This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, December 5, 2021, the Second Sunday of Advent. I used alternate readings; this sermon is based on Luke 2:8-20.
If you are a parent, think back to when your children were born. Who were the first people you told? How did you share the news? I know a pastor who was expecting to become a grandfather any day. When he got the call that the baby was born, he quickly sent an email to the organist at his church to let her know, because he was going to miss a meeting that evening so he could go and meet his new granddaughter! When he returned home that night, he was upset and hurt to learn that the organist had spread the news around the congregation. He had wanted to spread that news himself!
The news of Jesus’ birth did not go the way Mary and Joseph might have expected. I don’t know how birth announcements worked in the first century. They certainly didn’t involve texting or Facebook, but there was probably some sort of tradition about how you let friends and family know about a birth. But before Mary and Joseph could do that, an angel of the Lord announced it to a bunch of seemingly random people out in a field. That was unexpected. But even more unexpected was who those people were. This was the birth of the Messiah, but the angel didn’t announce it to the leaders of Israel. Nor to the priests in the temple. Or to the religious monks out in the desert. Nor even to Elizabeth, Mary’s relative who was at that moment caring for the infant John the Baptist. No, the angel announced the news to a bunch of shepherds.
Not the people you’d expect. I mean, shepherds in those days were pretty dirty and smelly people, spending all their time among the sheep. They were poor, living hand to mouth. Even though their work was important, it wasn’t respected. They were the minimum wage workers of the time. Perhaps if Jesus had been born today, the angel would have announced it to the crew working at the McDonald’s in Columbia. That would be unexpected.
But then there’s the way the shepherds responded. That’s unexpected too. The first thing they did after the angel appeared to them was to run to Bethlehem and see this child.
Now I should back up a second. The angel’s announcement was pretty unexpected too. The angel told the shepherds, “The Savior, the Messiah, has been born!” And here’s the unexpected part: “You will find a child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” That’s not the way a king would normally be born. That’s like the angel telling those McDonald’s workers: you will find the newborn messiah as a child wrapped in bubble wrap, and lying in a shopping cart behind the Wal-Mart.
I think one of the mysteries of Christmas is why God chose to be born to an unmarried peasant couple, to be born into poverty, in such meager means, and why God chose to announce that birth to a bunch of poor working-class shepherds. I think it tells us something about God, about how God views wealth and social status.
So those shepherds ran to see this child. And when they saw him, they praised God and worshiped the child. And then, they went out and told the news to anybody who would listen. These shepherds, who had every reason to be distressed or even angry about what life had dealt them – these shepherds were the first evangelists, telling the whole world, or at least telling everyone throughout the region of Bethlehem, “The Messiah has been born, and we saw him!”
And I think another of the mysteries of Christmas is how those shepherds were able to shift gears so immediately, how the sight of an angel and of a newborn baby were enough to fill them with joy that overflowed. I wonder if that tells us something about the shepherds. This is speculation. I don’t know this. But I wonder if maybe one reason these shepherds were so moved by this, were so transformed by this, was because they were prepared for it. I wonder if maybe these shepherds had been preparing for it their whole lives, so that they were the best prepared people to do this important job.
I wonder if they prepared for this just by being who they were. By being shepherds. Shepherds who kept watch over their flock by night. They watched their flock at night to protect the sheep from bandits, and from wolves and other predators. It was slow, monotonous work. They sat in the starlight for hours, just watching and waiting. They didn’t know when a bandit or a wolf would arrive, or even if it would that night. But they waited, and watched. Because that was their job. They accepted that.
They played an important role in Jewish society, a role that connected them to the temple, where thousands of lambs were sacrificed each Passover. A role that was crucial, even if they weren’t well paid or well respected. They did their job. They fulfilled their calling. And they did it through watching and waiting.
And so when the Christmas miracle happened, perhaps it’s no wonder that shepherds were the ones who heard it first. They were the ones who’d been practicing their whole lives to watch and wait. And perhaps it’s no wonder that they responded so quickly. They had practiced their whole lives to respond immediately when something happened to their flock.
And I wonder if we can learn from them. I wonder if we, who also know what it is to live in world where we don’t fit. I wonder if we, who also know what it is to live in a world where we don’t get the respect we deserve. I wonder if we, who also know what it is to live in a world where it seems the night is so long, and the future is so uncertain, and the dangers are so difficult to discern. I wonder if we can learn from them how to wait and watch.
Perhaps we too can wait and watch by being who we are.
- By being who we are: going about our days, doing the unique work that is given to each one of us. God has given each one of us a calling in life, to do God’s will in our own unique ways, with our own unique gifts.
- By being who we are: recognizing that what we do really makes a difference, whether or not other people noticed or appreciate that. God notices it, God appreciates it, and we can appreciate our own work too.
- By being who we are: not spending our time and energy on wishing things were different, not spending our time and energy on wishing things were the way they were long ago, or the way they are for someone else, but instead accepting things as they are, and spending our time and energy on doing what we can with whatever happens to be in front of us.
- Be being who we are: trusting that this world belongs to God, and that God’s will for this world operates on God’s timeline. Which is always, always much slower than what we would prefer.
And maybe, if we can practice this together, being who we were made to be, together, then perhaps we will be a little more like those shepherds. And perhaps we will more clearly see the miracles around us. The miracles that God brings to us each day, and above all the miracle that was the Messiah in the manger.
And perhaps we can respond a little more like the shepherds. Perhaps we can praise God as fully and as promptly as they did. And perhaps we too can be the ones who glorify and praise God for all we have seen and heard, as it had been told us.