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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A month or so ago, we were all merrily humming, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” but today we find ourselves plaintively singing the favorite Covid parodies of last December. You know, “Fauci the Snowman, I Saw Mommy Testing Santa Claus, and O CDC, O CDC, How Fragrant Your Aroma.” Christmas 2020 should have taught us all one important lesson. As Dr. Seuss penned 63 years earlier in his classic children’s poem, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
That is the challenge for many of us this year. With the frustration and disappointments of life brought on by the latest Covid variant, and our earnest desire to make this the best Christmas ever- especially after last year, we can easily lose sight of the true meaning of Christ’s birth. We may even wonder if we have a story worth telling. Well, we’re not alone.
Since that first Christmas night, nearly 2000 years, the shepherds abiding in the fields, have always been the forgotten and overlooked, unsung heroes. They’re simply not as majestic and heavenly as the host of gossamer winged angels praising God in the highest nor as colorfully regal and numbered as the three wisemen of the East bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. If you have extra roles to be filled in the annual Sunday School Christmas program, you can always wrap the children up in their fathers’ thread bare robes and call them shepherds. Even in the Charlie Brown’s Christmas program, the most overlooked child is Shermy who has only one line. When assigned a role in the Christmas pageant, Shermy says, “Every Christmas, it’s the same. I always end up playing a shepherd.” Yes, he always ends up playing a shepherd because he’s so ordinary and nondescript. Unfortunately, that is how many of us have grown to look upon at the shepherds. They’re oh, so ordinary and forgettable.
Like poor Shermy, we assume that the shepherds were a bunch of country bumpkins who were out camping and dozing off around the fire on the hillside when the angels suddenly appeared in the night sky and sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” They were the local yokels who rubbed their chins and sighed, “You know Amos, I ‘speck we oughter go down there to the village and see if we can find this baby.” Well, there might have been a slightly daft one among their number, after all, you do know how shepherds say Merry Christmas? Fleece Navidad and Good Wool to All.
But in Bethlehem, shepherding was anything but ordinary and nondescript and assigned to the lowest of the lowly. The village of Bethlehem was the ancestral city of King David, who had been a shepherd boy himself on those same hills. He went on to become the shepherd king and wrote Psalm 23 with the beautiful words “The Lord is my shepherd.” Generations of leaders had been shepherds. The image of the Shepherd King was an important symbol pointing to the coming Messiah. The child born in Bethlehem would refer to himself as the Good Shepherd.
Regretfully, we don’t know who the shepherds were by name, or how many they were in number. We do know that they were men and boys who took their responsibility for the care of their flocks seriously. They faced dangers every night and were on duty and attentive to their charge throughout the day as well. They were indeed among the “lowly,” but their diligent work modeled the way God tended to his people.
On that extraordinary night in a darkness that we can scarcely imagine today, these ordinary men doing every day duties were brought from enormous fear to the joy promised by angels. “Do not be afraid.,” the messenger said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today is born to you in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” And suddenly, there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and earth peace among those whom he favors.”
The story is wonderful in and of itself. It is a message to you and me when we are feeling most ordinary and overlooked, or when things are just not going our way. Heaven and earth, you see, meet us in obscure places, not in the halls of power nor in the shopping malls, not in the great stages of the capital cities. God’s light breaks in in the most unexpected places- even in the midst of a pandemic. The shepherds and angels remind us that there is a God who sees us and knows our joys and sorrows even when we are feeling isolated and neglected. Yes, God sends a brilliant, consuming light down upon those dark fields of life, all because God longs, and has always longed, for us to know and love him and to be with us. You and I are like those shepherds. We are God’s favored ones. But my friends, that also means, that you and I have a choice. How do we respond to God’s light breaking into our darkened world?
Perhaps it has been a dark year for you because of a deep loss…the death of family member. Even your favorite Christmas carols bring painful memories of the one you lost. Or perhaps you’re afraid. Deep down inside, you are afraid of what will come to be this new year. You have talked quietly with your doctor. Or perhaps it has been stressful time in your marriage and in your family. You simply don’t know how you can move forward.
The shepherds in Bethlehem had their fears and failings too, and that is what is so remarkable about their story. They might have been lowly, they might have felt neglected and overlooked, but they were able to stand up put the pieces together well enough to become jubilant. They were promised a baby, they saw a baby, and they trusted that the rest of what they had been promised would come to be true as well. On that dark night, the angel placed hope within their hearts, but those men and boys didn’t remain idly out there in the fields. They dared to believe. They dared to run with haste. They dared to tell everyone what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
My friends, that is why we are here this Christmas Eve, here in this sanctuary surrounded by friends and family. It is all because someone dared to shepherd you and tell you the wondrous story of God’s love and hope at Christmas. Yes, some one dared to encourage and invite you to see this Christ Child in the manger and to believe. That beloved, caring shepherd wanted you to know this Savior Jesus, the light of the world no darkness can overcome- not even the darkness of an ongoing pandemic. May you follow their example and be a good shepherd to those you love- and truly make this the best Christmas ever by telling them story of Jesus’ birth. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.