So Why Shepherds?

A Sermon for Christmas: Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:(1-7)8-20

 

For a year we had been working with this customer. It was an important project, the first of this a major national franchise. The project involved our well-established product-line of jobber outlet and retails systems, and our new product of warehouse systems. The owners’ primary store and all their branches were up and running, and had been for a while. All was going well. I went there on my regular weekly visit. When I walked in the door I knew something was not right. It didn’t feel right.

As I walked in the countermen scurried into the inventory stacks. All the secretaries answered phones that had not rung. The store manager’s head dropped. And there were two or three teams of workers, on ladders pulling communications cables through the ceiling on a path to reach all the offices and workspaces. When the company owner saw me, he paused; his face dropped; he took a subtle but deep breath and waved me into his office. The short version is he told me they were exercising their contract option to return our equipment at the end of the month because they had decided to use their franchise’s computer system, not ours. There are times when you instinctually know things are not right.

Reading Luke’s story of Jesus birth is such a time. Well, it should be. Only we, and our parents, and our grandparents, and all our ancestors for generation after generation, and all our religious institutions, for century upon century, have taken the story for how it is written. Everyone has forgotten the state of the times.

The story begins with a census. Only there are no historical records that confirm that an empire-wide census (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson). Even if there was a census the Romans did not care about your family of origin, their concern was that property was registered at its proper location. Whatever might have happened its primary purpose was a symbol of Augustus’s sovereignty, and to ensure the collection of taxes (Culpepper).

And for a story that is about Jesus’ birth, Luke dedicates 2 whole verses (6 and 7) to this blessed event. So much for the focus of the story.

The majority of the story (10 verses, 8 through 18) are about shepherds. Shepherds, who are leftovers from Israel’s nomadic culture, were the lowest rung on the social ladder. Shepherding was a despised occupation. Nobody liked shepherds. They were a necessary evil. They were smelly and suspect in character. They were sometimes rough, unclean and maybe dangerous. They were scorned as shiftless, and could not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted (Pankey, Merry Christmas; Culpepper; Keener and Walton)

In this morning’s gospel story Jesus is said to be the Son of the Most High, heir to the throne of his ancestor David, who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, (Luke 1:32-33). In this evening’s gospel story Jesus is given the additional titles Savior, the Messiah, and Lord. All of them are claimed by the emperor. Luke’s narrative sets up a sharp contrast between Jesus and Augustus. (Harrelson).

Christmas is our celebration of the expectation that Jesus will be King, on the restored throne of David. So why all the mess about census? Why is the birth announcement distinctly not regal? Why does the news of Jesus’ birth go to shepherds, the lowly and not to the elite and the powerful (Harrelson)? Why does Luke subtly place Jesus over against Augustus? It appears that King Jesus, pretender to the throne of David, is not who we should be looking for.

Last week we explored John the Evangelist’s vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God being the perfection of humanity as image of God (Genesis 1:26). This week Luke, in all this disruption, also seems to point to Jesus as the perfection of humanity as the image of God. Only this evening, there is a different take.

In his December 14th column David Brooks writes:

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Communism fell with it. Liberal democracy seemed triumphant. Democracies sprouted in Central Europe. Apartheid fell in South Africa. The Oslo process seemed to herald peace in the Middle East.

28 years later is has all gone bad

Tribalism and authoritarianism are now on the march while the number of democracies declines. Far worse has been the degradation of democracies.

Brooks then introduces Thomas Mann’s The Coming Victory of Democracy. Mann argues

Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible. Yes, humans do beastly things — … but humans are the only creatures who can understand and seek justice, freedom and truth.

Brooks continues noting Mann that

Democracy… is the only system built on respect for the infinite dignity of each individual man and woman, on each person’s moral striving for freedom, justice and truth.

 

It is not just a procedural or a political system for the principle of majority rule, it is a way of life. It encourages everybody to make the best of their capacities — [it] holds that we have a moral responsibility to do so. It encourages the artist to seek beauty, the neighbor to seek community, the psychologist to seek perception, the scientist to seek truth (Brooks).

What Mann says is what defines any righteous and just governance.

