Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Easter 3, Year B.
Text: Ac 3.12-19; 1Jn 3.1-7; Lk 24.36-48
On a beautiful weekend such as this one, it is easy to experience the reality of Easter. In here, we proclaim Christ raised from the dead, and out there, we see new life sprouting from every branch, along every road, around every corner. God’s very creation demonstrates the reality of resurrection. What was once dead and brown is now green and springing to life. The sun shines with a warmth that makes us almost forget the chill of winter. Spring reminds us that resurrection is not just what happened to Jesus on Easter morning, it is God’s MO—a characteristic of God’s creation.
We sometimes take this resurrection for granted. The miracle of each new dawn or of the spark of new life in each bud and blossom is lost on us. We’ve come not only to expect it, but to depend on it. God’s world, constantly renewing itself, is what sustains us, provides us with clean water and nutritious food and oxygen. We read in scripture that God has given us the responsibility to tend and nurture this world of God’s, but rather than stewarding it in God’s name, we have begun to exploit it for our own gain.
In the lifespan of our world, human beings have been around for a relatively short time. When speaking in terms of millions or billions of years, our activities and our effects on the world around us barely register. Until now. The scientific community is beginning to recognize that we have entered a new geologic epoch—a new stage in the life of our planet. They are calling it the “anthropocene,” from the Greek word anthropos, which means “human being.” In essence, we have reached a point in the history of our planet where human activity is beginning to have significant, lasting effects on the planet itself. Our presence is measurably changing the climate, the composition of our oceans and our atmosphere, even the geologic formations of the crust as we build and mine and drill and dig. While politicians and corporate spokespersons cast aspersions on the science behind these events, the reality is that we have begun to affect the health of our world.
If nothing changes, in my lifetime we will face a shortage of water as aquifers and reservoirs are drained to irrigate crops. We will face a shortage of oil that will not be solved by new mining technology. We will encounter shifting climates and altered growing seasons and different patterns of rainfall. These things are the result of our thirst for cheap energy, our appetite for non-sustainable food, our demand for our own independence and convenience at the expense of the needs of our global neighbors. They are the result of our belief that the Earth’s resources are endless and ours to use as we please.
For some Christians, these problems are non-issues. They believe that when Christ returns, the old heaven and the old Earth will pass away, so we don’t need to concern ourselves with caring for creation. Others may argue that God created the Earth for us to use as we please, and commanded us to “fill the Earth and subdue it.” These attitudes use God to justify our disregard of the Earth’s gifts and our overuse and abuse of the resources with which God has entrusted us.
That’s why I think it is a misnomer to call this new era the anthropocene. The cause of the problem here is not humanity, but sin; what we are doing not only harms the world that sustains us, it is an affront to the God who created it. More than just the consequences of our own individual choices, this sin is a systemic evil that infests our whole society and culture.
This new epoch would better described as the harmartiocene. Harmartia is the Greek word for sin; it is human sinfulness that is damaging our world. There are those who do not believe we have the power to affect creation; however, we have seen over just the last few decades how untrue this is. Scripture records how, from the very beginning, sin has been marring the goodness of God’s creation—that is what is happening now.
In the letter of 1 John, from which we read today, the Elder writes that Jesus Christ was revealed to us to take away our sin, and that in him there is no sin. The very sin that threatens the health of our world is the sin from which Christ has come to save us. The Jesus we meet in the bible does not justify our appetites for resources at the expense of the world. The Jesus of scripture teaches us to love and serve and even to lay down our lives if need be for the good of the whole human community. This is the Jesus, who when he was raised from the dead, proved to his friends who he was by showing them his hands and his feet: the same hands that touched lepers and performed signs of God’s kingdom, the same feet that took him to dine with sinners and face down Pharisees, and ultimately, that brought him willingly to the cross.
To know Jesus, to have experienced the risen Christ, is incompatible with a life of sin that harms other people or damages God’s creation because Jesus and sin are mutually exclusive. By revealing himself to us, Jesus takes away our sin and purifies us, just as he is pure. He comes among us, even now, and continues to open the scriptures to us —just as he did with his disciples in the gospel reading—showing us a new way of life, a resurrected way of life, a way of life called the Kingdom of God where we understand God’s word as good news for all creation, and we live in communion with our planet rather than in dominion over it. This is accomplished among us, as Luke says, through repentance, which leads to the forgiveness of sins.
