The Sunday Sermon: Third Sunday Advent – December 16, 2018
Scripture: Luke 2:8-20
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The third Sunday of Advent, 2018. We’re starting to feel it now. Christmas is closing in. I hope that some deeper, more personal, understandings of what Christmas is all about are closing in on you, too. Christmas is all about Incarnation for those of us who call ourselves Christians. As each year has gone by, however, we’ve gotten further and further away from what “Incarnation” can truly mean for us – what “Incarnation” must truly do to us. I’m trying to turn that around this year. We are trying to turn that around. I hope you’re trying, too.
The Incarnation is not only something that happened in one human two thousand and eighteen years ago, in Jesus of Nazareth. It happened to us. It happens to us. We are the Word of God incarnate. We are the parents of this Word, the ones charged with giving life to Love itself, kissing it good night, every night, and carrying it in our hearts, every day.
And we are its Shepherds … Pray with me …
And listen for the Word of God. Read Luke 2:8-20, but skip verse nineteen for now. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
A few months ago, as Ashia and I were discussing the Advent “trajectory,” what themes we may lift up, explore and embody this year, Incarnation came quickly to my mind. For the reason I’ve opened all our Advent sermons with this year, “because Incarnation is what Christmas is all about,” surely. I believe that. Not just this year because we’re focused on it, but every year. But I’d also been doing some reading that, believe it or not, takes this idea of “incarnation” even farther and deeper than we have on Sunday mornings. So … Incarnation, it was.
Once we decided on that, we further decided to use each of the four Gospels to explore an aspect of what God “in the flesh” must mean today. “Jesus,” yes … always. But us, too. I, then, decided to work backward in time using our four canonical gospels. Beginning with John, the last of the Gospels written, then last week Matthew and this week Luke, written about the same time, and finally, next week on the final week of Advent, Mark, the oldest of our gospel writings. And as soon as that decision was made, I panicked.
I panicked because that meant I needed to start with “In the beginning was the Word.” Right out of the gate, we were going to have to explore our own incarnation, the way in which the preexistent Spirit of God was, and is, in us before our own birth. Before, John writes, creation itself. Well, we did that two weeks ago, however successfully I may have been. We proclaimed that we, too are the Word of God incarnate, the “Good News of Great Joy” for the world that existed before time itself.
Last week wasn’t much easier. We are Mary and Joseph at Christmas. Not “like” Mary and Joseph, but Mary and Jospeh, parents of the Word. So … we are the Word, the baby, the promised one, and we’re our own parents. We give life to the Love of God through our life as the Love of God. As I said, not much easier last week.
So, you can see, perhaps, how I looked forward to this week as Ashia and I explored this year’s trajectory, themes, and explorations: Shepherds in the Gospel of Luke. Ah! Thank goodness for shepherds. We can relate to the Shepherds in the Gospel of Luke, profoundly earthly – even smelling of the earth, low on the social ladder, not much expected of them beyond herding the sheep. If the Word Incarnate and the parents of Christ seem beyond our comprehension, we can get our heads around Shepherds.
Of course, as I explored this group in our scriptural story again this year with an eye and an ear toward our theme of incarnation, I realized something that I don’t think I thought about through any of the fifty-four “Advent waits” in my life. The last twenty-two of those “waits” have been in theological study or in the practice of ordained ministry, but for the first time, as I looked for comfort in the lowly shepherds and our role as “shepherds incarnate,” I realized this group of people is the most active group of people in either of our gospel birth stories. I’ve explored their poverty and their low social status and their fear giving way to faith, but as we read verses eight to twenty of Luke’s second chapter, we should be struck by how active our shepherds are. I was this year.
They are living in the fields and keeping watch over their flock. I’m sure most of you, like me, picture a quiet scene with the sheep in a field below the Shepherd who is calmly looking out over them under a quiet starry sky. But probably not, right? To begin with there is more than one Shepherd. We don’t know how many. Our crèche scene at home has two, but I’m sure more than that. In any case, more than one. And it’s night, of course, when the predators are most active. The “fields” are most likely filled with rocks that can hide those predators. So the shepherds are most likely not calm. They are actively keeping their watch.
And then, after the “angel of the Lord” and they are terrified, and later after the “multitude of the heavenly host”, appear to them, they do even more, more than any other character in either of our stories. They get together and make decisions that may cost them their jobs. The leave the fields and go into Bethlehem. They find Mary and Joseph (us) and the baby (again, us). They begin to tell their story to anyone who will listen. We imagine this is just Mary and Joseph, but verse eighteen says that “all who heard it were amazed,” not “Mary and Joseph were amazed.” So, they their story to “all.” And, of course, their night isn’t over. They return, then, glorifying and praising.” What a night … for us … as shepherds, too.
