Friday, December 18, 2015

“Shepherds” - December 20, 2015

Text: Luke 2:8-20

Christmas is now only five days away, and folks are making last minute preparations: shopping, wrapping presents, cooking, baking, mailing cards and packages, getting the house ready for guests.  It’s not usually a part of our pre-Christmas preparations, but my plans include mowing the lawn.  It struck me this week that instead of white snow we still have green grass, but I’ll actually be getting the mower out one last time to mulch up some leaves.

For some people, getting ready for Christmas is a much bigger operation than baking cookies, wrapping gifts and mowing the lawn.  Some will go to great lengths to insure that everything is just right.  If you want things to be perfect, then there is no need to decorate yourself; you can hire professionals to do it for you.  They will set up the tree, decorate your home, put up your lights, the whole bit.

Brite Ideas Decorating in Omaha has 350 franchises nationwide.  It’s a booming business.  To decorate your home for the holidays, prices start at about $1500 with no real limit to speak of.  I checked their website and unfortunately, they are sold out of their 14' Color Changing Cherry Blossom Tree, with 20,376 lights, which retails for $13,984.89 (it was not completely clear if this includes set-up and take down.)  Fortunately, their smaller 10’ Color Changing Cherry Blossom Tree with Iced Trunk is still in stock for only $5272.50.  Now mind you, this is just one tree that can be used indoors or outdoors and would serve as one part of your beautiful holiday display.

It’s not cheap, but a lot of people find the whole idea very attractive.  These trained professionals will set up a perfectly coordinated holiday masterpiece, and you can have a light display outside that will have cars lined up around the block.

It’s not just our decorating that may be lacking.  Who has time for baking?  And let’s face it - some of us are not that good in the kitchen.  Why do it yourself when you can go down to the bakery and get all kinds of wonderful Christmas goodies.  Or, you can rent a baker to come to your home and do your baking for you – that way you get the great smell of fresh-baked cookies in your home.  And of course you can also hire someone to do your Christmas shopping.  Doing all of this would make things easier, and the end product might be a lot better than if you were doing all of this yourself.  You would be one step closer to that perfect Christmas.

But the fact is, you could have someone else doing all of these things, and the people you hire could all be models of efficiency and artistry, but it still would not be a perfect Christmas.  There is something about our participation that is far greater than having things just right.

You know, the first Christmas was not exactly perfect, as we generally measure such things.  God seems to work through the everyday and ordinary more than the spectacular or bright and shiny.

The second chapter of Luke is one of the best-loved chapters of the Bible, telling of the birth of Jesus.  The words are beautiful and moving and poetic, but we have heard the story so many times that we can miss the power and the surprise of what is being said.  In our heads, we can have this “perfect Christmas” overlay on the story that tends to gloss over the more difficult parts of the narrative.

Bethlehem is not decorated for the holidays.  There are no beautiful displays around the city square, no performances of the Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol at the local theatre, no candlelight services planned, no festive holiday cheer to be found.  Instead, we find a city filled with people who do not want to be there but are forced by the Romans, the enemy invaders, to go and register so that they can be on the tax rolls.

We don’t find Mary and Joseph in a beautiful home, or any kind of home.  Despite the fact that Bethlehem is Joseph’s ancestral home, there don’t seem to be any relatives to take them in.    They are not even at the Motel 6.  After a difficult trip, with Mary in the last stages of her pregnancy, they wind up in a stable, a place for animals.  It’s the best they can do.  We don’t find candy and cookies and freshly baked holiday goodies.  There is no turkey and dressing on the dinner table –there isn’t even a dinner table.  We find weary, worn out travelers who are exhausted, hungry, and more than a little scared.

From giving birth in an outbuilding for animals to $14,000 color changing cherry blossom LED trees, Christmas has come a long way, hasn’t it?  Now, there is nothing wrong with out seasonal celebrations, and I enjoy it all, but what really matters is the message and the meaning of Jesus’ birth.  And even here, we can miss out on the depth of what Jesus’ birth means for us because of our familiarity with the story.

The traditions surrounding a birth in Jesus’ day were not all that different from ours.  When someone has a child, we celebrate.  You may see balloons in the front yard and a sign saying, “It’s a Girl!”  At one time new dads handed out cigars at the hospital, though now it is more likely bubble gum cigars.  Photos are shared on Facebook with congratulatory comments.  Family members come to see the new baby.  At church, there is a rose to announce the birth, as we have been doing regularly this fall.

But if a child is born to a famous person, things are a little different.  It makes the national news, at least Entertainment Tonight, and we read about it in People magazine.  If the birth is to royalty, it is a major news story.

In Jesus’ day, an important part of the celebration was music.  Local musicians would come and play at the birth of a baby.  It was a way of simultaneously announcing the birth and celebrating the birth.  The birth of a child to a person of power and wealth would be announced with great fanfare and singing.  If the child were a royal heir, there would be a huge celebration with wonderful music.

A choir rehearses.  Made up of wonderful singers, the very best singers around, the director works them hard.  (You know how those directors can be.)  The choir spends hours practicing so that everything is just right.  The music is powerful and incredibly beautiful.  Finally it is time for the big performance.

The choir has worked so hard and the music is so amazingly beautiful – angelic, you might even say – the choir members cannot believe that there will be only one performance.  This was the kind of music that deserved a tour at the finest venues around.  Crowds would love it.

But the director is adamant.  There will be only one performance.  It will not be at Carnegie Hall or an opera hall in Vienna.  It won’t even be at Stevens Auditorium.  There will be no network TV special, not even on PBS.  No, there will be one performance and one performance only, and it will be to a very small audience.  It is a free concert to some hard-living guys watching sheep out in a field.  That’s it.