We need this forgiveness because, as we are seeing, our sins have lasting implications. Even in his resurrection, Jesus bears the wounds of his crucifixion. The harmartiocene epoch is real and it is affecting our planet. The good news for us is that God has the power to overcome sin and the damage it causes; we know this because Jesus Christ, though crucified, was raised from the dead. Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!]
Just as on that first Easter morning, all creation bears witness to God’s enduring work of resurrection. The Elder reminds us that even now, even as we are sinning against the author of creation, God’s love for us is so great that God claims us through baptism as God’s own children. Through our own resurrection in baptism, we have experienced the risen Christ, we know the one who takes away our sin. We live, therefore, as children of our Father, the Author of Life. Even now, God is using our lives to help bring about new life and forgiveness of sin.
Christ identified himself to his disciples with his hands and feet. In the same way, we make him known to the world with our hands and feet. We proclaim his resurrection with the signs we perform in God’s name and wherever we go, we go bearing the good news of the God’s love which saves us and heals us from sin.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!] Thanks to him, death does not have the final word. We are children of that promise, children of the living God. Through us, God’s love is at work saving this world from the sin that strangles it: from over-consumption, from climate change, from the neglect and the abuse and the destruction of the harmartiocene epoch. We are a part of that. God is working through us, because we are people of the resurrection, children of God. Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!] This is good news not only for us, but for all creation.
Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Easter Morning, Year B.
Text: Mk 16.1-8
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What a terrible ending for a story. Mark leaves us hanging here, wanting more. We want to see the risen Jesus. We want to see him reunited with his friends and hear him forgive Peter for his denials. We want to know that all the details are worked out and the loose ends tied up; but Mark gives us none of that. Instead, he leaves us with frightened women who say nothing to anyone about what they have seen.
This is such a terrible ending, in fact, that over the years, various people have tried to fix it. Look at Mark 16 in your bibles. You’ll find two other endings to this story, sometimes labeled “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and “The Longer Ending of Mark.” They include those details we are left without: Jesus appearing to the disciples, sending them into the world to proclaim the good news, even giving them the power to perform miracles.
When Matthew and Luke and John later record their accounts of the resurrection, they, too, show Jesus appearing to the disciples and even eating with them; he forgives Peter, and sends his friends out to spread the good news. These are all much more satisfying endings than the on Mark provides. And yet, all the evidence suggests that what we read today is the original, authentic ending of Mark’s gospel: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
It really is a terrible ending for a story; but that’s why it is so brilliant. The narrative stops, and we, the readers, are left wishing that somebody should say something. Mark uses this terrible ending to question us, to ask us if we think this story is worth sharing. When you read this ending to Mark’s gospel, if you are left thinking that there should be more, that somebody needs to be told, why is that? In other words, what difference has this story made for you?
In Mark’s story, we want the disciples to know that their friend and teacher is alive. We don’t want to leave Peter weeping in the courtyard. We want somebody to tell them because we would want the same. What we need to know is when Mark first set pen to paper to record this story, he never thought he was writing a historical record of a one-time event. From the very beginning, Mark makes very clear that this story of Jesus—the story of his baptism, his ministry, his life with his disciples, and even his death—is a story about us.
Like those first disciples, we still live in an uncertain world, a world of despair. If you have ever attended a funeral for a loved one, if you have ever sat helplessly by while a doctor has told someone they have 6 months to live, if you have ever watched anyone slowly destroy themselves with addiction, you have felt a tiny bit of this despair. If you have ever wondered where God is or why God could allow something to happen, you’ve stood with Jesus’ mother at Calvary. If you’ve ever experienced such pain or evil that you’ve doubted God’s very existence, you’ve felt the same isolation God’s own son felt while hanging from the cross.
Like those disciples, we, too are waiting for good news. We need someone to come tell us that God’s promise of life is stronger than death. We are anxious to hear that God does care; that God’s love is more powerful than war, than oppression, than hatred and bigotry, than disease and poverty and addiction; that God’s love is bigger than our mistakes and our regrets and our missed opportunities.
