it becomes too familiar, perhaps even a little too common, and we lose the awe and the mystery in the miracle of that story. Imagine what it would be like if we heard it for the first time. Fresh eyes, fresh ears, fresh voice. And, of course, the Gospel of Luke tells his story in such a simple, straight-forward, and tersely written way that it loses some of the awe in the impact and the majesty and the miracle. So I invite you this morning to take just a few minutes to step back and to look afresh at the story, what it had to say then, and what it has to say to us today.
Let’s start with Mary. We know from the social customs of that day that Mary would have been all of about 12 or 13, engaged to Joseph, apparently minding her own business, doing her knitting, and out of nowhere the angel Gabriel appears and says, “Don’t be afraid but, oh by the way, favored one, you are going to bear the son of God.” And how does the biblical narrative record her response? Well, she asked a question or two, sang the Magnificat, and then she pondered these things in her heart. Mary becomes pregnant, and she and Joseph make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. She has the baby, but in the most tenuous and temporary shelter. Then these shepherds appear out of nowhere, and they too have had heavenly angelic visitors, and they tell the story again that the Christ child has been born. And “all were amazed but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” With all due respect to half the people who are gathered here, only a man could have written that! She was 12 or 13! Angels keep showing up! She has just given birth to the Son of God! Imagine that.
Now let’s look at the shepherds. Today we like to paint a little bucolic pastoral scene of shepherds out tending their flocks by night, but in those days shepherds were among the lowest of the lowly. They had dirty, dangerous jobs that no one wanted. In that day, because they lived outside, they couldn’t keep the purity laws, so they were ritually unclean, dirty, and cold. Yet whom does God choose to be the first evangelists? None other than the shepherds, the lowest of the lowly. And what did the angel tell them? “I bring you good news of great joy for all people.” Not some, not the elite, not the elect: all people. I think it’s no coincidence that God chose the shepherds to begin to tell the story.
This week I read an interesting article about modern-day shepherds in the United States. In the American West there are about 1,500 shepherds, and they’re all immigrants, primarily from the Peruvian and Chilean highlands. Their job is cold, and dirty, and hard, and lonely. Those of us with options wouldn’t choose to do it. The reporter asked these shepherds a little bit about what they were anticipating for Christmas, and they were all longing for their families and the traditions of their homes, but of course they needed these jobs because they’re sending money home. One of the shepherds said, “You know I’ve never seen an angel, but I’d really like to. I hope some day I’ll have enough faith to see one…maybe today.”
How would you react if you just heard this story, the greatest story ever told, for the first time? You can only imagine to our twenty-first century ears how that story would be told. We live in a time when the most inane, inconsequential twitter tweet by a so-called celebrity becomes breaking news across our computer screens. Imagine the telling of this story—the greatest story—how would you hear it? How would you receive it? How would it change you? How would you see and experience everything in your life in relationship to it? In the Weight of Glory C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it rise, but because by it I see everything else.” Everything else.
In praying about this sermon I remembered a story I was told years ago. It’s a true story. Two Americans were invited by the Ministry of Education in Russia to go to Russia to teach morals and ethics from a Christian perspective. So they went to Russia and they were teaching in schools, and in police stations, and in firehouses and the like, and their trip was going really well. Then they were invited to go to an orphanage…a desperately poor orphanage. There were about 100 orphans, all of whom had been abused and abandoned. And these two Americans—Christians—felt the conviction of their faith to tell the story.
It was almost Christmas time and they knew that these children would never have heard the story, so they proceeded to tell them the story of Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus, and the shepherds, and the Magi bringing gifts. Then they distributed some colored paper and felt and encouraged the children to create their own manger scenes. Everything was going really well, and sort of according to plan, until they noticed that one little boy had a very strange manger scene. There were two babies in the crib. So they decided to ask the translator to come over and to query the boy about that anomaly. The little boy was about 6 and his name was Misha. So he began to repeat the story he’d heard, almost verbatim, which is remarkable when you think of a 6-year-old who’d heard the story one time.
So he’s going through the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and everything rolls out the way we know it, until he gets to one part in the story, and this is where it took a different course. Misha said, “When Mary was putting Jesus in the crib, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had any place to stay, and I told Jesus that I didn’t have a mommy, and I didn’t have a daddy, and I didn’t have a place to stay. And Jesus told me I could come and stay with him. And I wanted so badly to do that, to be with Jesus, but I didn’t have a gift to give him. So I thought and thought about what I could give him so I could be with Jesus. And I decided that maybe I could go and be with him in the crib and help to keep him warm. So I asked Jesus if I came to the crib to help keep him warm, would that be a good enough gift, and Jesus looked at me and said if you gave me the gift of warmth, that would be the greatest gift I could possibly receive. And you can come and stay with me for always.” And with that Misha put his head down on his desk and he wept. You see Misha had finally found someone in his life who would never abuse him, never abandon him, someone who would be with him for always.
Yes Misha, Jesus will be with you, with me, with each one of us, to guide us, to comfort us, to sustain us, and to love us more than we could possibly ask or imagine for always.
“Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy for all people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Amen.