This is the fourth sermon in the DNBA Advent series
Think about the worst job you’ve ever had. The dirtiest, nastiest job. I’ll give you my top 2.
The first summer after my freshman year, I worked at McDonald’s. I wasn’t considered quick enough to work the register (that’s saying something, right?) so I was a cook. Cooks prepare your food, swab the floor, scrape the grill, clean the bathrooms, take out the trash. Ah, the life of a McDonald’s cook.
The second worst job I ever had was working for water & sewer in the small town where I went to seminary. Ever wonder how pastors pay for their education? It stinks! …. When we weren’t digging ditches, warding off water moccasins or brown recluses inside of water meter holes, we were processing waste. I will spare you MOST of the details, but one day, I threw out a whole outfit, from hat to shoes, after we shoveled … stuff … into the back of a dump truck.
Turn to your neighbor and tell them about your worst job.
Now, let me tell you about first century shepherds.
Check out Luke 2:8-20. Here are some brave folks. Folks who probably can’t get other jobs, because they settle for taking care of the livestock in the middle of a great open pasture outside of the walls of Bethlehem. Folks who were considered unclean in the eyes of the Jewish law, folks who couldn’t interact with their families because being with them would make them unclean, too.
But they’re brave. They have to be. It’s just a few men and boys, out in the middle of this wide open field with no protection from the wind and rain, and nothing, except each other, to defend themselves against wild animals and thieves.
And let’s face it, who’s not at least a little afraid of the dark? You don’t have to admit it if you’re a lot afraid, either.
So these shepherds, who are not just caring for the sheep that aren’t theirs, they are living out in the barrenness are staying up all night to watch these sheep. Seriously, can any of you relate? You work all day and all night, caring for someone else’s stuff, getting paid pennies on the dollar, and you’re still kept in the dark.
This is your life. This is your “deal.” There is no passing Go! and collecting $200. It’s minimum wage and communal ostracization with no hope of parole.
These are the ultimate outsiders. The least, the last, and the lost. And they are about to get a very big “but” that changes their projection of life worth, value, and joy. Not an immediate “but” because we have do the whole scary, crazy, shiny angels and terrified audience thing first:
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
And the angel said, “Do not be afraid.” (A personal favorite.) But then he dives in. Sure, the angel has already told Mary that her son will reign on a throne forever; Joseph has been told they’re having a child who will save the people from their sins.
But this angel message is broader. The good news he delivers will bring great joy to everyone, and he tells these shepherds, these bottom of the barrel, “why should we listen to them”-types, that the baby is Savior, Messiah, and Lord. This baby will fulfill a bunch of prophecies that the shepherds have heard as kids but probably haven’t had rehashed much because of that whole, not being allowed in the synagogue thing.
Kick in the Transiberian Orchestra heavenly host, because, sorry, this isn’t the choirboy, don’t rock-it-too-hard choir, this is the blazing glory, light-it-up choir. The concert ends, and the shepherds, antisocial by occupation and religious stature, say, “Let’s go check it out!”
The shepherds could have been afraid that God’s message didn’t include them, that all of the things others had told them about themselves were true. Instead, they chose to recognize God’s love and purpose for them.
There’s no hesitation. They hurry to find the family, placing them in fine company with people like the father in the Prodigal Son parable who runs, rather unceremoniously, to meet his long lost son who has disowned him. They run to the Messiah, leaving their sheep, their livelihood, their charges behind. Their old life has been shelved, and they’re ready to see what happens next.
It can’t get any worse, right?
The shepherds see the baby and immediately begin to spread word about a) what the angel said and b) what they’ve seen. The people who hear from them are amazed at what the shepherds say and certainly at the fact that it’s the shepherds who are telling them.
Kind of like finding out that Jesus’ team of crack disciples are is made up of fisherman, tax collectors, and terrorists. Not exactly the team we’d put together to lead the church, is it?
