Gospel: Luke 2:1-20 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Do you know any shepherds? No, I’m not talking about the people who keep a few sheep in a pasture with a shed or a barn near the house in which they live. I’m talking about the kind that spend days on end outside with the sheep, because there are no sheds or barns, and the best way to keep the predators away is to be there with them, and bearing a big stick.
No, we probably don’t know any of those kinds of shepherds, because this is 2018, and we live in the northland, and we need barns and sheds for the cold winters—and those work pretty well for protection from the wolves when little lambs are born, too.
But it is good for us to know of those kinds of shepherds. Usually, we have a pretty sanitized picture of shepherds, because when we think of shepherds, we often think of Jesus, who described himself as the good shepherd. He said he would lay down his life for the sheep, but we see that as a kind of prediction of his death on the cross. I don’t believe we really imagine him fighting a four-legged canine! Most shepherds would do their best to keep the predators away, but few would die in the process. That’s partly because they were a rather ruthless bunch. Though they were likely illiterate, they knew how to kill a wolf with a slingshot and a knife, and thieves would not often fare much better. They were there to do a job, and to do it to the best of their ability. They weren’t there to die.
Shepherds did not enjoy the respect of the people of the city. Instead, people would often steer clear of them, knowing how dangerous they could be. If you could avoid them, you did.
One would think that Jesus’ birth ought to have been announced to the leaders of the synagogue, or maybe even the temple. After all, Jerusalem was only six miles away. It would take only an hour-and-a-half at a brisk walk. But the temple was not notified. Nor were the leaders of the synagogue, at least as far as we are aware. Later, when Mary and Joseph would take Jesus to the Temple for the common rituals, people there would recognize Jesus, and praise God for his appearance, but right now, his birth is fairly anonymous, hidden away in the room where the animals are fed.
There was one priest of the Temple who was likely aware of the promised birth. Zechariah was the husband of Elizabeth, and Mary had visited with Elizabeth before the birth of John. It doesn’t seem, though, that Joseph and Mary were broadcasting the encounters they’d had with a messenger from God. (We actually don’t know if it was the same messenger, because Luke names the messenger while Matthew does not.) Who would believe them, after all? They’re engaged but not married yet, and Mary’s pregnant. People will believe what makes sense to them, and miracles are not something that makes sense!
So, Mary gave birth to a baby in the midst of the animals, and Joseph named him Jesus, and they likely were planning to bide their time, and not really talk about it, merely trusting that God would see things through.
Then there is a commotion outside: Voices disturbing the quiet. It’s not people drunk from a party, but rough voices, maybe arguing with one another—or the people of the city.
“We need to see if there’s a baby in there! No, not in the house, over there, where the animals stay. We want to see if there’s a baby in the manger!”
“Why would there be a baby in the manger?”
“Because there was an angel in the hills—so bright—it said that a savior has been born tonight, and that he would be wrapped up and lying in a manger.”
“Maybe you’ve had a little too much to drink…”
“No. It’s true! We all saw it! Then there were a million of them! And they all said, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace! Peace! Imagine that!”
“Well, go look then, but keep your voices down! Don’t bother anyone…”
Then the door opens, and a small light is raised that the intruders might see what there is to see, and the voices are quieter, as voices often become quieter in the presence of a newborn. They whisper at one another, “It’s true! He’s here! Call the others!” And one of them turns toward the outside. “Over here. He’s over here!”
Joseph stands, cautious at the intrusion into their quiet place. The characters are rough, but they do not seem threatening… yet. Then, in quiet voices they tell the story of their encounter in the hills. They tell of the angel’s words, and even Joseph is amazed. It was one thing that the angel appear to Mary, and then in a dream to Joseph himself—but to these rough strangers?
And what does all this shepherd stuff have to do with us? We don’t know any shepherds. We might not even quite imagine people like the shepherds having anything to do with us… or maybe we can.
Maybe, we find ourselves in a position like the shepherds, doing jobs nobody else wants to do, without any respect from the community. Maybe we find ourselves at political odds with our neighbors, with whom it’s difficult even to be friendly anymore. Maybe we find ourselves a little rough around the edges, and can’t figure out any other way to be. Maybe we just can’t take the crap anymore.
But God chooses the down and dirty to carry the joy of the good news of Jesus’ birth. God chooses the shepherds… not the overseers, but the ones stuck out there in the hills at night, when a wolf can come and go with hardly a sound. It might be good to know that God can use the disrespected, the scruffy, and the dangerous, because if God can use them, then God can use you, no matter where you find yourself.
God can use you to bring something good into the place where you are, to bring good news, to work for peace, to strive for justice. God can use the powerless to stem the powerful, and God can use the poor against the greedy. We may not know quite how, but if God can use the Shepherds to find the baby in the manger and proclaim God’s promises concerning that baby, then God can use you. God can use each one of us to God’s glory. And this is good news in Jesus’ name. Amen.