Though Caesars are credited with bringing peace to the world, Luke proclaims that the true bringer of peace is Jesus the Savior (Culpepper). Jesus replacing the Caesars as the true source of peace points to the restoration of the moral base of society, which bearing the fruit of radical equality of all God’s people is the purpose of the Kingdom on earth. This morning, in her song of praise to God, Mary’s intent is that her ministry as the God bearer is to reveal the greatness of God for all the world to see. By proclaiming that God has looked with favor on an unwed mother Mary reveals that God is already in the process of turning the world upside down (Pankey, Proclamation). By re-entering human history, born to an unmarried mother, whose birth is revealed to the least in society, with titles claimed by the reigning emperor, God identifies with

  • the powerless,
  • the oppressed,
  • the poor, and
  • the homeless

which reveals the moral corruption of the status quo Jesus’ birth is turning upside down (Culpepper).

The kingdom Jesus is bringing is not the restoration of a regal earthly kingdom. Jesus is bringing the kingdom of moral authority of righteousness and justice. The birth of Jesus is a sign of God’s abundant grace (Culpepper).

  • For a child has been born for us, and authority rests upon his shoulders
  • The people who walked in darkness see a great light
  • The joy of the nations has been multiplied
  • The yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, has been broken
  • The boots of the tramping warriors are burning fuel for the fire
  • He will establish the throne of justice and with righteousness and uphold it from this time onward and forevermore
  • His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
  • The love of the Lord of hosts will do this (Isaiah 9:2-7).

These are treasured words They are ours to mull over, to quietly consider the meaning they bring. (Gaventa and Petersen) (Culpepper). They are ours to use as inspiration that our lives may reveal the love of God. They are ours to use as strength for restoration of our moral base, and perhaps quietly being a model for others witness and ponder.

Amen and a blessed Christmas.


References

Almquist, Br. Curtis. “Meet Jesus Again.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 23 12 2017. <ssje.org/word/>.

Black, C. Clifton. Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20. 24 12 2017.

Brooks, David. “The Glory of Democracy.” 14 12 2017. newyorktimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/opinion/democracy-thomas-mann.html&gt;.

Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Pankey, Steve. Merry Christmas. 21 12 2017. <https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491&gt;.

—. The importance of proclamation. 20 12 2017. <https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

Go and see

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.

 Gandalf answers:

 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.
Amen.

 

References

Barfield, Ginger. Commentary on Luke 2:114. 24 12 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

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/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 24 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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&gt;.

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&gt;.

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&gt;.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring.” n.d. Web .

 

 

 

Surprised by new hope

A sermon for Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:27, Titus 2:1114, Luke 2:114(15-20), Psalm 96

I’m tired, are you? I’ve just flat been busy; not bad stuff just lots of stuff. Beginning on Thanksgiving, with helping to pack nearly a 1,000 Thanksgiving Day meals, I have participated in seven board or related meetings; participated in or been to four programs or parties. I’ve helped Angie host our own party, made one out of town trip to visit to grand kids and oh yea, our daughters and their spouses, we had a great, but tiring time. On top of the seasonal stuff I’ve also made regular scheduled stuff like two nights at the Great River Charitable Clinic and three all day trips to Little Rock, Jonesboro and Memphis. And oh, how can I forget I’m trying to get ready for January’s D.Min. session; I ‘m really excited about it, but it’s a lot to add to an already busy schedule. I’m tired. Are you tired?

If the calendar isn’t enough I’m tired of all the junk in the news. I’m tired of the North Korea mess. I’m tired of poorly hired, trained and resourced police getting entangled in tragic events. I’m tired of angry, emotional, disconnected, folks taking advantage of tragedies for personal privilege or gain, whose actions degrade the hard work of faithful courageous folks seeking justice and righteousness. I’m tired of people assassinating police or soldiers. I’m tired of people using guns whenever they get upset about anything, including a messed up McDonald’s order (Meyer)  I’m tired of our own inability, including my mine, to see the harm we do to others who are not like us. I’m tired of ISIS, the Taliban, and others who use gross previsions of Islam to abuse and oppress others; the same goes for abuse of Judaism or Christianity or any other faith’s holy writ. I’m tired of the endless messes in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I’m tired of Ebola, and fear driven reactions, that limit help, far more then they protect. I’m tired of Putin the Thug. I’m tired of our own political thuggery, again including mine. I’m tired of rampant sexual misconduct and poorly thought out responses driven by fear, embarrassment and, let’s be honest misogyny. I’m tired of tired of child abuse, in whatever form. I’m tired of people naming everything that’s uncomfortable and beyond our understanding as mental illness. I’m tired of entrenched endemic ignoring of what can and ought to be done for mentally ill. I’m tired of the news media drowning us in the small percentage of the tragic and the terrible that terrifies us all the while ignoring the enormity of the good that goes on simply because they know fear sells advertising. I’m tired. Are you tired?

