From the Bible:
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.” (Luke 2:8-10).
So, here we are…
Already the beginning of December. Not quite halfway through Advent.
Despite the pace and sometimes pressure of these days, this continues to be my favorite time of year…standing front and center in terms of what I believe.
But, in something I read this week, written by a person who I consider to be a thoughtful and insightful thinker about the church today, the comment was made that,
“Advent is the answer to a question that no one asks.”
Maybe he is right.
All around us the preparation for Christmas started weeks ago long before you and I opened our Bible to read or reread the visionary poetry of Isaiah that speaks of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and nations no longer learning the art of war. Or the poetry set to music that speaks about a child being born for us. Or, before we turned to the verses for this morning about shepherds and angels and some sort of good news.
Yet, here we are anyway…
Right smack dab in the middle of it.
Well on our way towards Christmas.
And, at least for me, still with a long list of what needs done to meet my own expectations and the expectations of others. And with longings that push downward towards the depth of my soul.
So, how did the verses go that were read this morning as we lit our Advent candles?
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields keeping watch keeping watch over their flock by night. When suddenly…”
I am sure you remember how the rest of it goes or you can look back at your bulletin to read it there. The story is so familiar. Even if you have never been to church or opened a Bible, you probably know something of the story from the familiar scenes on the front of Christmas cards or from holiday commercials or the music piped into almost every store that you enter.
Ruebenesque type angels hovering in the air.
Safe. Secure. Warm.
Perfect lighting to illuminate all the right spots.
Is that how it was?
How the story really goes?
And, if it is, where is good news in all of that…for anyone?
But what if the story Luke intends to tell is really different from all of that?
Different from images created by Christmas cards or Christmas carols?
What if was all much more uncertain and much more unsettling?
Here is what I think the scene looks like:
Unwashed shepherds…hired hands…closer to day-laborers than salaried employees.
In the fields beyond the town watching over someone else’s sheep.
Kept at arm’s length from others because of who they are and what they do and how they look.
Living and eking out a living in a country controlled by an occupying army.
Doing what they do every day…day in and day out…when angels appear.
Not hovering cherubim or seraphim (whatever they are!), but a heavenly host. A heavenly army.
Messengers (which is what the Greek word for angels mean) sent direct from God or the gods who, at least in their understanding, were angry about something more often than not and in need of being placated more often than not.
A heavenly army possibly as grim and foreboding as Caesar’s army.
Or, our army.
Or, their army.
Or, anyone’s army.
Suddenly surrounding terrified shepherds only to say, “Be not afraid.”
Can you believe it? In a situation like that surrounded by that which threatens to overwhelm you in an instant…“Be not afraid.”
That’s the scene, I think.
At least the way I imagine it.
Which is all well and good, but what does it mean?
Where might we find that intersection between shepherds and angels with your life and mine as we move through Advent and turn towards Christmas.
We live in what many describe as a fearful time.
Instead of occupying armies we have occupy Wall Street even creeping over into occupy Main Street. More children stand in line at our schools for free or reduced lunches than ever before.
Once secure jobs are now on the line not because you can’t do them or won’t do it, but because you are told that they can’t afford you any more.
And, all of that is just in our backyard.
We are told to be afraid.
Of each other.
Of those who think differently than you or who take a political position different than you or worship in ways different than you.
Afraid of the stranger.
Afraid of the foreigner.
Afraid of the immigrant.
And sometimes even to be afraid of God…
Who we are told (not here, I hope, but certainly in the circles out there, including in an email I received again this morning) that God is more about judgment than grace. More about hell than about hope.
And, into that mix of life and world as it is…
Our lives and world just as they are…
- Working hard to sustain relationships and to raise our children.
- Doing our jobs or hoping to keep our jobs.
- Trying our best to make sense of these confusing times.
Into our lives and world come these surprising words…
God, one more time, turning perceptions and expectations upside down and inviting us to turn them upside down as well.
‘Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
The actual “good news of great joy” was not included in what we read this morning, but maybe you know the story well enough to know what comes next. The advance angel announces the birth of a child who will be known as Emmanuel/God with us turning the popular notion of God on its head.
Not God up there or out there or someplace else…
But God right here, right now with you and me just as we are right in the middle of life as it is.
Right in the middle of your life as it is.
God here not in anger.
Not here to get even.
Not here to pronounce judgment.
But here to be with you and with me and to turn our lives in the direction of…
Hope…and promise…and possibility…and peace.
All well and good, right?
Just what you would expect a preacher to say on a Sunday leading up to Christmas.
But here is the catch in the form of a question.
Is what I said about God true?
About God with us right here, right now, with you and with me and mixed up in this wonderful, unsettling, uncertain world as it is?
I cannot prove it and neither can you.
But, here is what I do believe.
We can chose to believe it and to live as if it were true.
And, that may, in fact, be just what is needed to do what God intends to be done…
And, in turn, turn us all in the direction of peace.