I've kind of always had a soft spot for the shepherds. I think I might be because I was one – not in real life, of course, but from first grade until fifth grade I was type-casted in my church’s Christmas play. Always a shepherd. Never an angel, who got to wear white robes and wings and cool halos and look pretty. Never a wise man or wise “person,” who brought nice gifts. Always a shepherd, wearing itchy brown robes and towels tied to your head, just sort of standing there awkwardly, like a group of misfits who showed up to the wrong party.
Finally, in fifth grade, I knew that my typecasting days were over. The fifth graders always got the lead parts, like Mary and Joseph and the speaking angel. I was going to be Mary, because MY hand would be the first one up when our teacher asked for volunteers. I was ready.
Unfortunately for me, the hand of my best friend was also ready. And unfortunately for me, it was her name that was taken down to play Mary and wear the pretty blue robe. The worst part was, a moment later she turned around and whispered to me: “hey, what did I just volunteer for?”
So it was itchy robes and towels for me again that year. But I got my chance a few years later, when I was asked to be Mary in the adult Christmas play, where Mary had actual lines and got to hold a real baby. Now, I wonder at this baby’s mother, letting a strange teenager hold her baby for an hour. And I wonder that the she, the baby (there was a girl baby Jesus that year) didn’t cry at all while being held by this strange person in a blue robe, though she did fuss for a minute right before Mary’s big monologue.
But really, Mary doesn’t have a monologue, though she must have been thinking about an awful lot that night. And we don’t hear what’s on Joseph’s mind either, what he must be thinking about all this. We do have an angel of the Lord with a birth announcement, and a great angel gathering praising God. But as far as we know, the only witnesses to this grand announcement … were the shepherds.
Not the itchy robe-wearing, towel-headed variety. These shepherds were the living-in-the fields with the sheep variety –dirty, smelly, tough, night-shift workers doing a thankless job for little pay. These shepherds were on the fringes of polite society, unclean, unwanted, untrustworthy.
They knew what life was like on the outside looking in. They knew what it was like to sit in the dark and cold night of exclusion and isolation. They were last on anyone’s list, no matter what time of the year it was.
But we don’t really have shepherds around anymore. And for that matter, we don’t have emperors or traveling census, and when was the last time you saw a manger? My dad, as a dairy farmer, might be the closest thing we have to what a shepherd is like, and the kind of manger that he and my brothers clean out every night are not the kind you would ever want to put a newborn – full of bits of hay and silage and cow drool.
And yet, here we are again, Christmas 2013, listening to the same story we heard last year, and they year before, and the year before that. A story that is about shepherds, and emperors, and censuses, and angels, and mangers. But it is also a story that is about God, and what God has done. A story that is actually about us.
The shepherds are not the only ones who know what it’s like to be on the outside, to know what it’s like to walk in darkness and live in a land of deep darkness. Life is full of darkness. And this year may have seemed darker than most. On the world stage, this year has been full of violence, pain, and destruction – war in Syria, death in bombings in Boston and Kenya, natural disaster in the Philippines. And closer to home, so many people I know have lost someone close to them in the last year, and for them this first Christmas without them will have an aftertaste of loss. The land of loss we travel is one not just of darkness, but of deep darkness, so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face, so dark that you might imagine the dawn might never come.
In the night, just like any other night of the year, the shepherds sat in the darkness, tending their flock and protecting it from the danger of the night. The last thing they were expecting was to come face to face with the bright and shining glory of the Lord. The last thing they were expecting that night was to see their Lord face to face.
We who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. On those of us who live in a land of deep darkness, on us light has shined. But no one expect it the light to shine from the face of a helpless baby, born into poverty, whose parents’ were considered second-class citizens in their own country, in during a period of history that was fraught with violence and unrest.
But this is how our God chooses to work in our lives. Taking on power by becoming powerless. By showing exaltation in ultimate vulnerability. By exposing true peace and wholeness by entering into a broken and messy world. By first illuminating the arrival of the truest, mightiest, most powerful love in the universe to the very least of us. By revealing light in the midst of darkness in the gift of a tiny baby.
The best gift ever given was not expensive or fancy or impressive or grand. It was not covered in ribbons and wrapping paper. It could never be found in a store. The best gift every given arrived through the blood, sweat, and tears of a young women and her anxious husband, wrapped in rags and rough wood, visited by shepherds smelling of sheep. The best gift ever given was made possible by the deepest love we could never fully conceive or imagine.
This gift was named Jesus. And he was born so that we could know God. That the God in the highest heaven wants us to know – in person – who God is and how much God loves us. This God found a way to break into our world to reveal just how far this love goes.
This baby grows up, as all babies do. But Jesus grows up to face the powers of darkness head-on. The shepherds were just the beginning – during his ministry Jesus hung out with all sorts of unsavory characters: tax collectors, sinners, fishermen, lepers, women, children, and all kinds of people at the bottom rungs of the ladder. He showed them love and told them about what God’s kingdom is really like. Good news of great joy for all the people. During his life Jesus showed us that God is in the business of healing and peace and love and making broken people whole again.
Not everyone is pleased with this gift. There were those who wanted to return it. The darkness wanted it to stay dark, the deeper the darkness the better – a darkness as deep as death itself, and for three days, it seemed to be winning.
But our God is also in the business of life, and not even death can win against the love God has for his people, us. On that day another angel stood before the darkness of an empty tomb and announced, “Do not be afraid… he is not here, for he has been raised. Come, see the place where he lay.” And those who heard left with great joy and ran to tell the good news.
Perhaps instead of feeling honored to play Mary in the adult Christmas play, I should instead have felt privileged for all those years I spent as a “lowly” shepherd. They were the ones who dropped everything, and ran into town, and checked every baby before seeing for themselves where the baby Jesus lay. They celebrated the very first Christmas service, out in that dark field with the sheep. We could probably do worse than have a little shepherd rub off on us. They didn’t just SEE the God’s gift face to face, they shared that gift with everyone around them. And here we are, all these years later, celebrating the arrival of that gift this night.
But all gifts are meant to be shared, and this one is no exception. For it belongs to all of us, every single one of us. And the more we share this gift the brighter the light becomes, until that day when all the darkness will be extinguished forever, and we shall all see God face to face. Amen.