The resurrection is good news for us because it means that God is not silent. The resurrection means that God is not impotent. The resurrection means that God is living and active and doing something about all the evil things that seem to have so much power over us. When Jesus rises from the dead, he proves once and for all that all the chaos, all the despair, all the violence and sorrow and death of this world cannot touch him, and he promises that it will not touch us. In the resurrection, God has saved us from hopelessness, from despair, from worrying and wondering and wasting away.
For us, the cross is a symbol of all the many ways that humanity daily rejects God and God’s kingdom of peace and justice. We fight with all our strength against the good that God has designed for us because it is too much for us to handle. It is too inclusive, too powerful, too reckless; we are afraid, like the Pharisees, like the Chief Priests, like the women at the tomb, and that fear drives us away from God. We celebrate at the empty tomb, because by rising to meet us, Jesus tells us that God is bigger than our fears. We fear the powers of this world: we fear the power of death, the decay of disease, that plague of violence. The risen Christ tells us that this world no longer belongs to them: the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God, and of God’s Christ, and he shall reign forever. Death has lost its sting.
To drive home that reality, Mark’s gospel leaves us with a promise. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” For Jesus’ disciples, Galilee was home—somewhere familiar, full of people they knew. These words are an invitation to go back out into familiar territory and among familiar people and see what we could not see before: Jesus, alive and well. He is out there, waiting for us. He has promised to be with us, and he is. We expect to find him in the tomb; but seeing it empty gives us new eyes to see the world in a new way, expecting to find him among us.
With these new eyes, we even see this insufficient ending of Mark’s gospel in a new way. If you look in your Bibles again, way back to the first chapter of Mark, you will see that the first words of the book are “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” These words aren’t referring to Mark, chapter 1. This whole book—all of Mark’s gospel—is just the beginning. That’s why the ending is so terrible: because it’s not an ending. When the women leave the tomb that Sunday morning, the story isn’t over, it’s just begun. We know that because we are here today, listening to this old familiar story. Today as you hear these words, remember that just like that day at the empty tomb, the story isn’t over.
The wondrous acts of God transforming this broken world into a place of dignity, harmony and justice only just began with a man walking out of a mausoleum. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! [He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!] and God is just warming up. The story is not over, and so we give thanks for an empty tomb and a missing Christ and unanswered questions, because it means this story of God’s love is just beginning.
Life is full of emptiness and empty people, but the resurrection is the first word of God’s promise to bring fullness to all humanity, to all of creation. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! [He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!] If you believe that, if you know it in your bones to be true, if it gives you joy and hope that you cannot explain and that cannot be overcome by the worst life has to offer, then don’t run home and say nothing to anyone. Don’t leave the world hanging. The world is full of people quietly wrestling with despair because the death they have experienced keeps them from seeing the new life God is offering them. This story is just beginning. Alleluia. Christ is Risen. [He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!]
Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Lent 1, Year B.
Text: Gen 9.8-17; 1Pet 3.18-22; Mk 1.9-15
The night we returned from our vacation at Holden Village, I got online and began catching up with the news only to learn that while we were gone, there had been another school shooting, this time at the University of North Carolina. You know that feeling you get when you read a headline like that? It feels like a punch in the gut. It makes you question what is going on in the world. If God is as all-knowing and all-powerful as we believe, and if God really is loving, then why does God allow stuff like this to persist? Why doesn’t God step in to do something?
I’ve seen people lose their faith over this question, finally deciding that God either can’t exist or isn’t worth our time if God can’t intervene in the evil that threatens our world daily. Perhaps it is comforting to know that we are not the only people to wrestle with this question. Our ancestors in faith struggled with this same doubt: doesn’t God care enough about us to save us from this evil?
The story of Noah is a story about God doing just what we constantly wish God would do: step in and put an end to evil. However, the problem, we soon learn, is that evil lives in us. The only way for God to effectively wipe out the violence and cruelty in the world is to wipe out all the people; so that’s what God does. Even the most righteous person alive—Noah, a man with the patience of a saint and the disposition of an angel—is not perfect. Sin and evil survive even in him, and so God’s intervention fails.
