Sermon for December 20th, 2020
8 In that 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 But 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, as it had been told them.
Angel Songs: Afraid to Run
A shepherd was looking after his sheep on the side of a deserted road. Suddenly a brand new Porsche screeches to a halt. The driver gets out--he's a young man dressed in an Armani suit, Rolex watch, and Patent leather shoes. He says to the shepherd 'If I can guess how many sheep you have, can I keep one?' The shepherd looks at his large flock of sheep and says 'Okay'.
The young man takes a few snapshots with his cell phone, uploads them to a NASA website, scans the field using satellite technology, opens a database in the cloud linked to 60 Excel tables, filled with logarithms and pivot tables, then downloads a 150 page report to his iPad. He studies the reports and says to the shepherd 'You have 1,586 sheep'.
The shepherd replies, 'That's correct. You can have the pick of my flock.' The young man packs away his equipment, looks at the flock and puts one into the back of the Porsche. Right as he is about to leave, the Shepherd says, 'If I can guess what your profession is will you return the animal to me?' The young man thinks for a minute and says 'Okay'.
The shepherd says 'You're a Consultant'. The young man says 'Correct, how did you know?' The Shepherd replied, 'Simple. You came here without being invited, you charged me a fee for something I already knew, and you don't know a thing about my business. - Now, can I have my dog back, please?'
Today is our final sermon about Angel Songs--the four times in the Christmas story when angels appear and tell their listeners, "Do Not Be Afraid." We've been asking the question--what are the people in the story so afraid of? And what are we afraid of today? And how can the Angel message bring hope to us today, helping us to overcome our fears and insecurities?
Today we come to the story of the shepherds, living in the fields, watching over their flocks by night. When the angel of the Lord appears to them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them, we read that they are terrified. But of what? Yes, of course they are terrified by the appearance of the angel. But is there something more than that?
A couple of summers ago, on a trip to Scotland, I spent the longest day of the year (the summer solstice) out in the middle of a flock of sheep, in a rocky pasture somewhere on the Isle of Mull--a remote island off the Western coast of Scotland. Along with the sheep, I watched the sun set at about 10:00pm. It's about the closest I've ever come to experiencing, just for a moment, the life of a shepherd. It was an incredibly peaceful experience, and I believe I truly felt the presence of God in that moment.
But of course, it was a borrowed moment. I am not a shepherd, at least not in the literal sense. I live in a city, in a house with heating and air conditioning, and I have a more-or-less respectable job that automatically deposits a monthly income in my bank account.
In ancient Israel, shepherding was once a respectable job, too. Abraham was a shepherd. So was Moses, and young King David. God is even compared to a shepherd in the famous 23rd Psalm--The Lord is my Shepherd. Of course, even then, more "civilized" kingdoms, like the Egyptians, looked down on shepherding as a menial job. In Genesis, the patriarch Joseph tells his brothers to lie about their shepherding vocation because "all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians."
As the nation of Israel became more settled, more urbanized, more like Egypt--occupied first by the Greeks, and then by the Romans--all of the most important people moved to the cities, and made their living in more conventional (and more profitable) ways.
Shepherding became more of a rural vocation, on the fringes of society. But even in those rural communities, farming was more highly esteemed, and since sheep often wandered, grazing uninvited onto farmlands, they (and the shepherds) were considered a nuisance, complained about and increasingly detested. What kind of people are attracted to the most undesirable jobs? Usually desperate people who have no other options. Criminals, thieves, outlaws, people who could not find employment elsewhere. I'm sure that like most stereotypes, it was often undeserved, but had some small basis in fact.
During the lifetime of Jesus, there were laws prohibiting shepherds from coming into the city. Shepherds were not allowed to serve as witnesses in court (presumably because they were viewed as untrustworthy), and according to one historian of the period, "To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.” So, basically, they were allowed to tend the sheep for others, but not actually own them or profit from them, themselves. The religious leaders included shepherds in a long list of "sinners" along with tax collectors and prostitutes.
Basically, in the first century, you didn't aspire to become a shepherd. You became a shepherd because you couldn't do anything else. What were shepherds afraid of? I think they were afraid that this wretched existence was as good as it was ever going to get. In a highly stratified society, they were stuck, trapped, with no way out, nowhere to run.
Today, I think that same fear is shared by people trapped in dead-end jobs, people stuck in abusive relationships, people mired in crippling financial debt, or people paralyzed by severe depression. People who feel stuck, trapped, with no way out and nowhere to run.
Still today, just like 2,000 years ago, we city-dwellers sometimes label entire regions of rural people or vocations as "deplorables." Still today, just like 2,000 years ago, we religious leaders sometimes label entire groups of people as "sinners." And in a highly polarized society, our labels sometimes make people feel stuck, trapped, with no way out, and nowhere to run.
Verse 11: 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." Note the emphasis here: ALL the people.
To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child--not a king, not a priest, not a billionaire, but a small, vulnerable baby--wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Did you hear that? Not jewel encrusted, tailored, designer threads or furniture. Strips of cloth and a manger! Symbols of poverty and humility.
Verse 13: "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Whom does God favor? I don't know, but consider this: The four times angels appear in the Christmas story, one is to an elderly, barren couple. One is to a poor carpenter. One is to a young, pregnant girl. And one is to a band of deplorable shepherds.
I don't know whom God favors, but all the signs seem to point in the direction of those who are stuck, trapped, with no way out, and nowhere to run.
Verse 15: When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Well, that just happened. Let's call it a night. After all, we're shepherds. We'll always be shepherds. Nothing's gonna change that.
No! They didn't say that. The message from the angel changed EVERYTHING! What they actually said was,
“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste--that's classic understatement from the NRSV translation. The Greek word here is σπεύδω. They sped, or in other words...those who had nowhere to run? They RAN!
They ran, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
And they didn't stop running, either. After that they ran to the towns and villages and cities, they ran to all the places they were forbidden from going, and (verse 17) "they made known what had been told them about this child." You know what you call someone who publicly tells others what they've seen? This is so ironic...you call that a witness. God chose shepherds to serve as his witnesses (yet another thing they were forbidden from doing)--witnesses to the salvation of the human race.
After this (verse 20) "The shepherds returned, (still running, I imagine) glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to THEM. To them. And now to us.
So if you feel stuck in a life that is going nowhere...
If you feel trapped by labels that the world has placed upon you...
If you feel burdened with the weight of judgement or condemnation...
If you feel crippled by fear, paralyzed by self-doubt, with no way out, and no hope for tomorrow...
Then I have just one word for you: Run.
Run to the manger. Run to the God who favors you and calls you his own.
Run to the highways and byways and tell the all world the message of the angels:
That Jesus Christ has come into the world, and now everything has changed.
So don't be afraid to believe.
Don't be afraid to love.
Don't be afraid to hope.
Never be afraid to run.