Music at Jesus’ birth is entirely in keeping with the customs of the day.  What is amazing is that the audience for this beautiful, celebratory music, is some sheep herders.

Of all the people to whom the angels could have made the announcement, it is to shepherds.  Not to dignitaries, not to religious leaders, not to Roman officials, not to the upper crust of Jewish society, but to shepherds.  This sounds odd enough.

What we may not necessarily grasp is just how far down shepherds were on the social ladder.  For us, raising sheep sounds respectable enough, if that is what a person wants to do.  Ranching can be an honorable and profitable business.  But in Jesus’ day, shepherds were on the bottom rung of society, looked down upon because among other things, they were ritually and religiously unclean.  Besides being just unclean, period.  They were dirty and smelly, rough people, poorly educated.

Because of where and how they worked as well as their ceremonial uncleanness, shepherds mostly kept to themselves.  Because they had so much time alone, out in the middle of nowhere, many played a flute or some other instrument.  It helped to pass the time.  You may remember that King David as a boy was a shepherd, and a skilled musician.

Shepherding could be a lonely job, and shepherds did not tend to do a lot of socializing.  If you wanted to tell a group of people who might then go out and spread the word of this amazing birth, shepherds were about the least likely folks you could find.

And so - why do you suppose the angels sang to the shepherds?  It all has a kind of “pearls before swine” quality to it.  Why was this beautiful music announcing the birth of Christ sung to some shepherds out in the field?  I mean, this is like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsing all year to perform Handel’s Messiah, and then performing the concert for a few guys on the building maintenance crew.

I suspect that the reason the angels sang to the shepherds is connected to everything else in the Christmas story.  An occupied country like Judea.  An insignificant town that had seen better days, like Bethlehem.  A poor, unmarried couple.  No room in the inn.  A stable.  Giving birth far from home and family.  Nothing in the whole story says wealth or privilege or power.  Nothing would seem to indicate lofty expectations.

Everything about the birth of Jesus says that this is a birth for all of us.  God’s love does not discriminate among people.  Kings and queens, shepherds and steelworkers, this child is for all of us.

The announcement of Jesus’ birth is made to the shepherds.  And that is Good News for us, because there is a sense in which we are all shepherds.  None of us are perfect.  We all can feel inadequate.  There are those times when all of us, because of our background or experience or age or occupation or because of what we believe or where we come from, can feel like we really don’t fit in.

We may feel like we are nothing special, just regular folks trying to get through life and not necessarily having an easy time of it.  We may feel like other people get the accolades, get all the breaks.  We may feel like the things that really matter go to the rich or glamorous or uber-gifted.

This may be the way that the world works, but this is not the way it works with God.  God is completely unconcerned by such things.  None of us would have written the script this way, but the birth of Jesus was announced to the shepherds.  This child is indeed for us – for all of us.

A pastor in Indianapolis named Kurt shared something that happened just this week.  Kurt had a Louisville Slugger baseball bat that had belonged to his brother, Scott.  His brother had been gone for 38 years.  In a moment of clarity, or so he thought, Kurt decided to take the bat to Goodwill.  He said to himself, “It’s time to let it go.”

He met a guy named Rudy at the Donations door.  After handing him the stuff he was donating he headed back home.  But in the parking lot, he heard the bat rolling around in the trunk.  He had apparently overlooked the bat.  So he turned around and approached the Donations entrance again.

“I forgot something,” he called out to Rudy.  He handed him the bat. “Tell me, what’s the story behind this old bat,” he asked unprompted.  “Well, this bat belonged to my brother, who passed away at the age of fourteen.  Make sure it gets into the hands of a child, OK?” “Will do,” he said.

Driving away, Kurt said to his son in the car, “That was nice of him to ask about the bat.  He didn’t have to do that.” Kurt thought about the bat, but told himself, “It’s time to let it go.”

Kurt returned to Goodwill later that evening to deliver more of the things he was trying to shed from the past; dishes, books, clothes, various nondescript stuff.  Upon pulling up to the Donations door, he was met by Rudy, who came to the door and called out... “Hey, here he is, he came back just like you said he would.”  Bewildered, Kurt saw someone slowly approach.

“Hey man, I’m Grant.  Listen, I can’t take that bat.  It’s no good here.  You have to take it back.” Somewhat annoyed, Kurt replied, “Oh, OK. That’s fine.”

“Listen,” he said, “I lost my sister to addiction and depression a year ago.  She left me a pair of her flip flops, and the only person who’s allowed to wear them is my daughter.  Your brother wants you to keep that bat safe.”  Kurt said he was stunned into silence which, for him is pretty unusual.

With eyes full of tears, Grant placed the bat into Kurt’s hands with tenderness, as if handing him a newborn baby. “Here he is. You keep it.”  Kurt turned to Grant. “Wait a second, Grant,” he said.  “I want to thank you for the gift you have given me tonight.  Thank you for forcing me to remember.  Really.  I appreciate it.”

The shepherds in the Christmas story might not seem like the main characters, but they are actually at the heart of what Christmas is about.  They are a reminder to us that God works through the most unlikely of people and places and things.  Rudy and Grant, working down at the Goodwill store.  A Louisville Slugger bat that was returned and is a symbol and reminder of love and grace and memory and hope.  A young, unmarried couple.  Rough shepherds abiding in the field.  A stable and an animal feed trough.  A child born in Bethlehem.  And yes, even you an me and an imperfect bunch like the First Baptist Church.

One of the names for Jesus is Immanuel – God with us.  The birth of Jesus is announced by angels to shepherds.  And as is the case all through the Christmas story, this is yet another reminder that God is indeed with us – with all of us, in all of the messiness of life.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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