In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
On Friday evening it was discovered that the sanctuary of
St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Raleigh had been vandalized. Fragments of glass covered the pews, the communion table was overturned, Chrismon ornaments were stripped from the tree, the sticky residue of a soft drink pooled in the organ and the piano. Needless to say, this is not the Christmas the St Andrews church was expecting. That thought sent me to wondering about the expectations we bring to this day—this season—this faith.
Many of us can’t imagine Christmas without candlelight, the scent of evergreens, beloved hymns, the companionship of a familiar community gathered in the darkness, the tastes and textures of our childhood—but, of course, not much of that is present in the story.
The portion of Luke’s story that we read tonight invites us to imagine three scenes: In the first scene, Luke has pulled back his camera and reminded us who holds political power: the Emperor Augustus; the governor, Quirinius. These are the rulers who have the authority to count subjects, to levy taxes, to conscript armies. These are the names that instill fear in ordinary folk.
Then Luke’s lens zooms in to a particular household on a particular night in a little town far from the centers of power where a baby is born and swaddled and laid in an animal’s feeding trough because the household is so full of people that the upper room intended for sleeping is already full. Luke could hardly paint this scene of the story as a more humble beginning.
And then, for the third scene, Luke pulls the camera out again,
but this time only just beyond the gates of the town, to the surrounding hillsides, where shepherds are keeping watch over their animals in the darkness.
Here’s how one scholar describes the role of shepherd: “By the time of Jesus, shepherding had become a profession most likely to be filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder, by persons who could not find what was regarded as decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as [untrustworthy]. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits.
The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds’ duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, persons who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation.”
But it’s the shepherds who get most of Luke’s attention in tonight’s passage. It’s the shepherds who are visited by God’s own angels. They are the ones given the good news, and the sign to seek. They are ones entrusted with the word that means joy for all people. Stop and consider that for a moment. The ones whom good religious folks hold at a distance are the ones God chooses to be God’s own messengers.
Luke tells us that the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem
to see for themselves. Think about that, too. In the dark of night they went into town, where they must have known they were not wanted. They must have peered into one doorway after another, hunting for this baby in a feeding trough. And when they found him, these shepherds, known to be unreliable witnesses, had the courage to tell their hard-to-believe story. And then the shepherds turned around, headed back to their sheep, filled with gratitude to God for everything they had experienced. We never see them again, but their testimony is still rippling through the darkness, more than 2000 years later.
If we were to let this story get under our skin, if we were to let it have its way with us, friends, how might our expectations of this night—and this life—be changed? Would the news that God is right now at work in the world—would that news lessen our anxiety about pretenders to the throne? Would we be less likely to expect God’s appearance in the halls of power and more likely to seek God at work among those whom the world discounts? Would we be more open to improbable stories, and blessings we cannot explain? Would we share our own holy moments even though the world may not acknowledge them?
Christmas came for me this week on Tuesday afternoon when
Tom Brown found a man in the sanctuary and brought him to my office. His electricity was scheduled to be cut off at 5:00 that day. He’d left his wife and three kids at home; he’d been everywhere he knew to go.
The church’s deadline for cutting checks for the year had already passed. I asked the man not to get his hopes up, but that I would go and check with my colleagues who oversee the church’s financial transactions to see if there was room to make an exception. He said, “I understand. I’ll keep praying while you’re gone.”
When I made the rounds to Jeanette’s and Katharine’s offices, I learned that the office had been so busy that the last set of checks had not, in fact, been cut. Both Jeanette and Katharine said that it would be fine to go ahead. When I returned to my office and gave the man their news, he burst into tears, and then called his wife, and she, too, began to cry. He said, “I’m trying so hard. I’m trying so hard to turn my life around.”
Christmas came again yesterday morning as Hilda Patterson was leaving worship. You may know that Hilda’s grandson Dylan died of a drug overdose a little more than a year ago. As she was leaving she said, “Margaret, I had the most beautiful dream last night. It was about Dylan. He was standing in the doorway. He didn’t give me the bear hug he usually would. I didn’t get to hold him, but he looked so good. He was whole. He was beautiful. It’s the first time I’ve dreamed about him since he died. I can’t tell you the peace I feel.”
When I called Hilda this morning, to ask if I could share that story, I told her that I could tell it anonymously. She said, “There’s no need. From the beginning we’ve tried to be transparent about his life and about his death. I know that other people have been helped already by his story. You tell it just like I did, in case it might be a lifeline for somebody else.”
And I suspect that Christmas came a few days early for the St. Andrews church, too, as neighbors rallied around and got to work.
In one interview their pastor noted, “I got a Facebook message from a wonderful Jewish woman. She said, ‘You know, I’m not very busy this time of year. My holidays are over. I’d love to come help.’”
Christ is born when we allow unlikely companions to keep watch with us in the darkness, when we work for and celebrate each person’s steps toward wholeness, when we assure each other that we don’t need to be afraid, when we marvel at the gifts of hope and peace and joy, as they show up on our doorsteps.
A friend who was in crisis at this time of year once said to me—“I don’t want to bother you with this now; I don’t want to ruin your Christmas.” And some deep part of me wanted to shout back, “but this is what Christmas is about.” Christmas is about God breaking in and being born in the midst of our need and our confusion and our fear. It’s about God saying I want to prove to you that everything you experience matters to me. Everything that you know, I know. Nothing comes between us.
Christmas is not most meaningfully celebrated when everything is going smoothly in life—when every decoration is in place. Christmas is most meaningfully celebrated when we dare to trust that God really enters into this world of hurt, no matter the plans of the powerful, no matter the routines of the ordinary. In the most unlikely corners of the globe—even now God is being born.
Beloved of God, treasure the words of the angels, ponder them in your heart : to you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
 Craig A Satterlee, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522