But, there’s the but we’ve been waiting for, Luke tells us that “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
It says that the shepherds returned. Returned from what? The manger? Bethlehem? Traveling around town telling people about Jesus?
Returned to what? Certainly not the 12 to 12 shift with no pay, someone else’s menial slave labor. Certainly not isolation and darkness.
There’s absolutely no way that the shepherds “saw the light,” were touched by the light, received the good news and then turned around and went back to the mundane.
No, their whole world had been reframed. Refocused.
Every year I go to the ophthalmologist and get the “is this better? what about this?” eye test. Seriously, I’m blind without my contacts so it’s basically a real mean test by a devious little man. But I digress…
The beauty of the test is that they can figure out exactly what focus the lenses need to be so that my vision is correct when they put the contacts in. But without the reframing, I’d be blind. In the dark. Isolated by my lack of vision. (You see where this is going, right?)
The shepherds are in the dark, alone, and ostracized. They are outsiders who have been outside for so long that they think it’s the only way to be. And then the angels bring the light to them, and they experience the light fully. And they are no longer in the dark.
And even though they’re outsiders, they recognize that what they have is so spectacular that it would be criminal not to share it. No matter what they cost.
They are like Scrooge after the visions of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. He saw something that didn’t just change Christmas, but that changed his life! He was different, passionate, even idiotic to the people he interacted with that morning because he knew that there was good news to share and generosity to be applied. He could not keep it all in!
Are we that liberated? Are we that motivated? Have we been so touched by the light, so washed by grace that we have to share?
Or are we willing to settle for 25 days and out for another year?
Reflect on the last month. What did you do differently? Who did you make time for? What did you value less? Did your spending change, your habits, your focus?
Most of us can’t keep eating the way that we ate over Christmas, but what if we’re supposed to spend the kind of percentages on helping others that we have for December? What if we’re supposed to drink in grace and sweat out patience for our kids, our spouses, our fellow Walmart shoppers, the crazy neighbor two doors down?
What if we have received the good news for all people and there’s someone in our lives who won’t hear it unless they hear it from us? I’m not into a gospel that shames but where does our responsibility come into play? When do we recognize that we were outside of the will and grace of God, and that Jesus brought us in through his birth, life, and death, and that it’s our purpose to share the good news?
I want to tell people about Jesus, but I hate that they might not meet him if I’m their best shot. I want people to meet Jesus but I hate that others have done and said things that are detrimental, and sometimes outright false, to the good news of Jesus Christ. But I recognize that the grace of Christmas makes them more open to seeing Jesus and hearing the good news…
So why don’t I act and speak with boldness like I do in Christmas from now until Epiphany, and see what that changes?
There are many people outside our community who need to hear the good news. Their darkness is great, in the brokenness of their relationships, their addictions, their financial struggles, their shame. They have resorted to living in the dark like that is what they were meant for. They have assumed that the darkness is more comfortable, more like what they need than the light.
What could possibly change that?
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I might add that hopelessness and despair cannot drive out each other; only hope can do that. That isolation cannot be driven out by more alone time, but only by community. That violence cannot be driven out by more violence, but by peace breaking the cycle of violence.
We can’t expect our own lives to change if we keep going back to the “normal,” back to the dark. And we can hope and pray and wish on a star for those we know and love that they would be changed and saved by the forces that hold them back, but until they experience the love and light of the Christ child, their darkness remains.
The darkness is intimidating, but that’s why we have night lights. That’s why we have candles, flashlights, spelunking helmets, torches, and electricity. But the dark of our souls is even worse when we fail to purge the darkness with the light.
You, friends, are the light. You have experienced it, and seen it, and felt it. And it now shines from you, and grows with you. It’s up to you to share it, to serve others that they might hear the good news and see the risen Christ in your caring for them.
The darkness can be deep – and seemingly endless – but the shepherds remind us that we can make a choice to be boldly proclaim the good news. We can run passionately, without abandon into the night, and gather souls to Christ. God’s plan includes you. Even in the face of the night, do not be afraid.