A Sermon for Christmas Day
25 December 2014
John Edward Miller, Rector
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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: 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 wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 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!”
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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. – Luke 2:1-20
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
We retell the Nativity story year after year, and yet it never fails to inspire us. From the pageants of our childhood to the candlelight services that have made this night radiant at every stage of our journey, the story of the Messiah’s birth always finds room in the inn of our heart. As we hear it read, or study its meaning, or teach it to our children, the story’s great gift is that it touches us at many levels. There is always more to understand, and more to digest in these majestic words. That is good news for us who have gathered to praise and thank God for the miracle of Christmas.
Our reading from Luke’s Gospel is the classic version of the Nativity story. We connect to the text immediately because it is deeply etched on our memory. The story’s picturesque parts are so embedded in our Christian life that we can mentally recite them as the gospel text is read on this holy night. They compose a thoroughly familiar and comforting narrative that smoothly flows, beginning with the decree from Caesar Augustus, and proceeding with the trek to the little town of Bethlehem, Joseph’s birthplace. We recall that Mary, his betrothed, was great with child, the “no vacancy” sign in the inns, the make-do shelter of a stable, the onset of labor and the birth of baby Jesus, the mother’s improvised swaddling of her infant in bands of cloth, and her fixing him a bed of straw in a manger, the animals’ feeding trough. These are the essentials of the holy family’s sojourn in Bethlehem. We’ve known and cherished them from childhood.
And we also know that there is more to the story. The scene soon shifts to the Judean hill country, and we move from the cozy crèche to a chilly pastoral setting. We see shepherds huddled together for warmth in the night. They are keeping watch over their flock, protecting them from marauding thieves and predatory animals. Suddenly, an angel of God pierces the darkness with his luminous being. The shepherds are more than startled; they are terrified. Luke tells us that the angel has to calm them before he delivers his earthshaking message, exclaiming, “Don’t be afraid!” And then he declares, “Behold – I am bringing you good news of great joy for 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 wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
As if this weren’t enough to comprehend, the birth announcement ends with a spectacular display of light, sound, and a chorus of the heavenly host, whose song echoes from the hillsides, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels depart, the bewildered shepherds get their heads together and decide to check this out for themselves. Hastily they scamper back to Bethlehem, where they found the stable and the holy family, whose baby was humbly wrapped in swathing bands, lying in a manger. When they realized that they hadn’t been hallucinating, but had really been sought out and addressed by an angel, the shepherds couldn’t stop talking about what they had seen and heard in the night. And everyone who heard the shepherds’ tale was amazed – even mother Mary, who quietly wondered at the message they bore to Bethlehem.
As for the shepherds themselves, that night changed their life. The impact of the visit by the heavenly host was deep. They were transformed by the angel’s message, lifted up from their lowly estate, and to empowered to respond courageously to what they had heard. This was no small matter. The transformation of the shepherds is something that we often miss amidst the familiar details of the Nativity. To us shepherds often seem to be romantic figures – pastoral poets like David, who writes psalms of praise as he watches his sheep. Or perhaps we think of divine metaphors, such as “the LORD is my shepherd,” and Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd of the sheep.” These images fill our vision when we imagine the shepherds “abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” It is easy to view shepherds with admiring contemporary eyes, rather than to dig into the pre-Christian past when they were despised.
Luke’s story uses irony to illustrate Jesus’ teaching that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” At the time of the Nativity shepherds were the very last; they were regarded as riffraff on the margins of society. One commentator notes that shepherds stood on the lowest rung of the Judean social ladder: “They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers.” The Jewish Mishnah, the oral interpretation of the Law, refers to shepherds as “incompetent,” and not worthy to be rescued from falling into a pit. Dr. Joachim Jeremias explained that shepherds were refused any civil rights; they were despised as sinners, and thought to be untrustworthy, dishonest rogues.
How did it get that way? Why were they the butt of jokes and the victims of discrimination? Some say that these attitudes arose during the Hebrews’ time in Egypt. There they encountered a culture that thought sheep were only worthy of sacrifice, and not as a food source. In addition, the smooth-shaven Egyptians regarded the rough-hewn Hebrew shepherds as inferior beings. In the Jacob saga in Genesis, his sons are advised to call themselves cattlemen, because “every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.” That’s a tough reputation to live with, and live down. Over time, they seemed to become what bigots thought of them. Their image was elevated briefly during King David’s rule, but it did not stick. It’s important to remember that David himself was the last of Jesse’s sons to be evaluated by the prophet Nathan. Even someone with his royal stature could not resurrect the status of shepherds. It would take a Messiah to restore their sense of worth.
Thus it was a bold and unique move for Luke to introduce and feature shepherds in the narrative of the Messiah’s birth. “In this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice, God’s Son stepped forth,” said one interpreter of the event. “How surprising and significant [it was] that God handpicked lowly, unpretentious shepherds to first hear the joyous news: ‘It’s a boy, and He’s the Messiah!’”