That is why when we read this story from Genesis today, you will notice that God’s promise is one-directional: God makes no demands of us nor lays any responsibilities on humanity. God simply promises to never again destroy the world because it didn’t work, and it wasn’t worth the lives that were lost or the pain that God’s heart endured at the destruction of God’s creation.
That is also why we don’t see God stepping in to eradicate evil today: because of Noah’s story, we know both that the price is too high, and that it wouldn’t work anyway. God hasn’t given up, though. God promised Noah to never again destroy the world with a flood; but God has sent another flood to save us.
The flood I mean is the flood of baptism. The author of 1 Peter neatly draws the connection between our baptism and the flood of Noah. Baptism is God’s flood now, God’s attempt to rid the world of violence, cruelty, injustice and destruction. At our Ash Wednesday worship service, Pastor Stephanie explained how God’s grace is like a circle—it has no beginning and no end; you can’t “fall off” of it if you go too far to one side. The author of 1 Peter reminds us that God’s salvation is “once for all,” that like God’s promise to Noah, it is not dependent on anything we do or don’t do, on anything we believe or don’t believe. God doesn’t work that way: the flood has already come, and by God’s grace we have already been spared.
There are two ways to respond to the reprieve God has granted us. The first is to live however we please without regard for the consequences, knowing that God has promised not to stop us from destroying ourselves or others any way we choose. This is bad news for us, because it means that it is well within our power as humans to corrupt God’s creation worse than during the time of Noah.
However, we can also respond with gratitude, living our lives dedicated to the one who has saved us, the one who loves the world and the people around us more deeply than we ever could. This is the good news, because with God as our guide we have also been given the power to bring about the fullness of God’s reign on earth, and to really, actually eradicate the problem of evil in our world.
That is why God sent the Son to live among us. Evil will not be overcome with force or violence—we know that from the story of Noah—so Jesus came to show us the way to overcome evil with compassion, obedience, and love. Rather than destroying those who do evil, Jesus chose to be destroyed by evil, and in so doing, showed us that evil can never destroy the power of God’s grace. So it is the grace that saves us, not the violence; and it is that grace which we have been given in our baptism. Just as the flood of rain brought destruction to the world, the flood of baptism brings grace and life, and we are the agents of that grace; we are the raindrops of God’s new flood.
That is why we observe Lent. Lent is a time for us to examine ourselves, our actions, and our world, to intentionally look around at what God is doing and to see how God is inviting us to be a part of it. It is also a time to look around and see the ways we are not working for God’s reign, and to ask for God’s help to re-center our hearts and minds on God, rather than ourselves. In other words, to “repent.”
To borrow a phrase from our letter today, Lent is our time to “appeal to God for a good conscience,” to realize we are not perfect and are sometimes a part of the problem, and to ask God to continue transforming us into part of the solution by conforming our wills to God’s. God’s will is for the healing and restoration of the world, and that is the work which Christ began. Together as the Body of Christ, formed by baptism, that is the work we continue in his name.
We read today how even Jesus began his work with a period of fasting and preparation. So, we too take time to prepare ourselves for the work of our baptism—God’s saving work in the world. Some of the ways we prepare ourselves might be through fasting, prayer, self-examination, works of love, or sacrificial giving to causes for the healing of creation. These are disciplines of Lent which help us to remember to put the needs and benefits of the world ahead of our own individual desires.
We practice them together so that we can support one another as we do them. When I was growing up, I was taught that it was best to keep your Lenten devotion private: it’s between you and God. However, it can help for us to share them with each other so that we can support one another. We observe Lent together to remember that we are not alone; and one of the ways we get the most support and strength for our discipline is through gathering for worship and sharing the Holy Supper. Whatever you might do during Lent to prepare yourself for the work of your baptism, the point should be to shift the focus from ourselves and our needs and desires to God’s will, because if God’s will is done, then our needs will be met, too.
This is what we mean when as Lutheran Christians we talk about salvation. Contrary to the way some see it, salvation is not just about being granted a seat in heaven. Salvation is also being granted the assurance of God’s love and grace so that no matter what happens, we can live without fear, working ever and always for God’s kingdom on earth, and knowing that we are helping bring about God’s reign as the Body of Christ.
