A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“Tell it out among the nations: ‘The Lord is King!’ he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” Ps 96:10
When I was a kid, I wondered if I would ever see a shepherd. I understood that they were these guys with sort of a hood over their head, and they carried around a big stick with a hook on the end of it. 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 Idaho, 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 Snake River, where nothing could get to 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, maybe like around here in the foothills in early spring. 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.
Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … and they were terrified.
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.
We live in a country and a world that has been going through a lot this year. Anger and fear have characterized the whole year. Disrespect and jockeying for power among people have been the order of the day. Who will get more power, or lose power? When will we get the next piece of news of more people being killed, intimidated, or hurt? How many families are there, whose holidays are disrupted by illness or personal loss? It was not that much different when that young couple set off from the hills of Galilee along roads infested with robbers, all the way down to that little town south of Jerusalem. There was plenty of fear and sadness in those days, and there were plenty of people who thought that the answer would be to get more power or wealth, or the security of great armies.
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.
And our psalm continues:
“Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad; let the see thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.
Be not afraid, and have a happy and holy Christmas.