Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Be Not Afraid: Part 3- Luke 2:8-20
I have to be honest... we’re skipping ahead a bit here. There’s already a baby, but you know the baby was going to be here soon anyway. I figure a little attention on the shepherds was warranted. Next week, after the baby comes and in the weeks that follow, weeks filled with Matthew’s stories of the magi and the family’s refugee flight to Egypt and Luke’s stories of the prophets who sing their joy at the birth of the Savior, the shepherds can get lost. It seems worth our time to consider the shepherds... the first people outside of the family to learn that there is something special in this child who has been born. They will end up not only hearing divine confirmation of gift of his birth but also become a source of holy affirmation for Mary and Joseph.
Unlike the early part of Matthew, that contrasts God’s Reign from the King’s Reign by showing us a king who is frightened enough by a baby that he will try to harm the baby, Luke shows us that God’s Reign is different than Caesar’s Reign but showing us how very different Jesus’ birth and life are from the lives of the powerful in the era. Jesus’ very pregnant mom has to travel to a whole other town when she is almost ready to give birth, not because she wants to but because the Emperor has the power to force regular people to do things when he wants it done, not when is convenient for them. He wanted them to go to Bethlehem to be counted. So they had to go. Dr. Melinda Quivik reminds us that royal Roman leaders had everything they needed. This child wasn’t even born in his own home and he slept in an animal trough. He could not be more different from Caesar. Thank God for that.
And, his life and the way he wields power will be different, we can see, by who is entrusted to celebrate his birth. First, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is entrusted with the good news of the pregnancy. She has been similarly blessed with an unlikely pregnancy and Mary knew she could relate to this level of Divine Intervention. Then, after the birth, the shepherds are brought into the story. There are few people farther from Caesar than the shepherds in the fields.
According to Dr. Fred Craddock, Roman poets and well-known speakers were known to create works in celebration of a child who was to become emperor. In this story, it is it is the heavens that sing forth in celebration and their audience is not their wealthy patrons, as would have been true of the artists, but the very common, very ordinary shepherds in the fields. Dr. Wesley Allen reminds us in his commentary on the text that these shepherds are likely not the people who own the sheep or own any of the land. They are either slaves or employees are working the night shift. That’s why the author pointed out that they lived in the fields. They stay with the sheep, guarding them, either because they were ordered to by the people who owned them or because they were paid to do so. They are regular people with a demanding job that required a fair amount of skill to keep animals alive. It was a job that was utterly necessary as sheep provided food and clothing material. It was also a job that wasn’t necessarily well-paid or well-respected. Shepherds don’t usually get to hear the good news first, but they do in this story. They don’t usually hang out with the powerful. But, they will, in this story. And, the power will look different. We heard the first inklings of that in Mary’s song, with the lowly lifted and the powerful sent away. In the invitation of the shepherds to the manger, we are seeing the lifting of the lowly happening yet again.
I wonder what the angels looked like for them to have to tell the shepherds that they didn’t have to be afraid. Were they bright enough and loud enough to scare the sheep? Would anyone, human or angelic, have surprised these working men on third shift? Was this just a gentle way of preparing them for the incredible next words? “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” What a message to tell these hard-working, poor men! And, how wonderful that these men believed and traveled to find the child.
In my research this week, several scholars noted that while Caesar wasn’t anywhere near shepherds, Jewish leaders had once been, notably King David. Luke tells us that Jesus was part of the line of David through his stepfather Joseph. He was born in the city of David. And, now, men who shared David’s earliest work would come to celebrate him and confirm, for his mother, that her own angelic visions were true. The shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had heard from the angels about who this simple child in a food trough would be. Everyone who heard the testimony of the shepherds was amazed. But, in particularly, treasured all their words and pondered them in her heart. That means she thought about them, a lot. She considered the words the angels said to her, to her cousin, and now the shepherd, and what it means for her family, and the world’s, future.
Dr. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero noted that, in leaving their sheep, the shepherds, too, are transformed, becoming God’s messengers alongside the angels. And, of course, poor, common people would do the work of God. In a couple chapters, when Jesus, as an adult, tells us about his mission with his own words, he will say that the poor will be of special concern for God and for him. Jesus himself comes from a poor family, despite having a royal lineage. God comes into the World through the margins of society, the over-full barns and the darkened fields full of smelly sheep. What message about Jesus are you hearing while you work? And, where are you willing to go to because of it?
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-day-nativity-of-our-lord-ii/commentary-on-luke-21-7-8-20-9
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990)
Melinda Quivik: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-eve-nativity-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-21-14-15-20-18
O. Wesley Allen Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/shepherds-visit-2/commentary-on-luke-28-20
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.