A sermon for Christmas: Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14(15-20), Psalm 96
As I was pondering the readings for tonight’s Christmas celebration, three of my favorite quotations from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy kept recurring. It turns out it is really just two; as I remembered the first and last half of one as two. The first is set deep under a mountain, where the Fellowship is trapped, and likely lost. The little hope they had, is fading into the darkness. Frodo tells Gandalf
I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought (IMBD; Tolkien).
In troubled times it is good to be reminded “All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”
The other is specific to the shepherds whose decision to go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place has captured my imagination. Sam and Frodo are off on Gandalf’s journey. They are in the middle of a corn field when Sam stops. He says:
This is it.
Frodo: This is what?
Sam: If I take one more step it’ll be the farthest away from home
I’ve ever been.
Frodo: Come on Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say
‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.’ (tk421; Tolkien).
In twenty-two years of preaching Christmas, I have been inspired by the donkey; I have preached from the popular song Mary Did You Know. I have explored the thoughts of the Inn Keeper; that was the year we had a house fire December 23rd and the desk clerk could not let us bring our pets in the room; you could see the anxiety in her face. I preached about the setting, how a stable after a childbirth is not the most inviting place; and Mary and Joseph after their long journey and Jesus’ birth are quite exhausted, may be questionable host. I think I’ve preached about everything except for the shepherds, and for whatever her reason the divine muse has lead me to their decision to go and see.
Unlike Frodo and his friends, in the darkness under a mountain, the shepherds are in the darkness of the night sky, far away from the safety of any city or village. Shepherds are at the very bottom of the social ranking of respectability generally thought of as lazy, devious, and dangerous people (Harrelson). They are charged with looking after animals who are not smart enough to look after themselves. Suddenly an Angel in all its glory and might appears; I think I would cower. But the angel has a surprising message, to you a child is born, the Messiah! And then a whole host of angles singing ~ don’t worry I’ll just say it
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.
I wonder if I would have fainted! But these hardy fellows decide to go and see for themselves. Have you ever wondered what they are feeling?
It is possible that they are just plain curious. I mean angles popping about in the night isn’t every night occurrence, so, something is up. Perhaps they just want to see what’s up.
It is likely these shepherds cannot read or write, but so few people could that it is not an indication of what they might know of their religious heritage. It is conceivable they recognized bits and pieces of Isaiah’s prophecy in the angle’s message. That implies that perhaps they set off with a sense of expectation.
Some of the least educated and unresected people in the world have an amazing sense of what is. Karoline Lewis writes we realize the incarnation is a revelation of who God is and who we are and that means that who we are matters. Jesus’s birth means that the world has fundamentally changed (Lewis). With the angle’s message, fresh in their ears, and the promise of Isaiah’s prophecy plucked from their memories a growing sense of anticipation could bring a lively bounce to the shepherds’ step as they set out on their journey.
Years ago, Angie and I gave Eats Shoots and Leaves to our daughters because grammar matters. One of the challenges in translation is to capture what meaning comes from grammar, and sometimes it is hard because there are not comparable grammatical structures. This is one of those times. The angle says born to you a Savior. The trick is, that in English, you cannot tell, except sometimes by context, if ‘you’ is single or plural; here it is plural. There is a more complex piece. In some languages, but not in English, the case indicates that what is spoken is directed directly to the hearer (Hoezee). So, the angle is speaking about a savior born specifically to the shepherds, making the message intensely personal. Such a personal message could be a powerful source of inspiration to take off on a journey to go and see.
The splendor of an angle messenger, the glory of a heavenly host singing praises, the possibility that Isaiah’s prophecy of the messiah has come true, and to hear about it in a way that is oh so very personal, born to you! It all comes together such that I can see the shepherds, enchanted by the possibilities, go and see (Hoezee).
As intensely personal as the angle’s message is, the shepherds will also know the message is for all Israel. They may very well have had a sort of Three Musketeer sense of solidarity: Jesus for all and all for Jesus.
It is interesting that the angel does not tell the shepherds to do anything, all the angle does is make the announcement. Which brings us back to the shepherds being terrified. It doesn’t make sense to go see something when the messenger terrifies you. So, it is important to know ‘terrified.’ which comes from ‘fear.’ also, means ‘reverence’ (Barfield). Meaning the shepherds could well have set off full of respect to go and see what has been told to them.
The angle’s message being delivered to the shepherds out in the wilderness makes that hilltop and a stable the center of divine and human meeting. There is a sense that the shepherds get it, so, they begin their journey to go and see divinely empowered (Harrelson).
I do not know what emotion curiosity, expectation, anticipation, inspiration, enchanted, solidarity, reverence, empowerment or something else brings you to tonight’s celebration of the messiah’s birth, in a stable, behind an inn on some out of the way street, in a place of no import. But, by whatever road you came we welcome you to Bethlehem, we invite you to see how everything changes as you see your Christ (Johnson), your Messiah, your savior, your Jesus; we invite you to
Come to Bethlehem and see
him whose birth the angels sing
Come adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord the newborn King (Tate)
we invite you to come and see just how much God loves you.
Barfield, Ginger. Commentary on Luke 2:114. 24 12 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 16 24 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 24 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. Christmas | Luke 2:1-20. 24 12 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel>.
IMBD. The Lord of the Rings; Fellowship of the Ring. n.d. 24 12 2016. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2488496/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ql_1>.
Johnson, Deon. “Nothing Changes Except Everything.” 24 12 2016. Sermons that Work.
Lewis, Karoline. The Meaning of Christmas. 24 12 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lose, David. The Divine Exchange. 24 12 2016.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
tk421. 24 12 2016. <http://www.tk421.net/lotr/film/fotr/08.html>.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring.” n.d. Web .