Salvation is knowing that nothing—not racism or classism, not riots or beheadings, not political wrangling or outright civil wars—can stop the flood of God’s grace from saving this world and everyone in it from the evil that holds us captive. Salvation is knowing that even when we fall short, when we lose focus, when we forget what it is we are called to do, God’s grace is at work in us, and slowly but surely, God is completing the work begun in the flood, the work continued at the cross, the work charged to us in our baptism. Salvation is knowing that though evil endures in the world, God’s love is stronger.
Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Baptism of our Lord, Year B.
Text: Gen 1.1-5; Ps 29; Acts 19.1-7; Mk 1.4-13
Right from the outset, Mark’s gospel is setting us up to be surprised. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” it announces. Whether we are 1st century Palestinians or 21st century Washingtonians, these words conjure up for us certain expectations, all of which are tipped on their heads when we meet Jesus.
As people flock from all over Judea and Jerusalem to see John the Baptizer, he tells them of one more powerful than he who is coming. This one, he says, will be so far beyond him that he would not even make a worthy slave for the one who will come—unworthy even to untie his shoes. While John baptizes with plain, old water, this one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And that’s when we meet Jesus.
In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee. Nazareth is so small and obscure that nobody from Judea would have known it existed, and even Galileans who had heard of the place could hardly believe that “anything good could come out of Nazareth.” (Jn 1.46) Yet, this is from where the Christ, the Son of God, comes. The one who baptizes with the Spirit comes down to the Jordan, and what happens? He is baptized with plain, old water by plain, old John—John who is unworthy even to untie his shoes.
Why? If Jesus is God’s Son, if Jesus has no need for repentance or forgiveness of sins, if Jesus is so much greater than John, why does he come down to the Jordan and allow himself to be washed by John? The author of Matthew’s gospel struggled with this: he includes the story that when Jesus arrives, John refuses to baptize him at first. “No, this is all backwards,” he says, “You should be baptizing me!”
The author of Mark’s gospel has no such story, no such justification for this strange scene. He simply lets us dwell in the irony of the long awaited Messiah, the Son of God himself, coming from Nazareth and receiving the baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins by John in the Jordan. The gospel writer knows this will make our ears tingle, and he wants us to pay attention. This event at the river isn’t just something that happened to Jesus along the way, this is the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Of the four gospels in our Bible, Mark’s was the first written. The author is not eloquent or literary; his writing is terse, simple, and sparse. He had probably never written anything on this scale before, and very probably had never even heard or read a gospel before. Obviously, the most important part of Jesus’ story—the part that makes it memorable—is his death and resurrection, but our narrator doesn’t start there. As he starts from scratch and invents the genre of “gospel,” the event with which he chooses to begin his account of Jesus’ life is his baptism.
This is because in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ baptism is the defining moment of his ministry. Without the baptism, there are no miracles, no parables, no Passion and no resurrection. It is the baptism which sets everything else in motion. The first thing we learn about Jesus in Mark’s gospel is not something he did, but something God did to him.
Mark paints us a beautifully symmetric, picture of what occurs. As Jesus comes up, the Holy Spirit comes down. The scene is reminiscent of Genesis 1, with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters—a signal that God is about to do something big. Jesus comes out of the water, and the Spirit goes into him. In one moment, God and human, heaven and earth meet at one single point, one person, and that’s when everything begins to happen. As the water runs down Jesus’ face, a voice from heaven tells him “You are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” The story isn’t clear if anybody else heard this, or just Jesus. He comes up, the Spirit comes down, and “immediately” the Spirit drives him into the wilderness.
Mark’s gospel is painfully clear that baptism is not just a beginning, but the beginning. Even for Jesus, God’s own Son, baptism is the event that propelled him into the wilderness, to Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem, and ultimately to Calvary and the empty tomb. The baptism with plain, old water that marks the beginning of Jesus’ story is the same baptism that marks the beginning of ours. The Spirit Jesus received at his baptism drove him into the wilderness, and we receive the same Spirit at ours. The question is left hanging: where is the Spirit driving us?
