After a long Advent season, and an even longer year, I’m glad to be here to share this quick message of hope and promise with you. 2020 has been a difficult journey, and heartbreaking for many. Yet, if you are watching this then you have made it just in time to celebrate the time-honored tradition of Christmas.
Because of COVID, most churches will gather in a new way to hear the old story of Jesus coming into the world; the light which breaks into the least likely of places. And with this light comes hope. This year we need to be reminded about the way the light comes in. We need to hear that darkness doesn’t have the final word. We need to see God’s grace made manifest for you and me to survive moments like this.
So let us gather in our homes and around the world, to see God in a new light, in flesh like ours, and to hear the good news that we celebrate not just on Christmas Day, but hopefully every day after as well.
Let us pray: O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, your children, may be refreshed and renewed by your Holy Spirit as we gather in bold new ways to have our hearts and hands open to receive the good news of your beloved son, who by his righteousness revealed to us your great mystery for all to see. Amen.
Our reading tonight is taken from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. It’s a familiar story read by a familiar face in our home. READ: Luke 2:1-21
This year has been a year of doing old things in new ways. Like going to work in our pajamas. Or withdrawing money from the bank while wearing a mask. If ever there was a time to take a new look on an old story this is the year. Tonight, instead of putting our focus on the stable at center stage, I want to turn our attention to the shepherds in the background. Those beloved scamps no one ever wants to play in the Christmas pageant.
While everyone fights to be Mary, or an angel, or the coveted Inn Keeper, the role of shepherds is often filled last. It’s typically reserved for the kids who didn’t want to be in the pageant in the first place. They are nameless, non-descript. No single one is more important than the others. They just sit on the side of the stage waiting for the angels to come and bring them the good news.
It’s a brief moment in the spotlight that typically comes right before the wisemen enter the scene pushing the shepherds into the background from which they came. I like to think of the shepherds as the quiet heroes of the Christmas story.
In a year has been particularly noisy, full of things yelling to get attention, our hearts yearn for humble ones like these shepherds – quietly minding their own business in a dark field. Far from the chaos of everyday life, the angels surround them. It’s here, to a small, inconspicuous group of outsiders that God chooses to announce the birth of Godself into the world.
This tells us something about God and the shepherds. That God comes to people like us to bring the light into a world that is often filled with darkness. The shepherds respond to God’s invitation by running to this baby the angels told them about. What does this say about how we should respond to God?
It might not always come with a choir of angels, but God is always inviting us to come and meet Christ – calling us deeper into relationship with our neighbors, or practice blessing our enemies without judgment. The shepherds run with excitement to the center of this production, even if it’s only for a moment. Eventually the Magi of the East will come bearing sacred gifts to honor the Christ child. But tonight, the shepherds bring only themselves.
They are not rich. And they carry with them hardly any possessions. In fact, the only present they bring was their humble presence. They come with an open heart to receive what God wanted to share with them. They come with a willingness to be transformed, with courage to overcome any fear they might have had. They bring with them a small spark of faith, and a flickering light of hope.
Tomorrow as we wake up and exchange presents with one another, I hope you will think about the gifts you can give after the tree and decorations are put away? The gifts of the shepherds.
As you pull the tinsel off the tree and put away the Frosty the Snowman videos, remember the surprise and joy of the lowly workers, and offer the good news to someone who is lost in March, or someone who is hungry in June, who is in need of peace in October.
Theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, said it best in his poem The Work of Christmas:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
Like Thurman pointed out, our gift to God is our response to the human condition. How we care for those who are hungry, comfort those who mourn, clothe the naked is how we sing our heartfelt hallelujahs. And showcase God’s glory.
Our gifts are not dependent on what we can afford, but on what we are willing to give – that inner light of Christ that shines brightly through our acts of mercy, grace and love. When life gives us a dark year like this one, God entrusts us with carrying in the light into the darkness. And there’s plenty of darkness out there – political unrest, systematic racism, and inequality and injustice. COVID has left countless widowed and orphaned, shuttered a lot of our small businesses and forced layoffs that have left many people fearing they’ll be left homeless in the new year. There is a real hunger and need for the light of Christ to be seen; its warmth felt.
It doesn’t take a heavenly host of angels to deliver the good news of God’s love and mercy to the world. A smile or a kind word will suffice. A gentle touch or willing ear can go a long way. As one little baby showed us, as those humble shepherds would discover, the smallest of gifts can have the greatest impact in God’s kingdom. Like a good friend once said, “Christmas night is different from other nights but that all other days and nights are different because of Christmas night.”
In Christ, God burst through the darkness and lit up the stage where there are no insignificant players left waiting in the wings. We are all important voices invited to participate and to proclaim God’s redemptive grace.
In Christ, God is calling you to the role of a lifetime; to be in the spotlight, center stage, singing with heavenly hosts: The first noel, the angels did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.
I encourage you to take God’s invitation out into the world. Go and be the gift of God’s light and love to all of God’s children...the faithful and faithless alike. Your presence is the only present God needs to redeem the world with peace.
May God bless you. May the Holy Spirit lead you. And May Christ shine through you, everywhere you go.
Merry Christmas. And good night.
Special thanks to the inspiration of Jazzy Bostock's "The Shepherds." (accessed on 12-22-2020).
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An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”