Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2016
on Luke 2:8-20
Welcome to the third Sunday of advent. I hope you all are enjoying this season in church and in life. As we approach Christmas there are more and more celebrations every day at work, school, in the community and church and I hope at home. I, understandably, have many clergy and church leader friends in my social media, and every year about this time they (and I) all get overwhelmed with so many worship services, concerts, parties, obligations and other church stuff. Everyone does this time of year, but with pastors and church leaders the way that frustration expresses itself can be particular and funny. For instance many people in my social media feeds are super annoyed year after year that people are celebrating Christmas and it's ‘only’ the third Sunday of Advent, or they are annoyed at the color of candles used, or the order of the words those candles represent in their churches (you wouldn’t believe how many debates I have seen in the last week about Hope/Peace/Joy/Love, and we aren’t using any of them this year).
All of which wholly misses the point of the season as far as I am concerned. Don’t get me wrong, the liturgical stories we tell with these symbols and seasons are important. The stories we tell are important period. And if the story we tell is that the pastor is mad and stressed that we have purple candles instead of blue ones, what on earth does that have to do with the story of the entrance of God into the world as a helpless child, the witness of his teenage parents, the turning upside down of the world’s expectations in all that we know came with him? Nothing as far as I can tell.
Also, I may be frustrated with this model of ‘we can’t have Christmas during advent’ because I’m not sure how we know what we are anticipating or hoping for if we don’t already know the story that is coming.
... And I probably also feel a tiny bit guilty because I love all the Christmas I see everywhere. For instance, I find myself watching way too many Christmas movies these days, of all sorts- from great ones like White Christmas, Miracle on 34th street, Elf and (my favorite) The Muppet Christmas carol, to the all-to formulaic sort that air all day, every day on Hallmark channel. Every Advent I also re-read my favorite Christmas book (other than the original story, of course). It’s a book of science fiction short stories and novellas set at Christmas time by Connie Willis called Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Perhaps my favorite part of the book, or at least where I start every year is with her introduction. It is probably why I return to this book every year, not because I love the stories of curmudgeon men turned into the characters in the clock at a toy store (a la FAO Schwartz) , or office Christmas celebrations suddenly changed with magic, or even the story of a church choir member on Christmas eve-eve finding Mary and Joseph in the snow at the door of the church and helping them.
It's because this introduction explains what she loves, and hates, about various sorts of Christmas stories. Beginning with her dislike for stories like Hans Christen Anderson's’ style of sad sob stories at Christmas, or her dislike for It’s a Wonderful Life. I think perhaps I love the introduction because I agree with her on this count. Neither the sob stories of Anderson or the unresolved details at the end of It's a Wonderful Life do justice to the original heart of what Christmas is about.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of hardships and struggles in the story of Christmas, and I believe wholeheartedly that part of what God does for us in the story of Christmas and its continuation in the life of Jesus through the resurrection is the redemption of some seriously messy, confused, poorly lived lives (including George Bailey if he were a real person), I just don’t think it’s about wallowing in the sappy overwrought joy of so many of these Christmas stories, or on the other hand dwelling in the darkness of human tragedy or brokenness. And for me, and Willis, this is just what so many Christmas stories do wrong.
I believe that the story of the Shepherds, as one part of this original Christmas story is a prime example of a middle road between sentimental joy and unredeemed human hardship.
Shepherds in the time of Jesus birth were a bit of an odd occupation. Prior to the people of Israel’s time in Egypt shepherds were well thought of, solid members of society- they did a vital task to the community and generally speaking did it with honor and love for their work. But between slavery in Egypt, escape to the promised land, and then wandering and wars through the time of the prophets the words of scripture about shepherds change in tone and character.
We of course know that King David was a shepherd as a boy (after all they find him in a field with sheep when they come to get him to fight Goliath, and he’s handy with that sling because of his work protecting the sheep) but for the most part shepherds were seen as unclean- they could not, after all, follow religious purity laws because their jobs were 24/7, and somewhere along the way gained a reputation for being shifty and untrustworthy if they were not family. If they were family it was left to the last son who was already fairly powerless and disregarded in many ways to do the job. Scripture in the Prophets and Psalms use the language of God’s shepherds or God as Shepherd as a positive even in this time, but even so, in Israel being a shepherd was not a great thing to be.