When Jesus comes up out of the water, the narrator tells us that the heavens were “torn apart” as the Spirit descended into him and the voice named him God’s Son. We see this scene repeated in reverse at the moment of his death: as Jesus “breathes out” his spirit, the temple curtain which separated the Holy of Holies from the world—embroidered with mystical images of the heavens*—was “torn apart,” and the centurion standing at the foot of the cross names him God’s Son. When the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, the cross is where that road led him. That moment in the river changed him; in that moment God’s heart and Christ’s combined in perfect rhyme. God’s Spirit compelled him to live—and ultimately to die—to bring about God’s kingship on earth.
In my experience, people often see baptism as the punch on their ticket into heaven. It’s how they know they are “saved.” This is true, but like everything else Mark’s gospel teaches us about Jesus and God’s kingship, it is not true in the way we expect. Baptism is not about reserving our seat on the train bound for glory; it is about receiving God’s Spirit, the Spirit which drives us into the wilderness, drives us to live dangerously, drives us to give our lives for God and God’s will. Baptism is about salvation, but not ours: baptism is about the salvation of God’s good creation.
Baptism is what connects us to Jesus, what ties us both to his death and to his resurrection. Jesus’ baptism marked the moment when the heart of God and the heart of Christ were combined in perfect rhyme; for us as well, it marks for each of us the moment when our hearts are made to beat in time with theirs, and we are added to the dance.** In baptism, God’s Spirit makes its mark on us, too, and we are driven into the wilderness to face temptation, hardship, maybe even death, but always with the words from heaven ringing in our ears: “You are my child, the beloved. In you, I am well pleased.”
In baptism, Christ became like us—just another face in the crowd, just another sinner dunked under the water. Then, because he is who he is, in baptism, we become like him—children of God sharing in his resurrected life. Before we do anything, before we confess anything, before we accomplish or believe or prove anything, God claims us and calls us beloved. Then, we are sent out. Baptism is where everything begins. Baptism is where God’s kingdom begins.
* “…but before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures.” Josephus, War of the Jews. 5.5.4
** References to our hymn of the day which followed this sermon in worship: “O Christ, Your Heart, Compassionate“
Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Christmas Eve.
Text: Lk 2.1-20
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” We’ve all got a mental image of these shepherds. For most of us, it’s probably the kind of picture that we so often see portrayed in Christmas cards and Nativity scenes: gentle men with beards and crooks, dressed in humble robes, maybe one of them is carrying a lamb over his shoulders. For a baby born in a camel stall, they seem the perfect visitors. Their presence completes the scene of Jesus’ humble birth among the noble livestock in the stable. The reality of shepherds, however, is a bit different.
In the time of the Bible, shepherding was not a respected profession. Shepherds were stereotyped as liars, degenerates, and thieves. Shepherding was the work you took when you couldn’t hold down a respectable job. Because they spent all their time out in the fields with sheep, not only did they stink, but they also lacked the manners and etiquette of polite society.
The testimony of a shepherd was inadmissible in court because they couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth, and many towns had ordinances barring them from entering the city limits. Luke tells us these shepherds were watching their flocks by night, which is to say that they were guarding their sheep from theft by other shepherds, probably while armed.
The religious establishment took particular exception to shepherds. Because of their profession, they were unable to keep the Sabbath, and were ritually unclean and therefore unable to enter the temple. The Pharisees considered shepherds the scum of society, as bad as prostitutes and tax collectors.
These were not the meek and gentle folk we have represented in our children’s story bibles. They were frightening, dangerous, and unpredictable. If Luke were setting this story in 2014, the heavenly chorus might appear to a gang of Hell’s Angels.
Luke’s gospel is full of stories of God reaching out to the people on the margins, on the outside. Jesus spends most of his time with these “sinners,” assuring them that God cares for them, too. But shepherds—isolated from society, shunned by religious folk, feeling disappointed or abandoned by God—they weren’t just outsiders. They had given up caring that they were on the outside. As far as they were concerned, God wanted nothing to do with them, and they wanted nothing to do with God. They had given up on God.
Yet, these are the people to whom God sent angels to declare the birth of Christ. The word “angel” literally means “messenger;” it was not uncommon for kings and dignitaries to send messengers—“angels”—to announce the birth of an heir or victory in battle. However, these “angels” were typically sent to other kings and dignitaries. God’s angels were sent to shepherds; shady men who wanted nothing to do God. They may have given up on God, God had not given up on them.
