A sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Christmas Eve December 24, 2014
Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … and they were terrified.
On Sunday, we saw a bunch of wonderful angels here. Those angels are Christians born in this century, people who will be following and proclaiming Christ, and teaching all of us as we live together into the future. They were teaching us by dressing up in angel costumes, but seeing a real angel, sent from God, that’s a rare thing indeed, and a very extraordinary experience. Before Gabriel showed up, Mary had never seen an angel. And you can bet that none of these shepherds had ever seen an angel before that night.
When I was a kid, I thought that shepherds were some sort of dreamy, Bible kind of character, who had a life far away from anything that I knew. The thing is, I grew up in a pretty rural area, my father’s business was selling insurance to farmers, both sets of grandparents lived on farms, and at one of those farms, I saw sheep all the time. But there weren’t any shepherds. At my grandfather’s farm, the sheep were kept in pens or enclosed pastures, or sometimes over on a little island in the middle of the river, where nothing could get to the sheep and they took care of the sheep. Bigger sheep operations had people out taking care of the sheep, but those were sheepherders—I never associated shepherds with sheepherders. Sheepherders were sort of rough, hired hands that spent summers camping out with their sheep in the mountain meadows.
You mostly didn’t see them, even if you were up in the mountains where they were, and saw the sheepherder’s wagon, and I think that parents mostly wanted to keep the kids away from them. As a category, they were regarded as disreputable characters.
It took me by surprise that sheepherders and shepherds are the same thing. Even more so when it turned out that the shepherds of the first century would have been described the same way as sheepherders were by my parents’ generation. It was rough work, the guys were pretty much at the bottom of the social heap, and they received little money and less respect for doing their job.
So they are hanging out, out in the hills and it’s cold—not a blizzard, but it’s night and it’s not the tropics. And. The Angel of the Lord shows up—right there, in front of them. And the Glory of the Lord –not seeing God, but a byproduct of God’s presence. Perhaps it shines, perhaps it feels like electricity, perhaps…perhaps the universe is falling apart, or coming together—who can say? But the Glory of the Lord is showing around these sheepherders.
And, let me tell you, they were afraid. And they were right to be afraid, because they weren’t crazy, and if anything was ever dangerous, coming this close to the living God, with His Angel standing right there, that was dangerous. These ordinary guys are there, looking at the angel, and he begins to speak: Does he say, ‘don’t worry nothing is happening?’ No. When the angel says “fear not” he’s saying “fear not because…” One insightful commentator translates the Greek to say, “Fear no longer! I am announcing to you good news that will be a great joy for all the people.”
The representatives of all the human race, are this little band of underpaid and overworked hired hands, trying to keep warm while making sure the sheep don’t get lost. And when that angel said, “Do not be afraid,” it was about far more than how those guys felt about this unusual experience. “I am bringing you good news of great joy” : “to you is born this day, a savior, the Messiah, the Christ, your Lord.” The savior is the one who heals us, who delivers us from our sinfulness of fear and anger and alienation from one another. The savior is not someone who takes us out of the world ruled by spiritual forces that rebel against God and the evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures; our Savior has come among us, and lives among us to confront, heal and transform those powers.
Our city and our country have been living in a lot of fear and anger, which are a result of those powers, powers which embody the fears of losing power and privilege, fears of change. Those powers, sometimes called intolerance, sometimes racism, sometimes simply the inability to see beyond our own narrow self-interest, those powers try to reach out with power and force to enforce their fear on everyone else.
But it was God’s judgment to send our Savior as a powerless little child, of a poor, young and humble mother, to deliver this world from that kind of fear and that kind of anger. And to whom was it announced? To philosophers? To bishops and archbishops? To kings and political operators? No. The angel appeared to this group of shepherds, out in the hills, who were just trying to keep warm and not lose any sheep. Ordinary guys with no power or influence. God revealed his salvation in the real world of ordinary people, who don’t get recognition, or power or wealth from their lives.
And our Savior is among us, a human being like the rest of us. Born in humble circumstances, and he is a Shepherd. He is the shepherd of our flock, and he loses not a one of us, no matter how fearful we might be.
Be not afraid, and have a happy and holy Christmas.