When it comes to casting a Christmas pageant, shepherds rank low on the list of desirable parts. The most coveted roles, of course, are Mary and Joseph. After that, I expect that the three wise men get top billing. Being one of the magi is nice, because you get to wear fancy robes and bring gifts to the baby Jesus. While angels don’t rank with the wise men, at least they have more star power than shepherds.
As for the shepherds, they get to wear bathrobes with blankets over their heads – You need to think Linus here. No crowns and no wings, just blankets and bathrobes. No gifts and no grand songs to sing. While the angels hang out in the heavens, broadcasting the good news, 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 Luke’s birth story doesn’t include 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 someday need some staring roles, and so he added them into the mix. But Luke doesn’t seem impressed with star power, and so instead of the three kings, he has shepherds watching the sheep by night.
Despite the fact that David was known to be the shepherd king and the 23rd Psalm calls God our shepherd, shepherds lived on the margins of society. They were dirty, smelly, rough kinds of people. This may explain why no one really wants to play a shepherd in the Christmas play, although you would think that maybe Pigpen would have made been especially equipped for the role! It’s too bad that Lucy gives him the role of the inn keeper. Of course, Linus already had a blanket to throw over his head!
As we hear this story, I would invite us to step back in time, so that we can share in the shepherd’s night time vigil. As we’re watching the sheep, making sure that none of them wanders off or gets poached by a wolf, the silence of the night is interrupted by a heavenly song and a great light. What you hear in this song is the good news that in the city of David, the Savior, Christ the Lord has been born. Consider for a moment that the news comes first, not to the palace of the king, but to a group of shepherds sitting on the margins of society. It’s just one more reminder that the ways of God often turn our expectations on their head.
As we come tonight, let us remember that not only did good news come to the shepherds, but the news they received tells us that the Creator of all things chose to be revealed to us in a babe, born in a stable’s feeding trough. In telling the story this way, Luke continues the story he began with Mary’s song about God’s preferential option for the poor, and God’s willingness to bring down the high and the mighty. This is the news that the shepherds have been called upon to proclaim to the world.
The angel’s song rings out: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” And it rings out on the lips of the shepherds as well. And the message is this:
God’s love made visible! Incomprehensible!
Christ is invincible! His love shall reign!
From love so bountiful, blessings uncountable make death surmountable!
His Love Shall reign!
(Iola Brubeck, “God’s Love Made Visible!”Chalice Hymnal 171).
As we return to our homes this evening and celebrate Christmas over the next day or so – gathering as we shall around trees to open presents, and dinner tables, may we remember who it is we have come to honor. May we remember that the King of Glory has been revealed to us in a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by lowly shepherds.
Remember as well that this is only the beginning of the story. Jesus doesn’t stay in the manger – lest his cuteness lull us to sleep and cause us to forget the purpose of his coming. That purpose is to reveal to us God’s work of transformation in the world, a task God has invited us to share in.
Therefore, as we come tonight to the Table and share in the Lord’s meal, may we bear in our hearts this news: Although the journey begins in a stable it will lead to a cross, and from the cross to the resurrection, for as the words of Iola Brubeck makes clear – “His love shall reign.” So, as we celebrate this great day, may we join together at the table and “open hearts and pray. His love shall reign!” May this be the message the shepherds bring to our hearts this Christmas Eve.
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christmas Eve 2009