December 22, 2019
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
Luke is like a film-maker. In a few verses he shifts from a travel scene to a close-up.
Mary and Joseph have been on the road to Bethlehem
and then her time comes and she gives birth.
It is an incredibly intimate moment,
as she wraps him in bands of cloth and lays him gently in a stray filled manger.
We could stare at the baby forever.
But then Luke pulls the camera back to show the whole region.
It is rough country, full of hills and valleys, perfect for grazing sheep.
It is clear and cold and the sky is bright with stars.
And out in the darkness there were shepherds keeping a lonely watch.
Luke has pulled us away from the baby because he wants us to witness an encounter.
On a night that had started like any night, an angel appeared.
The encounter between the angel and the shepherds is …
unlikely, unconventional, unequal,
frightening, (but also) beautiful,
joyful and exciting,
expansive and very public!
It is an unlikely encounter – because heaven and earth do not interact much;
unconventional – because when they do, we expect it’ll be to religious types at the Temple;
unequal – because angels come from the throne-room of God; shepherds sidestep sheep scat;
frightening – because when you come face to face with the glory of God you should be scared;
beautiful – because the glory of God is so stunning it has inspired countless artists;
joyful – because it is good news, the birth announcement of a long awaited messiah;
exciting – because after what seems like centuries of waiting, God is acting;
expansive – because while most good news is reserved for those at the top, on the inside,
this news is for “all the people,” everyone, even “the least of these,” even the outsiders;
public – because after the light and music wakes all the neighbors,
the news of what happened in Bethlehem will spread like wildfire! (At least for a short time.)
This is not the first time there has been an encounter between heaven and earth. It is not even the first time in these early chapters of Luke’s account, but it is special. And perhaps you find yourself a little jealous, yearning for such an encounter yourself.
You would not be alone. Millions of people down through the years have wished for some sign that God is real; a revelation of the details of God’s plan; a moment when they are pulled off the sidelines and thrust into the middle of the action!
But here you sit in a world of breaking news bulletins and headlines on the half-hour; of tweets and messages; of inserts and reminders … and yet there is no “good news of great joy for all the people.” You sit in the same pew and sing the same songs and pray the same prayers, but there are no angels interrupting the sermon, no revelations from on high, no spark of the glory of God.
So where might you experience an encounter like the shepherds did?
Well, to be a little flip, maybe you need to start hanging out with more shepherds!
We may miss how shocking a suggestion that is. When Luke writes about the shepherds,
he is focusing the camera on those who are on the lowest rung of society, the despised, the ones easily forgotten or regularly suspected of something.
One scholarly source describes them this way … “While shepherds could be romanticized (as was King David), they were usually ranked with [donkey] drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers, and other despised occupations. Being away from home at night they were unable to protect their women, hence [they were] considered dishonorable. In addition, they often were considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people’s property.”1
There are no shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in downtown Charleston, but there are a lot of homeless people who might serve as suitable substitutes. So, if Luke were casting a sequel, he might write of an encounter between an army of angels and folks who have pitched their tents by the river or under the overpass, near the transport mall or behind the K-mart.
If you want to encounter God, maybe you should plan on volunteering at Trinity’s Table or Manna Meal, bringing socks to Covenant House or a blessing bag to the guy with the cardboard sign on the corner.
Luke’s gospel says God can regularly be found with such people (lepers and demoniacs, paralytics and tax collectors, the diseased and the sinful, the hungry and the lost) because they seem to be more open to the gospel. Liberation theologians call it “God’s preferential option for the poor,” but is may just be that they aren’t too busy or distracted or independent to notice God.
Those qualities are not limited to the shepherds. Anyone passing time in the wilderness is primed to reflect on how God might make things better or hear the rustle of angel wings.
Maybe encountering God is as simple as being honest about your need, being still, and turning your eyes to the heavens.
So, if you want to encounter God, take a hint from Luke:
stand under the vastness of a starlit sky,
or any place that will impress you with the beauty of creation and your smallness in scale;
calm your thoughts and open your heart to what God is doing,
it probably fits a pattern of love and subversiveness, of compassion and creativity;
and listen for unexpected singing
that gives glory to God and hope to all people … and beckons you to join in.
What might that look like?
Michael Elliot thinks he knows. He tells a story in his book The Society of Salty Saints: “Holidays are the worst time for the homeless.” After serving a meal, the church group goes home to celebrate the good deed with their families while the homeless sit around and wait for the rest of the day to pass. “But one Christmas was different. The street people who hang around the church … decided to construct a manger scene for the annual Christmas pageant … It was a simple wooden stable. Some of the wood they used was bad, but that gave the structure a realistic look. Some walked to the stockyard ten blocks away to obtain hay. The smell of the barnyard was overwhelming. ‘We brought clean hay and not so clean hay,’ they explained. ‘We didn’t know how realistic you wanted to make it.’ The finishing touch was a cardboard star covered with tin foil.”
“When they performed the pageant a few days later, street people came for the first time. They smiled broadly and sang along when the carols were sung. They shut their eyes when the prayers were prayed. They carefully watched the weary Mary and Joseph travel to their manger. They observed the birth of the baby Jesus and saw the shepherds come to worship. They heard the angels sing of joy to the world.” And when it was over they were slow to leave. This Christmas had been better than any they could remember. They hated to see it end.
May you encounter God. And may it happen as Luke described. Amen.
1 from Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, page 232