So then we come to the Christmas story-
Mary and Joseph have seen angels,
accepted this giant responsibility
have made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem
get there just in time to discover that they have to sleep in the garage of Joseph’s aunt’s house with the dogs and animals right as Mary goes into labor.
The story is high drama,
and right at that moment there is an interruption in the story to tell us that more angels have appeared- not to comfort Mary and give her some pain medication during labor, not to help Joseph support her, not to get the family to let them have a bedroom in the house, no- the angels appear to shepherds getting ready to settle down for the night in the fields with the sheep.
... Uh, excuse me. What? I thought this story was the story of the birth of God, why all of a sudden are these angels appearing to grubby, outcast, migrant farm workers? It's just weird.
But nonetheless here they are, an angel and a huge crowd of others in attendance appear to these nameless shepherds and say “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.”
They begin with the standard angel greeting card- don’t be afraid. And go on to explain that they have brought great news to everyone- the savior has come and you will know it because you will find a baby in a feeding trough.
WHAT? God’s salvation to all people- foretold for eons, will be a helpless infant, and found in the feeding trough for animals? And why have the angels come to these shepherds?
At this point I think I would be confused and asking a lot of questions, then again I don't actually know what the presence of Angels is like, so perhaps I would believe them just like the shepherds do, who instead of asking a thousand and one questions leave the sheep in the fields (showing a certain disregard for their jobs) and immediately run off to find this thing they have been told about. And they do. They tell Mary and Joseph and apparently everyone else they see what has happened. Mary considers carefully what they say, and they return joyfully to their work having seen what God said would happen come to life.
To me the story of the shepherds is actually where sooo many of our Christmas movies and stories come from. Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and even later the Wise Men know for sure what is going on by the time their stories really get rolling. But the shepherds are sent to see and then tell, told by an angel, and still have to go and see it in reality before they totally believe.
How many of our non-Jesus related Christmas tales hinge on this very thing? Scrooge must be shown his past, present and future in scary detail before his heart changes, all the characters around Buddy the Elf have to meet Santa and see the sleigh fly before they can believe (except his little brother who still has the innocence of childhood), in Miracle on 34th street Virginia has to see a lot of little things about the kind old man and be given what she asks for to truly believe that he is Santa.
It seems to me that the core of the stories we tell and love in this season is personal doubt overcoming our joy. In them eventually the unfailing goodness and truth of the story of Christmas makes everything alright. In all of these stories from these Shepherds in an Israeli pasture two thousand years ago, to elves and children in the 21st century the question is not is the story good or true, but what does it take for us to believe in the goodness and truth of the story.
In the stories of Christmas- Biblical and fictional, the stories go one step beyond just the credulity of shepherds, children, and outsiders and ask what does it take not just to display this truth to the one that is told it, but how much will it take for the world to know too? What does it take to get Scrooge not just to believe in Christmas but to run through the streets to Bob Cratchit's house to share it, or for not just Virginia to believe in Santa but all of New York so that Santa doesn’t go to jail. Or for shepherds- lowly, forgotten, unwanted- to see the story, tell the story, and believe it so well that all in Bethlehem takes notice.
It is about belief and knowing the story is true, and knowing that in it we have God’s goodness, favor, and truth.
So the question for us as we join these Bethlehem shepherds is what in this season, from the religious rigor of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany storytelling, to the sloppy storytelling of a thousand Christmas movies brings you so much joy in the truth that God is good and comes to us in a newborn baby that you can run through the streets with abandon shouting ‘Glory to God’ and ‘Emmanuel has come for us’ and ‘God is good’? What brings you such joy in the season of busyness, and scrooge, and retail bottom lines, and sappy commercialism that those things don’t matter, don’t bother you, and in fact just make your heart sing all the louder once you get to silent night and go tell it on the mountain.
Whatever it is that brings you that joy, shows you the shining truth, I hope that you get lots of it for Christmas, that it is the present you asked Santa for, that it is the thing you give thanks to God for in prayer every day. Because it is, in fact, why Christ came, so that we might rejoice in God’s presence in our lives and in the joy that comes along with it. Amen.