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Shepherds and Bathrobes

Luke 2: 1-20

Family service, Christmas Eve

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Prayer:

O God of Christmas,
we long to hear your holy Word in fresh ways.
Open our ears to the call of your voice.
Open our eyes to the dawning of a new day.
Fill us with hope and joy for your future.
Amen.

Can you feel it?  Can you feel it?  There is a hum in the air tonight, as all our preparations come to an end and the celebration begins.  I don’t think it is just us, either.  I think all creation is humming tonight, when the membrane between heaven and earth is so thin you can almost see through it.

And so we wait – we wait for the baby’s cry.  Emmanuel – God with us!  But that is not the only thing, because most of us are waiting for more than one thing.

Some are waiting to find out what is inside those boxes under the Christmas tree.

Someone else is looking forward to waking up in a house in which all the beds are full once again, as children and grandchildren come home for the holidays.

Some with a new baby in the house means you are waiting for the first Christmas when you wake up with your own live nativity scene.

For others this is a hard time of year when rituals which always involved two or more are now up to you alone.  Or when the parent’s home which you always visited at Christmas now stands empty. Christmas means memories will rise up to meet you and leave you with a melancholy tear in the eye.

Christmas is also a time of extreme generosity and yet tonight there will be people sleeping on the streets of our city, there will be children who will go to bed hungry and wake up to find no tree and no gifts.  We live in such a time of contrasts.

How do you explain the Christmas story?  Well, in trying to explain the Christmas story, a seven-year old boy began by telling all his friends gathered round, “Well, you know, it’s about this baby who shows up out of nowhere.”  We smile at this image of an infant coming out of nowhere, showing up unexpectedly, bewilderingly, on our world’s back doorstep.

Is this what the story is all about?  What if it is true?  Do we really believe that to us is      “born this day in the city of David, a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”?  I want to declare tonight that the essence of Christmas is that God is with us.  We are not alone.  God is with us.

We have just heard the familiar story from Luke’s gospel.  It is one of those events, which threatens to overwhelm us by its sheer scope.  How can the church make the story come alive in worship?  We feel like a frail and tiny vessel, a thimble dipped into the ocean.  How do mere hymns and anthems, prayers and readings, stories and sermons encompass events of such height and breadth?

It begins, to be sure, in a small and gentle way, shepherds resting on a Judean hillside keeping watch over the flocks by night.  But suddenly, the episode spills beyond the edges of the canvas of our imagination.  The night sky is flooded by the light of glory. First there is one angel, then another and another and another, until finally there is a heavenly host – a whole army of angels – putting on an angelic display so spectacular that the Bible reports that the shepherds were terrified.  They were indeed scared stiff.

This past month, all across the land, in sanctuaries and church basements, even right here in this church, those who know and love this story have tried to recreate it.  The results usually are quite small compared to the original.  But despite our feeble attempts, there is still some magic in the moment.

The children’s pageants usually involve a gaggle of boys who would be more comfortable kicking a soccer ball around the parking lot.  And yet they will come down the aisle and stand up straight, guarding cardboard and cotton-ball sheep with makeshift staffs, their terry-cloth bathrobes almost, but not quite, hiding their worn Adidas sneakers.  Then suddenly, the angelic version of the little girl from next door, all dressed in white with a garland wreath for a halo, stands with a great grin on her face, holding a sparkler wand, as the good news is declared.  Other angels will join her, straggling down the aisle, with their tissue paper wings bouncing to the rhythm of “Glory to God in highest heaven”.  When the angels have fluttered to stage right, the shepherds will lumber left to Bethlehem to find a fawn-eyed Mary and a sheepish Joseph who look down upon a Tommy Hilfiger doll wrapped in a sheet lying on ancient hay that has been used for the past twenty Christmases.  Joseph, to avoid any eye contact with his mother sitting in the first row, plays with the straw in the crèche.

These bathrobe Christmas pageants, and indeed all of our attempts to convey the range and power of whatever in the name of God happened that night seem so weak and small.  Perhaps this is so, but before we put the bathrobes back into the closet and dismantle the crèche, we should look again and look carefully at the way in which Luke indeed tells this story.

The important thing to notice is that Luke does not dazzle us with a lot of details.  How bright was the shining glory?  Luke does not say.  What did the angels look like?  Luke is silent.  How many were there?  Luke declines to count them.  What exactly were the angels doing as they filled the sky with song?  Luke has no comment.  What was the expression on the face of the newborn baby?  Luke says nothing.

You know, it is as if        Luke wants to pull our attention away from the events themselves and focus instead on something else.  He wants us to focus on the responses of those involved.  He wants us to pay attention to the effect this event had on people. He wants the spotlight to shine not on the angels, not on Mary and Joseph, but on the shepherds and their response.