But of course that’s precisely the point. Like every other feature of the narrative, Luke’s Nativity underscores lowliness, meekness, and humility with the choice of shepherds as the first hearers of the news. Mary and Joseph were in effect homeless for the night in Bethlehem. Their baby was born in the earthiest of places – a stable, where animal aromas and residue, rather than hygienically clean conditions, prevailed. The baby, the Son of the Most High, the King of kings and Lord of lords, was placed in an animal’s feeding trough. He was wrapped in strips of the poorest cloth instead of a fresh smelling swaddle from the hospital laundry. Moreover, his meek family was together, welcoming this little life as though they were married. But not only had Mary “known not a man,” but she and Joseph were yet to have the benefit of clergy to bless their union. All of these essentials are opposite what Hollywood would write to signal the birth of God’s Son. That’s a good thing, though, because there is no screenwriter who could have envisioned what God was doing for the sake of all of us.
So the shepherds were a divine choice. They got the message because they had no pride to deflect it. Years of being the object of prejudice had eliminated their ego, and that made them perfectly receptive to what the angel had to say. Shepherds had nothing to lose and everything to gain. They who had been treated as the last became the first to hear: “Do not be afraid,” said the angel to those lowly shepherds, “for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
The haughty would likely not have heard that. When Herod later learned that the Messiah had been born, his first reaction was to destroy rather than to celebrate. Pretension is a shield – an attempt to keep anxiety at bay. However, believing that fervently in our own importance entails labeling others insignificant, or odious. It is the pride that crushes others in its path. That defensive shield has a high cost. It treats people like things, and shuts out everything outside our self, including the best of all possible gifts, the announcement of our salvation.
It takes openness to comprehend a message such as that. Ironically, the humble and the lowly may have an advantage over the proud and the privileged when it comes to being open to the grace of God. They hear things that others don’t, because they have no insulation.
Last week the students of Elk Hill convened in the bright, open space of the chapel built as a place of peace and hope for all people. The chapel building is an octagon of wood and glass. Some of the windows are stained glass, representing the seasons of the year, but others are clear portals for all to see the beauty of Elk Hill’s Goochland campus. As the light streams into the chapel, worshippers are invited to gaze out into the pastureland that surrounds it. There are cattle there, and no sheep, but it is an easy stretch of the imagination to envision shepherds keeping watch over their flock.
That’s because Elk Hill has many able pastors tending the sheep – counselors, mentors, teachers, cooks, farmers, industrial arts workers, and administrators that oversee the care of young men and women who come to Elk Hill’s programs from desperate settings in Virginia’s cities and small towns. The students are one step away from incarceration or admission to hospitals for the mentally ill. Throughout the years I have served on the board of Elk Hill, I have become a chaplain to the students and their shepherds. I have watched the profile of those we serve move from the slightly misguided youth to the emotionally damaged and abused. That downward trend in the profile means that the children and youth are more and more the “last” in our culture’s social order. Consequently, it takes increasing ingenuity and intensive care to get to them before they go over the edge.
When we came together in the chapel it was to celebrate Christmas, emphasizing the gifts of friendship, family, and faith – in God and in oneself. My role was to summarize all of the parts of the service – the songs, the poems, the skits, and their Christmas wishes with a prayer. There is always something profound about the simplicity of what the students offer. This year it was the Christmas wish of a young man from Charlottesville. His name is David, and he is a sensitive soul that has been hurt deeply by tormenting cruelty. Elk Hill’s leaders selected him to be one of three to share a wish for the season. His testimony quieted a chapel full of hungry, rambunctious youth, and it strongly affected me with its innocent candor.
David stood at the lectern, slightly bent over to come within the range of the microphone. He is over six feet tall, but his meekness is reflected in his slouch. Standing there, dressed in black slacks and vest, a black tie knotted at the neck of his clean white shirt, and sporting a pair of back sneakers, David fiddled with a paper, and mumbled that he was just going to speak off the top of his head. He started to talk, then choked up, and paused for several seconds. He put his hand over his face, covering his black horn rim glasses. A voice from the crowd said, “Take your time.” Then someone else said, “Breathe.” That may have been the turn of the tide of his emotion, because David looked out at us and said, “I want to thank Elk Hill for believing in me, and helping me overcome a lot of problems.” There was a sound of approval from his peers and his caregivers. Then he proceeded, “My Christmas wish is this: that everyone could have someone that he can be himself with, and not be afraid.” He returned to his seat with tears and a smile amidst a standing ovation.
Like young David from Elk Hill, the shepherds sorely wished that someone would take them seriously. And God did. Christmas is story of God’s love seeking out and saving lost causes. The Nativity makes real God’s possibilities offered to all people in terms that seem impossible on the face of it. The shepherds were the first to get the Word, and that is the greatest good news for the rest of us. God’s choice to greet them with the news of the Messiah’s birth means that no one needs to be qualified to receive God’s love. In fact God goes the ultimate distance to love and redeem us all. Jesus became a shepherd to save the lot – which is the way God’s love works: God becomes human to save all of us – from the least to the greatest of his precious creatures.
All we have to do is to listen, and to trust the angel who said, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Dear friends, let us go unto Bethlehem, and stand with the shepherds at the manger of Christ, and see this thing which is come to pass. Merry Christmas to all! Amen.
 Joachim Jeremias, who died on September 6, 1979, was a German Lutheran theologian, who specialized in Near Eastern studies and New Testament.
 Genesis 46:34.