When it comes to casting a Christmas pageant, shepherds rank low on the list of favorite parts. Mary and Joseph are, of course, the prime parts. Then there’s the magi. They get to wear fancy robes bring gifts to the baby Jesus and meet with Herod. Angels don’t rank with wise men, but at least they have more star power than shepherds, who get to wear bathrobes and towels on their heads. No crowns and no wings. No gifts and no songs. Instead of singing about the good news in the skies, they hang out in the hills with the sheep and the dogs. There’s nothing too exciting about these roles, except that Luke seems to think that they’re important.
You might notice that this telling of the birth story doesn’t have any wise men, kings, or magi – whatever name you want to give them. That’s Matthew’s version, and he has a different agenda. Maybe he knew that Christmas pageants would need some staring roles. But Luke doesn’t seem impressed with star power.
Although David was called the shepherd king and the 23rd Psalm calls God our shepherd, shepherds were really outcasts. They were dirty, smelly, rough and tumble men. This may explain why no one really wants to play a shepherd in the Christmas play – except maybe Pigpen and he’s specially equipped for the role! On this particular night, however, their boredom is broken by a great light in the sky and a heavenly song. The good news comes first to this little group of shepherds. They get to hear the good news that the savior, Christ the Lord, is born in the city of David.
When we think about important births, we don’t expect that shepherds will be the first to hear the news or even that shepherds will be the first to share the news. Of course, no one would have expected that the savior would be born in a feeding trough. But that’s the story that Luke tells.
As unlikely as this story is, there’s a message for us in it. It’s a message about the kind of God we’ve come to worship tonight. This morning we heard Mary sing of God’s "preferential option for the poor" and about God’s willingness to bring down the high and the mighty. Now we discover that God is calling shepherds to proclaim this good news to the world.
If it were up to me, and it isn’t, I’d have turned to Larry King, Anderson Cooper, or maybe Neil Cavuto to tell this story. If I was God and I was going to reveal myself to the world, I’d come from the sky riding on a chariot, resplendent in glory, and surrounded by the host of heaven. That would be more impressive, but that’s not Luke’s story. Instead, Emmanuel is born in a manger, surrounded by animals, and a few dirty smelly shepherds. Yes, there are angels singing, but they sing to the shepherds and not to Mary and Joseph or even Herod.
I enjoy a really joyous Christmas, just like everyone else. The more decorations the better. I even dress up for the occasion in a robe and a stole. No shepherd’s cloak for me. Luke’s choice of shepherds to star in this story, however, fits his broader message. As I said this morning, Luke tells us how Jesus went to the synagogue one day and turned to Isaiah. When he read that God’s good news must be proclaimed to the poor, the lame, the imprisoned, and the marginalized, he said to the synagogue: this is my calling. The only time Jesus got to visit Herod or Pilate, he was on trial for subversion. Jesus didn’t take up residence in the Temple, but instead he preached from the hill tops and boats. He hung out with a rough crowd of Galilean fishermen, reviled tax collectors, and most shocking of all, with women.
This Christmas, as we gather around our trees and open our presents, let’s remember whom we’ve come to honor. It’s not the king of glory, but the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by lowly shepherds. Remember too that this is only the beginning of the story. We must not leave Jesus in the manger, lest his cuteness lull us to sleep and we forget his purpose in coming.
In a few moments we’ll gather at the Lord’s Table. This Table stands as a reminder that although the journey begins in a stable it must go through a cross. There is no glory, it would seem, without first sharing in suffering. The end result, however, is a transformed life and a transformed world. And so, may the Spirit of Christmas move in our hearts, making us all new persons. Merry Christmas!
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christmas Eve, 2006