Mary and Joseph are tried.  Mary has ridden a donkey and Joseph has walked 70 or 80 miles. Jesus has just been born, Joseph has got to be tired, I was when my girls were born, and I didn’t do anything. The bible doesn’t mention any one being around to help mid wife Mary. Mary is REALLY tired; yes giving birth is extraordinarily joyful but my observation is it’s exhausting. Mary, Joseph, and all Israel are tired.

All Israel is tired of the Roman Empire. Yes they bring the Pax Romana but it’s on their terms, and don’t try to change anything. Their Emperor dares to call himself a god. Everyone is literally tired, everyone had to walk miles to register, to pay poll taxes. Everyone is tired of justice that’s dependent on bribery. Everyone is tired of petty local Kings, backed by Roman Legions, whose job is to control local populations, by any means. All Israel is tired of Herod the brutish tyrant who rules Palestine. He’s not even Jewish! Everyone is tired of taxes they get no benefit from. There are taxes on farm produce, anything bought and sold, on houses and land; there’s even a kind of progressive income tax. To collect them all Rome make use of greedy tax collectors, locals who get rich by over collecting taxes due.

Everyone is tired of the Jewish authorities, who are always maneuvering, scrapping with each other to win favor with Herod and or Rome, imposing dubious religious obligations and/ or restraints for their own benefit; and to collect even more taxes, such as the Temple tax and a second tithe on produce of land. All Israel is tired. Are you tried?

Shepherds are tired. They are not highly regarded. They work from early morning till early morning. Sheep have to be lead to food, so shepherds walk them to pasture. Sheep have to be led to water so shepherds either lead them to a stream or dig a well. The only chance to sleep is when sheep nap after watering. Sheep easily get lost so it takes a constant watch to keep them from wandering away; and since they can’t find their way home, shepherds lead them home. And after a long hard day shepherds protect the sheep at night from wild beast and thieves. Shepherds are tired. Are you tired?

So yes, Mary & Joseph are tired, all Israel is tired, and the Shepherds are tired. Life is hard the prospect for improvement is difficult to see. [Pause] Into this cold bleak mid-winter night so long ago Angles appear singing tidings of great joy, to tired poor cold shepherds, who drew the night shift – again; for to them that night, there is good news, there is a new savior, they will find in oh that little town, who will be in bands of cloth – swaddling clothes. It must ring with surprising authenticity because they take the risk and go to see. To their surprise they find the place and just as the angle said they find Jesus in a manger, with lowing cattle all around. They tell Mary and Joseph what the angle said. It matches what Gabriel said, and Mary wholeheartedly ponders the meaning as, the only now mentioned, gathered folks are amazed. Shepherds ~ are surprised by new hope. [i] Mary & Joseph ~ are surprised new hope. All who hear ~ are surprised by a new hope. A new hope Emmanuel is right here God’s presence, in flesh and blood, that you can reach out and touch, is right here. Into this cold bleak mid-winter night there is new hope that darkness will give way to light, that the oppressive tiresome yolk will be shattered, that justice and righteousness will be established. And this new hope is not just present to Mary and Joseph, or to first century Israel, or to shepherds, or to those gathered around. This cold bleak mid-winter night’s new hope is with us, everyone. As they were surprised by new hope: Emmanuel, God’s presence, so should we be.

In the face of the cold bleak mid-winter international turmoil, national mayhem, local confusion, personal chaos, we are not alone ~ Emmanuel is right here, right now, and always will be. Surprised by new hope we need never be tired again, for we never have been, nor ever will be alone, God is with us, right here, right now.


References

Easton, Matthew George. Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp, 2008. ebook.

“Holman Bible Dictionary.” WORD – QuickVerse , n.d.

Meyer, Holly. “Man pulls gun after wrong McDonald’s order.” Tennessean (2014). <http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2014/12/23/police-man-pulls-gun-wrong-mcdonalds-order/20797161/&gt;.

Orr, Jame, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. WORDsearch, 2004.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. 2008.


[i] Inspired by NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope