“Keeping Watch” Pastor Paul Grossman
Luke 2:1-20 CEB
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
Here we are on Christmas Eve, revisiting that little town of Bethlehem, looking at the familiar stable scene of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. We can find this scene captured a thousand times over in the nativity creches that dot homes and churches this time of year. Can you picture them? How is the scene usually laid out? Of course, you need baby Jesus there in the middle, looking serene in his manger cradle. Mary and Joseph, the tired parents, clustered just overhead gazing at their child. Who else is there? Are there some wise men perhaps, magi who come from the east with arms full of riches worthy of a king of kings? Who else? Animals maybe? Are there some donkeys or cows or even some sheep perhaps? What about just beyond them, those other fellows that sometimes appear in our nativity scene, just on the edge of everything, crooks in hand? Shepherds. These rough men who have come from the hills, where they kept watch over their animals. While the creches might put them on the edges, Luke puts them square in the middle of his gospel story. In so doing, Luke reminds us that God put our messy and muddled existence right in the center of things and declared that a savior has come. Do we see this hectic world tonight, this place Christ came to save, and do we make room for his grace, joy, peace, hope, and love in it?
I wonder if any with us tonight has ever seen a show called Dirty Jobs hosted by Mike Rowe back in the early 2000s? In fact, I even noticed they recently brought the show back. Mike describes his mission at the beginning of each episode by saying, “I explore the country looking for people who aren’t afraid to get dirty — hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.” I remember Mike doing everything from inspecting sewer lines to cleaning up roadkill. I mention all of this because if Mike Rowe were hosting this show back in the ancient world, a shepherd’s job would be one of the dirtiest. They are the lowest rung on the social ladder, and to make matters worse, these ones in Luke are homeless, “living in the fields” with their sheep. These rough men were usually kept apart from the good people in town, so no wonder folks in town were “amazed” to both see these men among them and hear their words later that night.
That’s the thing, while our creches normally keep them on the edges of our nativities, these guys are at the center of Luke’s gospel story. These busy men, who had been “guarding their sheep” that night, worrying about predators and other dangers to their flock. Perhaps they worried about sickness in their herd. Perhaps there were a few troublemakers they had to keep a closer eye on. Perhaps they were working hard to keep the peace that night. Perhaps they worried whether their flock would earn them enough money to put a roof over their heads or food on their tables or care for their families who they had not seen in a fortnight. Busy with work and busy with worry, these are the very men who see angels that evening in order to receive the most important news of their lives and of ours.
Can you imagine being there in the hills, all is dark and quiet, and then suddenly the sky is ablaze with light! We are told that the “Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified!” I would be terrified too if all that was night turned to day and suddenly an angel shows up! Make no mistake, while we love our Hallmark angels with their billowy white robes, cherub cheeks, harps, and decidedly human appearance, Biblical angels are terrifying! The prophet Ezekiel describes them as having “four faces and four wings” with only one face being human while the others have an appearance of a lion, bull, and eagle respectively (Ezekiel 1:6-11 CEB). Plus, they have the appearance of “blazing coals” with fire and lightning surrounding them (Ezekiel 1:13-14 CEB). No wonder this one angel had to tell these shepherds “‘Don’t be afraid!’” Just before those words, I am sure those poor shepherds thought their lives and perhaps the whole world had come to an end! I am sure their lives and longings and regrets flashed before their eyes. Would anyone even notice or care about their passing from this world? They were just shepherds after all.
What comfort and disbelief those words of the angel must have brought. First and foremost, do not be afraid! For the shepherds, this means the world isn’t over yet! They’re okay! Except, what was that the angel said… just after saying to not be afraid? “‘Look! [says the angel] I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.’” Can you imagine the disbelief? Good news for shepherds? Giving this kind of tiding to a king would make sense. Good news for those “good” people in town, or perhaps even joyous news for priests and leaders, the rich and the powerful maybe, but shepherds? Surely not! Except that is exactly what the angel said, “I bring good news to you,” “Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.” Of all things, this savior is a baby in a manger, something even poor shepherds would recognize, after all, mangers were part of their business.
Next thing you know, more angels show up and start singing and praising God before these stunned shepherds! However, what happens next might be even more stunning, these shepherds look at each other and agree to drop everything and search out this savior, this baby in a manger. These were busy men, and yet, they go quickly “and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.” God showed up in their world and in the midst of their lives, and they set down everything to turn aside and see. It reminds me of Moses in those years after he left Egypt but before he returned to lead God’s people to freedom. He too tends sheep. When one goes astray, it is his job to follow and to find. Suddenly, he comes across something as extraordinary as angels in the hills outside Bethlehem, he sees a bush on fire, yet it did not burn. He too turned aside to see and hear God’s good news. God interrupted a fugitive and shepherds right where they were in order to announce God’s work in their lives and in the world.
What about all of us? Do we see this world around us? Do we see the busyness of it all? Do we see those folks, the rough ones, stinking and dirty from their labors and their lives? Do we see them, their brows furrowed from all the worries on their minds? Do we see the world Christ came to save? It’s a hectic place. Do we really see the people Christ came to save? What do they look like in our minds? Are they the good people who deserve it, the decent folks those angels should have gone to, or perhaps did the angels get it right?
If you had to design your own nativity scene and you had to put yourself in it, where would you be? Would you too be on the edges, keeping Christ in the center? It’s so funny to say that because I feel I hear something like that a lot these days: keep Christ at the center of your life, or at top of your priorities, or at the core. What’s funny about it is that Christ keeps us at the center, and there’s no one on the edges of his good news. Much like those dirty jobs, Christ works through the messiest parts of our lives because that’s where his gifts are needed the most. That’s what makes the Christian life possible for all of us.
You see, that’s what we are keeping watch for tonight, to see whether we can make room. Can we make room for joy, for peace, for love, and for hope even when we are at our worst? Are we watching for where we can make room, even when we are at our busiest, our most needy, our most gracious, and our most helpful? The story of the shepherds is a reminder to us that this world has room for a savior, even when we’ve overlooked it. It is a reminder that good news can and will come from the most unlikely of people and in the most inconvenient of times. However, if we too are willing to turn aside to see and receive, we, like those shepherds of old will leave this night, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” Keep watch; make room. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman