December 25, 2013

Out in the Cold


Text: Luke 2:8: “ that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Most of you won’t be surprised by anything that happens here this evening. There won’t be anything unexpected in what I say, or what the choir sings, or what happens for the next forty-two minutes.

I suppose for a lot of reasons that is exactly why we come. We come to be given the comfort of the familiar, to have a memory rekindled, to go back in time to a simpler, less stressful moment. You all know the story. You all know what this is about. And you all know the gap between the beauty of the ideal, the story of what Christmas is about, and what is waiting for you right outside those doors when you leave this place and go back out into a very imperfect, very hard, very unforgiving world.

You may not know me very well, but from here I know this about you: You are all smart. I can say that because you all showed up in the right place at the right time on the right day, when there were countless other claims on your time.

But if you will permit me, allow me to say that—at least judging from here—it doesn’t look as though there are many of you, maybe not any of you, who know much about sheep. This is probably not a shepherd crowd. We’re more like a professional crowd, an intellectual crowd, a hard-working and hard-studying crowd. We’re an indoor crowd.

Shepherds are in an outdoor crowd. They’re in a low-skilled-worker crowd. They’re in the NASCAR crowd.

Every year at Christmas this same little story is appointed to be read—the version of the story of the nativity found in the gospel of Luke. And what’s remarkable about Luke’s version of the story is that it doesn’t center on the drama of Mary and Joseph and the innkeeper and the manger. That all gets mentioned, but in the simplest way possible. It’s like the Bethlehem police blotter. “Traveling couple, in town to visit benefits office, credit card declined at Motel 6, trespass charge for breaking and entering in a barn, baby born on the premises. Officer gave a warning and asked them to leave.”

That’s pretty much it.

The real drama in Luke’s story, the place with the adjectives and the action and the special effects—all that happens out in the cold. It’s out in the fields, way outside the little town, where the outdoor crowd hangs out.

You might think that in telling the story of Christmas Luke would give a little more attention to the baby and the mother and the dangerous setting in which all this happened. But all that gets packed into a single sentence. It’s the story of the angels and the shepherds that really gets the attention.

And to make that story all the more interesting, here is what you need to know about sheep: Sheep do not do well without adult supervision. Sheep need to be managed in large groups, because they have a bad tendency either to wander into trouble or to eat stuff that they really shouldn’t be eating. Sheep are not gentle, sweet, mild animals. Sheep are stupid, and stubborn, and unpleasant. And when you are out in the middle of the field in the cold managing sheep, your career has nowhere to go but up.

That’s the setting Luke is describing. Now here’s the story: God has a secret that absolutely has got to be told. After a long, long time of waiting, God has decided to act so as to get right into our lives with us—to enter into the frame of the story. And God absolutely cannot wait any longer to let someone know what has happened.

I suppose today God would have posted a photo on Facebook, or sent out a tweet. “Happy new arrival in Bethlehem! #needcradle.” But in the story we have, the message is delivered by angels—literally, by messengers, by carriers of a message.

It is meant to teach us something about the God who is arriving tonight in Bethlehem that this news is not announced to the indoor crowd. It’s not announced to the kings or the presidents, not to the bankers or the financiers, not to the Forbes 100 or to the People Magazine Top 25 Celebrity Hot List.

The angels find the people on the farthest fringe of society to share the news.

And then what happens is the most remarkable part of the whole story, at least if you’re a shepherd: The shepherds run into town and leave the sheep in the field. Think about it: Luke says they “went with haste.” There’s no way to go with haste when you’re driving a hundred sheep. And the story doesn’t relate that the shepherds showed up at the manger with a giant flock of bleating sheep.

Here’s how stunning this message was: The shepherds ran toward the town and left the sheep out in the field. It’s like the parking lot attendants ran away from the booths and left the drivers trying to get out. It’s like the baristas all ran out of the Starbucks and left all of us insufficiently caffeinated coffee snobs standing in line. It’s like all the home healthcare workers suddenly ran out of our elders’ homes and left them all alone.

The news is so stunning that all of the people that we depend on but never really give a second thought to, all of the people who are out in the cold in our society, who depend on a minimum wage that is nowhere near a living wage and who make it possible for us to do get the things of our lives done—all of them disappear, suddenly, and go running to see this thing that has happened.

There are three ideas to take away from this old story that is new again every year, at least if you want more out of Christmas than just a reminder of old, familiar things.

The first is that the news God cannot resist sharing goes not to the people with the most influence or the most power, but the people most in need of hope—the people out in the cold.

The second is that the measure of the impact this message is the simple fact that the people who hear it are given such hope that they are willing to leave behind all of what little they have in the world and come running, just to get a glimpse of the promise. The people out in the cold don’t just hear it, they get it, and it changes everything.

And the third is the part of the message that applies to us. Because we are not out in the cold. We are not the people living almost beyond the fringe of society.

We in the church are the living body of Christ. The little baby born in the manger grows into the man who preaches forgiveness and justice and reconciliation. And that man becomes a criminal because his obedience to God’s hope for the world is greater than his interest in power, or fame, or the things of this world.

That criminal becomes the innocent victim executed on a cross, and finally the means by which God breaks down the power of sin and death over all people everywhere whether they get it or not.

And when all of that has happened, the story isn’t just told to us again every year at Christmas. The story is us. We are now the message of hope. Because we are the body of Christ. We are the bearers of that message.

Tonight the message is going out again to the people out in the cold, the people who are so desperate for hope, for peace, for an end to violence, for a chance at security, for a future; and the message they are hearing is a message of hope, hope that we are meant to offer them, because we are here now as the living bearers of the message of that child, and the ones who are called after his name. The God with us lived, and died, and rose, and lives still—in this place, in these heartbeats, in this community of holy hope.

O holy child of Bethlehem, be born in us today. Merry Christmas!  Amen.