Sermon for December 22nd, 2013
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And 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 favours!’
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.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Love of Shepherds
You must be looking at me. I'm not used to that. Well... I'd introduce myself, but my name doesn't really matter, and by tomorrow you wouldn't remember it anyhow. Names are for prophets, for cities, for angels, for kings...for important people. In the Bible, my kind are just "some shepherds" who were abiding in the fields. Just...some shepherds. No names given. So that's me. I'm a shepherd.
I bet you think that Shepherds are a thing of the past? Or that we're out there somewhere with our sheep, "abiding" in our fields by night. Actually, we're everywhere you are--in the cities and towns, in houses and workplaces, at the bus stops and in the check-out line at Wal-Mart.
Shepherds are the people who do the jobs that no one else wants to do. The dirty, smelly jobs that keep everyone else clean, safe, and well-fed. We're the ones you see but don't see, the ones without names or faces, the ones usually left out of the story altogether. But not this story. You did want to hear my story, right?
It was a pretty long time ago, actually. Before this job. You see, back in Bethlehem, the job no one wanted was taking care of the sheep. And honestly, I don't blame them.
Sheep are not the cute little fuzzy furballs you see in hallmark cards and children's cartoons. Sheep smell. Really bad. Worse than cows. And here's something else they don't tell you about sheep: They bite. Hard. Sheep don't particularly care whether or not you're the person who feeds them and protects them day in and day out. Really, sheep only have two reactions to anything they encounter: Bite it...or run away from it. Grass? Bite it. Thunder? Run away from it. The Shepherd? Bite it, then run away from it.
It's hard to love sheep. But that's ok; it's hard to love shepherds, too. We don't live in houses with friends and neighbors: Out of necessity, we roam from pasture to pasture--like gypsies, carnies, or migrant workers. So when something turns up missing in town, it's pretty easy to blame the stranger, the one passing through. After all, you don't know me, and tomorrow I'll be gone. Thief! Robber! Low-life! Bum! Leach! For someone without a name, I've actually been called a lot of names in this job.
It's hard to love a shepherd, but it's also hard for a shepherd to love: You can't raise a family out in a field. Other shepherds come and go, and there's never enough time to form a friendship. Even the sheep, if they stop biting long enough for you to get to know them, well...we know what happens to them in the end. It's what they're raised for. It's best not to get too attached. There is nothing, no one for a shepherd to love. It's a hard, lonely, thankless, loveless job.
But there is one thing--just one thing--that I have always loved about being a shepherd. Sometimes, late at night, when the sheep have finally quieted down, when we've wandered far away from the lights of the city... Sometimes, lying on the hard ground in the middle of all the sheep, I gaze up into the night sky...and there are stars. Millions of stars, shining, twinkling, dancing in infinite beauty and silence. During the day, I count the sheep. But at night, I count the stars.
I remember a story my grandmother used to tell me when I was little--a story about Father Abraham. One day God brought Abraham outside and said to him, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then God said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And then my grandmother would tell me, "You are one of those descendants. You are one of those stars. You are a child of Abraham, and a child of God. You are important to God."
I know I was important to my Grandmother, at least. But to God? There are millions of stars. How could God possibly love all of Abraham's children? Especially one who is...just a shepherd. If shepherds number among God's stars, then our stars must be dim, hidden, not easy to see.
That's what I was looking for, that night. Yes, "that" night. The night we were "abiding" in the field. I was looking for a dim star--a dim, lonely star. We'll call it a "shepherd star." And I found one. Of all the millions of stars in the sky that night, I'm still not sure how I managed to choose exactly that one. Most people would have picked a brighter star. Or a famous star--one with a name, a story, one that was part of a great constellation. But I found one that was just barely bright enough to be counted--the kind you actually have to look at indirectly in order to even see. I watched that star for hours, holding on to it the same way I held on to the memory of my grandmother.
There was something almost desperate in the way I clung to that dim star that night, I don't know if I can explain it. It was almost like a last hope, like a cry of the heart. It was truly my prayer: God, I want to be counted. I want my life to count for something. I want to love and be loved.
[Cue Music: O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night, Trans-Siberian Orchestra]
[0:00] Almost immediately after those words came into my mind, the star began to grow brighter, and brighter. It seemed to be getting closer and closer, and always brighter.
[0:18] There was a noise, and I sat up and rubbed my eyes, not sure whether I was dreaming or awake. And then again...and this time others heard it too: Sheep were running and biting, and shepherds were running and biting, too.
[0:35] And suddenly, the sky was filled with blinding light, and a voice like thunder said "Do not be afraid!"
[0:48] Too late for that. This being, this creature from the sky, his face was like lightning, and his eyes like burning torches! The sheep were long gone, but the shepherds cringed in fear. And then, he said:
[1:05] 'I bring good news of great joy for ALL people: To you is born this day a savior, the messiah! And this will be a sign for you: you will find this child wrapped in humble cloth, lying in a manger.' And then the skies truly opened up, filled with thousands of these heavenly beings all saying together, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!'
[1:44] Favors! Did you hear that? I think we were just "favored" by God himself! And a savior? The Messiah! Come on, what are we waiting for? Let's go!
[2:01] We ran that night, we ran all the way to Bethlehem. We ran, and we laughed, and we ran, and we knew that God was with us. He said we were favored! We were loved.
[2:20] Anyone else would have had a hard time finding a baby in Bethlehem that night--so many houses full of people. But not us. We found it right away. You see, only a shepherd knows where to find all the mangers in town.
[2:40] If anyone had been expecting a royal entourage for this baby king, they would have been disappointed. But not us. We were touched that God could work through a humble carpenter, and an ordinary girl.
[2:57] So we fell to our knees, and we adored that precious gift from heaven.
[3:15] That night God answered my prayer; he answered the prayer of all shepherds, of all strangers and all wanderers, of the lonely and the despised of the earth. That night, God answered the desperate cry of all humanity. That night, God showed us how much we counted. He taught us what it is to love and be loved.
[3:53] We were "just some shepherds" abiding in a field...