Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
In the time of the Bible, shepherding was not a respected profession. Shepherds were stereotyped as liars, degenerates, and thieves. Shepherding was the work you took when you couldn’t hold down a respectable job. Because they spent all their time out in the fields with sheep, not only did they stink, but they also lacked the manners and etiquette of polite society.
The testimony of a shepherd was inadmissible in court because they couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth, and many towns had ordinances barring them from entering the city limits. Luke tells us these shepherds were watching their flocks by night, which is to say that they were guarding their sheep from theft by other shepherds, probably while armed.
The religious establishment took particular exception to shepherds. Because of their profession, they were unable to keep the Sabbath, and were ritually unclean and therefore unable to enter the temple. The Pharisees considered shepherds the scum of society, as bad as prostitutes and tax collectors.
These were not the meek and gentle folk we have represented in our children’s story bibles. They were frightening, dangerous, and unpredictable. If Luke were setting this story in 2019, the heavenly chorus might appear to a gang of Hell’s Angels.
Yet, these are the people to whom God sent angels to declare the birth of Christ. The word “angel” literally means “messenger;” it was not uncommon for kings and dignitaries to send messengers—“angels”—to announce the birth of an heir or victory in battle. However, these “angels” were typically sent to other kings and dignitaries. God’s angels were sent to shepherds; shady men who wanted nothing to do God. They may have given up on God, God had not given up on them.
This was no accident. God sent the heavenly messengers to shepherds for the same reason that Jesus was born a peasant in a stable rather than as a prince in a palace: because Jesus is Emmanuel—“God-with-us”—and God can only be with us where we are. God doesn’t seek out the people who have it all together, but the unwed mothers, the doubting fiancés, the shepherds. When we are at our most ragged, that is where God meets us.
We have not just sentimentalized the shepherds, but the whole Christmas story. We sing of the silent, holy night when all was calm and bright, we sing of a newborn baby who neither fusses nor blows out his diaper. These things weren’t any more real 2000 years ago than they are now. We forget the scene that Luke paints for us in this story: foreign armies occupied Palestine and Caesar issued decrees and edicts from Rome. A very pregnant Mary travels with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey, only to find the town so packed that the inn is full, and they must sleep in the stable with the livestock. This night is far from peaceful, far from quiet. It is just like the world around us now: buzzing with activity, filled with fear, and balanced on the edge of despair.
Somebody once said to me that Christmas should be a time of happiness because we are expecting a baby, and that is always a happy occasion. It’s true that Christmas brings good news which should lighten all our hearts, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is happy. Any new mother will tell you that the birth of a child brings not only joy, but worry about money, fear for the baby’s health and well-being, doubt over whether we’ll make good parents. Many of us this time of year are like the shepherds, stuck out in the fields, experiencing loneliness, grief, depression, or anger. For many of us Christmas is a time of sadness, rather than joy. It is to those of us stuck in the fields, choking on the darkness in the world, that God’s messengers come in light to announce the good news: Emmanuel is born.
This messiness of life is precisely when and where God chooses to enter it. If we deny the realness of Christmas, forget about the fear and the pain and worry, we forget its importance. Jesus did not come to help us avoid life’s burdens, but to bear them beside us, to be “God-with-us.” He came for the sake of the shepherds and all those who don’t feel worthy of God’s presence, to announce to us that God has not given up on us.
It is in the midst of the worries and the sorrows of this world that we hear God’s promise announced most clearly. It is in the chaos of impeachments and elections, in the growing panic over a warming planet, in the agonizing grief over mass shootings and our frustration at the inaction of the powerful, in the clamor of the jobless, the hungry, the immigrant, and the voiceless crying out for justice that God suddenly slips into our world with a message delivered by angels: “Unto you this day is born a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The sign of this savior from God is not a miracle drug or a promising new technology or a charismatic leader who promises to have all the answers, but a simple child, swaddled and lying in a feed trough.
If we only imagine the Christmas card version of Jesus’ birth with its serene smiles and reverent creatures and poor-but-noble shepherds, then this story has nothing to offer us, because we don’t live in a Christmas card. Christmas becomes just another day, the Christ child just another baby. We will only expect to find God when things are going well and we are content and happy. The real world is much more complicated, much more dangerous. Thankfully, it was into this real world that Christ came, not the one on the front of the Christmas card. When we find ourselves down and out and at our worst—in the fields by night—we know that God will find us there. It is the people who walk in darkness who have seen the great light.
This is the good news which God’s messenger angels brought to the shepherds that night: that even out here in the fields of despair, even isolated from the rest of society, in spite of who you may be and what you may have done, this good news is for you. You may have given up on God, and it may seem like God couldn't care less you, but today, a savior is born for you. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, God is paying attention, and God is doing something. God doesn’t just sit up on some throne somewhere watching us, God is here with us. Christ came to walk alongside us and share our burdens. He came as living proof that not even death can keep God’s presence away from us and to help us experience a life rich with that presence, a life that is something more than a day-to-day existence, a life that is abundant, a life that is eternal.
Perhaps the best news of all is that while we are all gathered in here tonight, even now God’s messengers are proclaiming that news to shepherds out there in those fields. Even now, the heavenly chorus is somewhere singing to a bunch of people who have no need of God to tell them that Christ has come to be with them. Not only that, God is inviting us to be those angels, those messengers, proclaiming the good news of God-with-us.
Even the shepherds—rejected and despised by everyone—left that night praising and glorifying God, because they saw in the face of that child that God’s promise is true. God is with us; the King of Glory comes to us even in a manure-filled stable. We come here tonight as shepherds, terrified by what we see on the news; but we go out as angels, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, as it had been told to us: Christ is born in Bethlehem. God is with us, now and forevermore.