You know something, there is a big surprise in the middle of this story, which we miss because it has become so familiar.  The surprise is this.  The angels visited the shepherds!  Here we have the presence of God on earth.  And the angels do not go to the temple to tell people, they go to the hillside.  The angels do not visit the palace, they go to the pasture.  The angels do not announce things to the prophets, or the priests or the rulers, or the important people in the capital city of Jerusalem, but instead they visit the lowly shepherds out on the hillside.  Yes, the angels visit the shepherds, who are the poor of the poor, who live outside in the fields, because they cannot leave their sheep alone, who are the hard working people of the country-side.

“All who heard it were amazed.”  Yes, the first hearers of this story would have been amazed, perplexed, incredulous.  Why the shepherds?  You see, Luke wants us to notice that this message went to people like us – not the high and mighty, not the famous or infamous, but the ordinary people of life, the hard-working people of our community.

But even more important, Luke wants to us notice their response to this event.  The shepherds at first were terrified, but after the visit to the manger, they returned from Bethlehem “glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard”, while Mary pondered these things in her heart.

Luke’s style is to move our gaze from the light to what is happening off to one side.  He tells us of the light, which filled the whole world that night, but we do not really see it.  We see instead the reflection of that light on the faces and in the hearts of those who were present.

One of the reasons Luke does this, I think, is because words fail us as we try to describe God’s glory.  Many years ago, I attended a Christmas Concert at Place Des Arts.  It was an impressive show!  We had a number of entertainers, like Ginette Rino singing Christmas songs, a presentation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and then the finale was a re-creation of the nativity scene itself.  It was a grand production!  There were no teenagers from the soccer court.  These shepherds were professional actors in authentic dress.  There were real sheep and real camels on the stage.  A matinee-idol Joseph and a beauty-queen Mary cuddled a live baby.  Above the scene was a flashing, electric star, several stories high surrounded by fluttering angels projected almost magically from the booth in the rear.  Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” (which really is an Easter song), but nevertheless, the Hallelujah Chorus filled the theatre with several hundred decibels of ear shattering sound.  The place jumped with light and movement and the audience scarcely knew where to look.  It was a massive spectacle, which lacked only one thing – the glory of God.

The very attempt to look directly at the moment, to copy its majestic size, had, ironically, drained it of all mystery.  No one pondered anything in her heart!

But there is another and more important reason why Luke turns our gaze away from the light to the faces of the people.  Luke wants us to search those faces and to find our own faces reflected there.  He wants us to find ourselves once again filled with wonder, to ponder these things in our hearts, to contemplate the possibility that we, too, might glorify and praise God this Christmas Eve and always.

Luke does not want us to be fascinated by the story’s height; he invites us instead to explore for ourselves, its depth.  The Shepherds are the first in a long line of believers who will glorify and praise God for what they have seen and heard.  The Shepherds are the first in a long line of believers who will share the good news.

The Christmas pageant which stands out most in my mind is one in which I played the innkeeper.  I only had one small line to remember.  I worked hard at memorizing it.  I must have been about 12 years old.  You know, that awkward age when you are not yet a teen-ager, but not still a child.  The age when you are growing so fast that nothing fits.  That awkward age!

Well, I was the innkeeper and I was trying hard to remember my one line.  Mary and Joseph came shuffling down the aisle.  They stared at the floor while they made their request for a room.  Then I dutifully recited my one line “There is no room at the inn.”  Then Mary and Joseph turned and walked wearily away toward the cattle stall where they would spend the night.  As I watched them go, I was filled with compassion, tears filled my eyes and before I knew what I had done, I called out to them and said,  “Wait.  Don’t go.  You can have my room!”

You see, when all is said and done, these Christmas pageants in sanctuaries and church basements perhaps capture the Christmas story best.  They are, like Luke’s gospel itself, pictures of what happens to ordinary people in a dark world, when suddenly, and in ways they don’t fully understand, the glory of the Lord shines upon us.  Like the characters in Luke, the players in these pageants do not pretend to express the light; they only try to reflect it.  They are people like you and me, who trust the truth of the angel’s promise that “Unto us is born this day, a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord”.

There, there is the kid from down the street, wearing a tinfoil crown that is a little too big and so is pushing out his ears while he carries a cigar box of frankincense.  There, there is the girl from across the way, adjusting her garland halo as she sings “Away in the Manger”.  And there are we, too, staffs in hand, like the shepherds, stumbling over each other to get near the newborn King, and then our unsteady voices search for the correct pitch as we leave, singing, “Go tell it on the Mountain, that Jesus Christ is born”.

Amen.

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