After 2000 years of Christmas sermons, in hundreds of languages, in different countries throughout the world, and by way of innumerable faith traditions, is there anything new or original left to be said about Christmas, and what it means, that hasn’t been said before? Perhaps not. However, like re-reading that favorite book for the 17th time, or watching that favorite movie or television show for the 358th time, even when you know exactly what comes next, what the very next word is going to be, often we find a new meaning or a new slant on something that is as tried and true as Christmas itself.
And so it is with me this year. This Gospel reading recalls the story of the angels bringing the news of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. Now, we all know that story. We’ve heard it many times over, and those of us who cherish “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will always, in some ways, hear Linus quoting from Luke, no matter who is reading that passage of the Bible to us. We know the story. We SEE the story in every Nativity scene we pass by. There is almost always a shepherd near the manger carrying a lamb on his shoulders and another lamb or sheep to be seen somewhere hanging around. It’s always seemed to me that the sheep and the shepherds were just THERE, minor players in a Christmas play, the “extras” assigned to the kids who didn’t quite measure up to the roles of Mary or Joseph; they enter stage left, ooh and aah over the baby, and exit stage right, singing “Go tell it on the mountain”, singularly unimportant and taking secondary roles to the more illustrious wise men (who in reality weren’t there at all) and most definitely playing supporting roles to the Holy Family, or just standing around as so much scenery, contributing to the mood and filling up the bare spots in the Nativity scene. I overheard a conversation recently that made me really think about the shepherds. While visiting some friends, their cat jumped into the midst of the family crèche and knocked over the obligatory shepherd. It was chipped. The younger daughter of the family was somewhat distressed, and to make the little girl feel better, the mother said to her, “Don’t worry about it, Honey. It’s just the shepherd. He’s not all that important.” I didn’t think much about it at the time, but when reading the Scripture appointed for today, it struck me. Not all that important? But weren’t they? Who WERE these shepherds? Why were they there in the first place? Why did THEY get the news of Christ’s birth in such a spectacular way? Who were they that they should be eyewitnesses of God’s glory and receive history’s greatest birth announcement?
In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Only Luke mentions them. When the twelve tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt, they encountered a lifestyle foreign to them. The Egyptians were agriculturalists. As farmers, they despised shepherding because sheep and goats meant death to crops. Battles between farmers and shepherds are as old as they are fierce. The first murder in history erupted from a farmer’s resentment of a shepherd. Smug religious leaders maintained a strict caste system at the expense of shepherds and other common folk. Shepherds were officially labeled “sinners”—a technical term for a class of despised people.
Into this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice, God’s Son stepped forth. How surprising and significant that God the Father handpicked lowly, unpretentious shepherds to be the first to hear the joyous news: “It’s a boy, and He’s the Messiah!” What an affront to the religious leaders who were so conspicuously absent from the divine mailing list. Even from birth, Christ moved among the lowly. It was the sinners, not the self-righteous, He came to save. So is it really all that surprising that the first announcement of Christ’s birth was to the lowly shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides?
Consider the events leading up to Christ’s birth. Mary was barely 15. Christ was born to an unwed mother, Mary, a servant girl; Mary the young woman who delivered while only betrothed to Joseph. He was born in a stable, a cave! A holy God being born to a couple no different than immigrants, far from home and in a strange city, in a place where animals were kept. A couple who couldn’t even find a place to stay, turned out of every inn! It’s all too bizarre.
Yet this is the God we experience. This is our claim; This is the meaning of his very name: Immanuel, meaning “God with us” — with us not just in nice times, but most especially in the times of our lives when we are in the caves, and stables of our lives, when we are turned out of the places we’d like to be, when we are at the lowest of low points, when we are out in the dark, and in the cold like the shepherds.
Our God, the God who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, is the God of the oppressed, the repressed, the depressed; the God of the sad, the grieving, the sorrowful; the God of the lonely, the lowly, the poor, the God of the Shepherds; the God of the despised, the destitute, the dejected. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who stood with the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt, who led them out of Egypt to a promised land of freedom. Our God is the God of widows and orphans and stranded travelers. Our God is the God who doesn’t stay neat and tidy and spotless, but comes and stands beside us in our times of deepest need, who comes among us as the child in the dirty manger and the God of the shepherds on the hillside. The God we’re speaking of dares to join the unsuccessful, the failures, the dispossessed, and the downtrodden; the God of the Shepherds.
Wherever there is suffering, our God is there. He stands with Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, and with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. He is with us when we face cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. He is with us when we face amputations, operations, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, or even death itself. The God of the manger and the Shepherd is Immanuel, God with us. At our deepest times of loss and need, in the dirtiest and most embarrassing parts of our lives, God is with us, His rod and His staff, they comfort us. It is God who glues us back together when we become, like that figure in my friends’ Nativity scene, chipped, flawed, and much less than perfect.
And it is up to us, to demonstrate the love of God, the God of the lowly, the downtrodden, to the world. We, like the shepherds in the Christmas story, are to be the ones who are to proclaim the good news “which shall be to all people” to all the people of the world. It is our responsibility as Christians to be the instruments through which God can work in this world. As was most famously stated more than four centuries ago by Saint Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
My very favorite Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” includes the lines, “What, then, shall I bring him, empty as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man I would do my part. What can I give Him? I can give Him my heart.”
Won’t you, this Christmas, give Him your heart? Won’t you, like the shepherds in the children’s plays of the Christmas story, be one to “go tell it on the mountain, over the fields and everywhere” that Jesus Christ is born? Amen.