Sermon Title “Not Too Shabby” by Pastor Rosanna mcFadden
Good morning! It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas as we begin to sing some of our favorite songs and carols. I’m not sure it is looking a lot like Christmas; at least not what we usually expect from December in N Indiana. We are just over a week away from Christmas Day, it is the third Sunday of Advent, and we are continuing to look at the distance to Jesus from the perspective of various characters in the nativity story. So far we have considered How Far is it to Bethlehem from the perspective of Jesus’ father Joseph and his mother Mary. Today we are going to consider a group of people — How Far was it to Bethlehem for the shepherds?
In terms of physical distance, the shepherds had a lot shorter trip than Joseph or Mary, who traveled together from Nazareth — about 90 miles from Bethlehem. But there are distances, both in the 1st century and today, which are more difficult to travel and have different obstacles than topography. The distance we need to go to find Jesus is not something which can be charted on a map.
You may have noticed that all of our characters so far have had angels — messengers from God — as a part of their story. Soon after Joseph’s fiancée told him that she was expecting a child, which he knew he had not fathered, an angel appeared to him in a dream. Mary’s journey began with the angel Gabriel speaking to her and inviting her to be a part of God’s mission. The shepherds were also visited by angels: a lot of angels. Luke calls them, “the heavenly host.” Host comes from the Latin word ‘hostis’; it doesn’t mean welcoming committee. It’s a word from the Roman military: it means an armed expedition, or a large assembly of soldiers — the implication is these people all have a willingness or obligation to go to war. This is an angel army which shows up to share the news of Jesus’ birth. No wonder the shepherds are terrified; I certainly would have been. And these angel soldiers deliver an interesting message: Peace on earth, good will to all. Not your usual military propaganda. If the shepherds were paying attention that could have been a clue that this baby Messiah might not be your typical revolutionary leader. I doubt if the shepherds were paying attention — and who can blame them? We’ve been hearing this story for years and may not pick up on the implications of an army which proclaims peace and goodwill.
We don’t know a lot about these shepherds. They tended sheep, obviously, which was a necessary, but not very glamourous job. Like many jobs in our economy, it is something which has to be done, but the working conditions and pay are lousy. Like sanitation workers or fast-food employees, these folks didn’t need a lot of specialized education, and they wouldn’t have gotten a lot of respect. They were certainly men — exclusively men — and worked hard outdoors in all kinds of conditions. Their companions would be unwashed, rude, and not-too-bright: and that’s just the sheep — the other shepherds were probably even worse. They may have had children, the older ones might have even had grandchildren — I understand the Creekside kids had some discussion about this in Sunday School — but a hillside in the middle of the night is no place for your wife and family. They were out at night with no company but the other shepherds and a lot of sheep.
Cathy Barwick — more specifically her son and grandsons who raise sheep — could speak with more authority than I do, but sheep are not the most considerate animals. The reason the shepherds would have been out there at night is because it was lambing season, and sometimes ewes need some help to deliver their lambs. Of course, you have to find the ladies first, and make yourself available to be covered with heaven knows what kind of bodily fluids. Let’s just say although these guys might know a few things about labor and delivery, they might not be your first choice of folks to come down from the hills and into wherever space you just gave birth to a new human baby.
What was God thinking, sending good news by angel army to a raggedy collection of blue collar — dirty blue collar — folks? Notice that the angel doesn’t tell the shepherds to do anything; he just delivers the message: Good news! The Messiah has been born in Bethlehem today! It is the shepherds who watch the army clear out and say to each other: let’s go to Bethlehem — we gotta see this! Do you think if the angels had appeared to the good folks of Bethlehem, or the scribes and the Pharisees, or to folks in comfortable pews on Sunday morning that they would have decided to go and see what the Lord is doing? I can’t give you a definitive answer to that. We don’t know exactly how far it was to get to the stable where Jesus was born, but the shepherds were in the region — it probably wasn’t that far. But here’s what I want us to consider today: the journey to Bethlehem may be a lot shorter for people who don’t have much to lose. I’m talking about folks who are not worried about what their colleagues or their employers or their families are going to think of them. People who are unencumbered by the weight of others’ expectations; who can just pick up and say Let’s go see what the Lord is doing? Because that’s exactly what the shepherds do.
We’re not told exactly what kind of reception they get from the couple with the newborn in an animal feed bin, but we can make some guesses: Joseph and Mary were amazed, and the shepherds left praising God, because everything the angel told them was true. I hope they saved the whooping and hollering for when they got outdoors, and they didn’t wake the baby on their way out. We don’t hear anything about these shepherds again: they have their moment in the Christmas story and then go back to whatever they were doing. But I love the fact that they are here — down from the hills of Bethlehem and in the stable with Mary and Joseph. I think the shepherds have some important things to tell us about who is welcome in Bethlehem and how far it is to get there. The people who get to Bethlehem are the ones who listen to angels. In simplest terms, they are the ones who are willing to go. Joseph had to wrestle with some things — the betrayal by his fiancée, his plan to dismiss Mary quietly, his pride about claiming and raising a son who was not his biological child — who would believe him otherwise? Mary had to come to terms with being pregnant without being married, with the mission and responsibility of giving birth to the Messiah and task of raising the Son of God. It took some intervention from angels to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.
But these shepherds — they don’t have to wrestle with their pride, or wonder if they’re worthy, or even put on a clean shirt. They may not be respected, educated, or well-mannered, but they are not too shabby to be welcomed in Bethlehem. They didn’t have to go:–the angel didn’t even tell them to go. The baby had already been born, the Messiah was here. The shepherds chose to be witnesses to this thing which God had done; and they are the first people beside Jesus’ parents to see the Messiah, the hope of Israel, the Word made flesh. These are tiding of great joy for those of us who are on our own journey to find Jesus. Like Mary and the choice she was given to participate in the impossible mission of God, we can decide whether or not we go to Bethlehem. The angel announced the good news of Jesus’ birth, but the army was there to proclaim peace and goodwill, not to compel the shepherds or anyone else to bow down and worship the newborn king.
If you have ever wondered if you would be welcomed, or if you are worthy, or if you will be accepted the way you are and the way you have been — the story of the shepherds is proof that Jesus came for the poor and the dis-respected; that none of us are too shabby to go to Bethlehem. In fact, folks who have nothing to lose may have a shorter distance to travel than the wealthy, educated, and privileged. If the journey to Bethlehem is one more inconvenience in a busy season of shopping and meal preparation, and yes — worship planning–you may need a little of the humility of the shepherds, who left everything and went, and were pretty happy about it afterward. If you have never struggled with your own worthiness as you seek Jesus, I guess you belong with the angel army; most of us could learn a thing or two from folks who do not think too highly of themselves. We may be part of that angel chorus someday, but right now we’re probably less presentable than we’d like other folks to know. If the shepherds were welcomed in Bethlehem, we will be too. If they were willing to share what they had heard and seen, and to praise God, maybe that’s something we can do, too. We’re getting closer each week!
Remember, next Sunday we will have worship at 9:30 in the Gathering Area, and then you are all warmly invited to return that evening for Christmas Eve scriptures, carols, candle lighting and communion at 7pm. Blessings for wherever your Christmas celebrations take you, and to those with whom you share them. May all of us find an opportunity to kneel in Bethlehem this season. Amen.