This was no accident. God sent the heavenly messengers to shepherds for the same reason that Jesus was born a peasant in a stable rather than as a prince in a palace: because Jesus is Emmanuel—“God-with-us”—and God can only be with us where we are. God doesn’t seek out the people who have it all together, but the unwed mothers, the doubting fiancées, the shepherds. When we are at our most ragged, that is where God meets us.
We have not just sentimentalized the shepherds, but the whole Christmas story. We sing of the silent, holy night when all was calm and bright, we sing of a newborn baby who neither fusses nor blows out his diaper. These things weren’t any more real 2000 years ago than they are now. We forget the scene that Luke paints for us in this story: foreign armies occupied Palestine and Caesar issued decrees and edicts from Rome. A very pregnant Mary travels with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey, only to find the town so packed that the inn is full, and they must sleep in the stable with the livestock. This night is far from peaceful, far from quiet. It is just like the world around us now: buzzing with activity, filled with fear, and balanced on the edge of despair.
I had somebody say to me the other day that Christmas should be a time of happiness because we are expecting a baby, and that is always a happy occasion. It’s true that Christmas brings good news which should lighten all our hearts, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is happy. Any new mother will tell you that the birth of a child brings not only joy, but worry about money, fear for the baby’s health and well-being, doubt over whether we’ll make good parents. Many of us this time of year are like the shepherds, stuck out in the fields, experiencing loneliness, grief, depression, or anger. For many of us Christmas is a time of sadness, rather than joy. It is to those of us stuck in the fields, choking on the darkness in the world, that God’s messengers come in light to announce the good news: Emmanuel is born.
This messiness of life is precisely when and where God chooses to enter it. If we deny the realness of Christmas, forget about the fear and the pain and worry, we forget its importance. Jesus did not come to help us avoid life’s burdens, but to bear them beside us, to be “God-with-us.” He came for the sake of the shepherds and all those who don’t feel worthy of God’s presence, to announce to us that God has not given up on us.
It is in the midst of the worries and the sorrows of this world that we hear God’s promise announced most clearly. It is in the chaos of protests and riots over slain young men, in the terror of ISIS executions, in the agonizing grief of police officers gunned down in their patrol cars and children attacked in their elementary schools, in the clamor of the jobless, the hungry, the immigrant, and the voiceless crying out for justice that God suddenly slips into our world with a message: “Unto you this day is born a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The sign of this savior from God is not a remedy to our problems or a king arriving in glory, but a simple child, swaddled and lying in a feed trough.
If we only imagine the Christmas card version of Jesus’ birth with its serene smiles and reverent creatures and poor-but-noble shepherds, then this story has nothing to offer us, because we don’t live in a Christmas card. Christmas becomes just another day, the Christ child just another baby. We will only expect to find God when things are going well and we are content and happy. The real world is much more complicated, much more dangerous. Thankfully, it was into this real world that Christ came, not the one on the front of the Christmas card. When we find ourselves down and out and at our worst—in the fields by night—we know that God will find us there.
This is the good news which God’s messenger angels brought to the shepherds that night: that even out here in the fields of despair, even isolated from the rest of society, in spite of who you may be and what you may have done, this good news is for you. You may have given up on God, and it may seem like God could care less you, but today, a savior is born for you. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, God is paying attention, and God is doing something. God doesn’t just sit up on some throne somewhere watching us, God is here with us. Christ came to walk alongside us and share our burdens. He came as living proof that not even death can keep God’s presence away from us and to help us experience a life rich with that presence, a life that is eternal.
Perhaps the best news of all is that while we are all gathered in here tonight, even now God’s messengers are proclaiming that news to shepherds out there in those fields. Even now, the heavenly chorus is somewhere singing to a bunch of people who have no need of God to tell them that Christ has come to be with them, too. Not only that, God is inviting us to be those angels, those messengers, proclaiming the good news of God-with-us.
Even the shepherds—rejected and despised by everyone—left that night praising and glorifying God, because they saw that God’s promise is true. God is with us; the King of Glory comes to us even in a manure-filled stable. We come here tonight as shepherds, terrified by what we see on the news; but we go out as angels, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, as it had been told to us: Christ is born in Bethlehem. God is with us, now and forevermore.