The magi came and went, travelling far, but not too busy. The innkeeper hardly raised a finger. Surely Mary did he most strenuous “work” of the night, but her labor is over and she and Joseph have reached a resting place. Not so the shepherds. If we could animate our crèche scenes, the one here in our sanctuary and all the ones in our homes, I imagine everyone would look about as they do now except those shepherds. They’d be absent at first and they’d come rushing in. They would be jumping around, or moving from person to person at least, telling their story. Others would be telling them to “hush, you’ll wake the baby,” or “be quiet, you’re pestering the mother.” And soon enough, they’d bound off again to “glorify and praise” God.
That’s us, too, at Christmas. Or it should be. We should come rushing in to Christmas excited, not about parties and gifts and cookies and trips, but about the Good News of Great Joy that is now ours, that is now “us!”. We should be jumping around from person to person telling all that we have seen and heard to anyone who will listen. And when we’ve finished with those around us, we should be bounding off again to glorify and praise God in the next place we come to. We, like the Shepherds in Luke, should “come to ourselves” at Christmas and live more fully than we allow ourselves to live during most of the rest of the year.
Frederick Buechner shares a beautiful story from one of the Shepherd’s points of view on the night Christ is born. “Can I make you understand,” Beuchner asks through the words of a shepherd:
I wonder? Have you ever had this happen to you? You have been working hard all day. You’re dog-tired, bone-tired. So you call it quits for a while. You slump down under a tree or against a rock or something and just sit there in a daze for half an hour or a million years, I don’t know, and all this time your eyes are wide open looking straight ahead someplace, but they’re so tired and glassy they don’t see a thing. Nothing. You could be dead for all you notice. Then, little by little, you begin to come to, then your eyes begin to come to, and all of a sudden you find out you’ve been looking at something the whole time except it’s only now you really see it … It was there all the time, and you were looking at it all the time, but you didn’t see it till just now. That’s how it was this night, (says the shepherd) … Like finally coming to – not things coming out of nowhere that had never been there before, but things just coming into focus that had been there always.
We should come rushing into Christmas so excited, and active, and full of … oh, let’s call it joy. I’ll tell you what …
How many of you have crèche scenes set up in your homes? (You should. Go get one, of any size or material and set it up.) And then, all of you, do me a favor this afternoon or this evening. Together as a family, or all alone with no one looking, pick up a shepherd or two from that scene, remove them and then make them rush in, moving in between the magi holding there gifts, past the “lowing” animals, up to Mary with her head bowed and Joseph holding his lantern and have them “make known what you have heard.” I dare you. Say it out loud, let your children say it:
There he is. There I am. Here we are! You’ll never believe that we have just realized!
Have one of the Magi shush you so you can say, “No! Never again!” And then let those shepherds run off, praising and glorifying! In fact, put them around the house this week, away from the crèche scene that always remains so quiet. Put them somewhere you’ll see them throughout the week and let them remind you whenever you see them that they are you. They are us! Out in the world, away from the manger, proclaiming the presence of God. Right there by your coffee maker. Right beside your television. In the middle of your dining room table. They are you.
Let it be so this year, at least. It can be always if we are only willing to open our eyes and listen. Nothing is coming out of nowhere that has not been here before. It’s all around us. It always has been. It’s among us. And it’s deep within us: The Word, the baby-the child-the adult, Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds … and the angels, the magi, the animals, and the star. We’re not all Herod or innkeeper. And to the degree that we are either of them, or anything less than God’s anointed ones, it is because we have learned to be so. Because we were created to be God’s anointed ones, the Good News of Great Joy for which we are waiting. I dare you. Give the shepherds voice this week. I dare you.
So, to wrap up this weeks sermon message: I wonder if anyone noticed that I skipped a verse in our scripture reading this morning. Verse nineteen: Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. Mary treasured the words of the shepherds. I did this on purpose. That verse now sets up our final week of Advent next Sunday. Next week we’ll take a look at our last birth story, the first written. We’ll explore the Christmas story in the Gospel of Mark.
I know what you’re thinking. I’ve told you over and over again for ten years that there is no birth story in Mark. Well … perhaps I’ve been wrong. We’ll “ponder” that next Sunday, leaving a day and a half before Christmas day this year. Not much time, but all the time we need. Next week.
This week, however, is about proclaiming. We are the shepherds. So, “Rise Up Shepherds!” (Actually, I mean that literally in this moment: Rise up with me fellow shepherds and let us sing!)
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / December 16, 2018