Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH
On a late night long ago, some shepherds were settling in for the night, having a last chat by the fire and rubbing their hands to keep warm. They were grubby, rough, somewhat disreputable characters, living on the fringes of the town of Bethlehem. Suddenly they heard a choir of angels and a startling message. They rubbed their eyes and scratched their heads. They asked one another, “Did you hear that?” “Did you see those angels?!” “How can it be that angels would appear to the likes of us?”
During my trip to the Holy Land in November, we visited a hilltop near Bethlehem called “Shepherd’s Field.” After a bus ride from the convent where we stayed for the night, we arrived at a garden with lovely olive trees and shaded walkways. We had a view of hills and valleys all around. At the end of the main walkway, there was a small outdoor altar and simple stone benches, and nearby there was a little grotto that had been converted into a chapel.
There was also a little church with frescos painted high up on the walls, including one of the shepherds listening to the message of the angels. Windows high up in the dome let a stream of light pour down on the altar. We gathered inside this church, and one of the members of our group read the story about the shepherds and the angels from the Gospel of Luke. We sang “Angels We Have Heard on High”. Then we were given time to wander and to pray.
We have no way to know for certain that this really was the place where those shepherds were watching their sheep on that night so long ago. As I walked among the trees, and experienced the great peacefulness of that place, I felt that it just didn’t matter. It seemed to me that this was still a very holy place, which was set apart to commemorate and honor the witness of the shepherds and which has received the prayers of so many pilgrims over hundreds of years. It was also a very ordinary hilltop in that region.
In a lovely and ordinary place, those rough and scruffy shepherds, were the ones chosen to receive the message of the angels and the Good News of the birth of the Messiah. They were blessed to be the very first to visit and adore the newborn Jesus. They were also the first evangelists, since they “made known what had been told them about this child”, even though people who heard their story were “amazed”, as the Gospel says, and they probably doubted the story, given the reputation of shepherds.
These shepherds lived difficult lives, and they lived in a time of war and conflict and of much suffering and poverty and oppression. Today we also live in a time of war and conflict, and much suffering and poverty and oppression in many parts of the world. Also, it seems to me that this past year has been especially difficult for our beautiful, fragile world, and for many of us in our personal lives.
Some years ago I had a spiritual director who would catch me up as I was in the middle of telling her about my latest woe. She would stop me in the midst of my saga, and say, “Now, wait a minute.” She would pause to get my attention, and then she would lean forward and say, “So, where is God in all this?”
Indeed, where is God in the midst of all the pain? God came to be born a human baby at a time and place which was also messy, chaotic, and suffering. There was no perfectly peaceful, holy time and place for Christ to be born, so why not in the first century, in a small village in a distant corner of the Roman Empire? And why not make the primary announcement to some ordinary shepherds?
These shepherd were terrified and then touched by God’s message, and they believed. They were ready to get up and go to Bethlehem, and afterwards they persisted in telling the Good News to others. Then, why should not the message and the blessing come to us now? I believe that if the message of the good news could be sent even to those grubby ancient shepherds, God also has a message of hope for us, here, tonight. That one event in ancient Bethlehem transforms all time and makes all places into a “Shepherd’s Field”.
Even now, God calls us to come to him and to find him, a humble, simple, human baby. As he was fully human, he could enter into and understand our human condition of suffering and of joy. As he was fully divine, he brings infinite compassion and offers to shoulder our burdens. God comes to us now, today, right here, always taking the risk to offer to us Love without bounds and without end.
God takes this risk. Can we also take the risk of responding to this gift and receiving Him? What sort of commitment does this require from each one of us? When God has risked and given all for us, how can we give him anything less than a full-hearted response? When all else is falling down around our ears, who else but Christ can be our strength and hope and comfort?
During this past year, we have been on our own journey here at Saint Augustine’s towards calling a new rector. This is rightly a time of stress and anxiety as well as anticipation. It would be natural to assume that this new rector will be the savior, and that he or she will grow the church and fix everything that could possibly need fixing. I’m sorry to say that the new rector will not be the savior. The job of Savior is already taken. The new rector will more likely take the role of the angels, announce the good news, and point the way.
Do not be afraid, the angel said on that night so long ago. This is also the message to us today: do not be afraid; do not lose heart. Instead, come and see what God has done, and is doing, and will do to make known the glory and love of God, even in the midst of all the messiness of our lives and the brokenness of our world.
Today, in this place and this very night, we have the invitation to get up and go to Bethlehem. We are offered a glimpse of the eternal presence of God’s love and the promise of salvation, which is for all people through faith in Christ. As spiritual nourishment for the journey, we will gather shortly at this altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Then we will be sent forth, propelled out into the world by our deacon, to proclaim in word and deed the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior and the Redeemer of all the world.