The two sermons I struggle with the most are Christmas Eve and Easter morning. The pressure is on to say something amazing, magnificent, outstanding, and yet keep it short, maybe a funny or two thrown in, and also, not too political but yet make it applicable to what is going on in the world, in our nation, and also your own lives. But it must also be profound! And if I am judged by only 2 of the sermons I give throughout the year (out of 60 or so) then I really feel the pressure. Then I read the scripture, listen carefully to what it has to say, and I want to stand up and say “did you hear that?? Great. Sermon ended.” I know some of you may not mind.
This text can be so familiar to many of us. It’s easy to tune out and miss some of the finer details. At the core of this story is God becoming human. God, taking on human form and living, working, breathing like any other human. But, first, that human was a baby. This was a baby brought into this world by someone who was forgotten; even worse, she was most likely cast out from society. Were there really no rooms available or had word spread and no one wanted to be associated with an unwed pregnant teenager? And if this baby was to be so important, shouldn’t the word of his birth first be told to those in power? To Quirinius, Emperor Augustus, or others in the houses of power?
But the first to know about this birth (other than Mary and Joseph) were any animals finding refuge in the barn. And they can’t necessarily spread the good news. So logically, the next to be told were the shepherds. Now, despite any pictures you may have in your head about these shepherds, they actually were pretty low in society. They were frowned upon and shamed a lot. Because being a shepherd required you to be with your flock almost 24/7, the shepherds were not afforded time to go to worship. They also could not keep the sabbath. So, they were considered unclean. Society often stereotyped shepherds as being thieves, liars, and just a general drain on society. Had they told the news of this birth, they most likely wouldn’t have been listened to anyway.
I would have to imagine that being a shepherd was a lonely life. Long working hours, often in deserted places, shunned by society, your friends, and potentially your family, living life as an outsider; all of that would make me wonder about God. It might be enough for me to give up on God. Then, in a flash of light (literally, brilliant light) and angel of the Lord comes. An angel brings good news to the most unlikely of people. This is the second time in this story that God has shown up to and through the most unlikely of people; the most forgotten of people; the most shamed and marginalized group of people. Just when the shepherds might have given up on God, just when Joseph thought he had been abandoned by God, God shows up. And God has continued to do that ever since.
Jesus’ birth was a hint of what was to come in Jesus’ life. God makes Jesus known in the most unlikely of places to the most unlikely of people. Jesus showed up to people who had been forgotten. Jesus showed up to people who were kicked out, downtrodden, and maybe even spat upon. Jesus showed up to the unclean, the unkept, the unwelcomed, and the unchurched and did nothing but love. Jesus didn’t come and say “I’ve come for you but only on these conditions.” Nope. Jesus did exactly what Jesus does, he met the people right where they were. And Jesus continues to do that today. He meets us right where we are.
Of course it feels like God really is Emmanuel tonight, God with us. I mean, we’ve got the carols, we’ll have candles later, we’ll taste God in bread and wine, and you’re probably sitting near or around some of your favorite people. It’s easy to feel like God is in this place tonight. But what happens after tonight? What happens when you reflect back on your year as we so often tend to do during this season? For many people, maybe even some of you gathered here tonight, God may feel very far away. You may start to relate more to the shepherds than you thought. Maybe you’ve been wondering all about this God stuff. Maybe you’ve even begged God to show up in your life only to be left in the silence.
This time of year can be challenging anyway. The nights are longer, the days are colder. We see the sun less. You start to pass that same cold around to your family and friends only to get it back 3 weeks later. Maybe this is your first Christmas without a loved one that has passed since last Christmas. Or maybe it’s your 15th Christmas without them. Either way, grief seems to be felt deeper around this time. And while I love being reminded of love incarnate in the form of a newborn baby Jesus, I’m also not naive enough to think that all of your problems (or mine for that matter) magically disappeared when you walked through these doors. I’m also not going to assume that your problems will stay gone until after the new year.
But the birth we celebrate tonight is more than just a birth. It is an inclusion of those who have long been left behind by us, by the church, by society, for far too long. Tonight while we are in here celebrating, rejoicing, and generally being merry, God is showing up for and to the people who have all but given up on God. And for me, my beloved, this is good news. Because I have no doubt all of us have been through a time when we just about or actually did give up on God. Maybe you’ve had problems in your marriage. Maybe your kids are struggling. Perhaps you’re without a job or without meaningful employment. I know several of you watch the market reports daily and wonder if this is the last year you will tend to your fields. Or maybe you just observe the state of the world and genuinely ask and wonder “where is God?” So many of us have maybe several reasons to feel like God isn’t going to show up, isn’t real, and most certainly doesn’t listen to us.
In those first cries, in that report from the angels, in the hurriedness of the shepherds, we see once again that God came, did come, and will continue to come to those who need it the most. If you’re just not feeling merry this year for whatever reason, then hear this good news: you are not forgotten. God will and does show up first and foremost to you. If you’re feeling like a phoney sitting in these pews tonight, you’re a shepherd. God will show up to you. If you’re feeling like God hasn’t shown up in your life all year, you’re a shepherd. God is showing up to you. If you’re feeling like shame, regret, remorse, grief, anger, or general apathy rules in your life instead of God, you’re a shepherd. God is showing up to you. And when you come forward tonight to receive body and blood, please hear the words “for you.” There is nothing you have to do for God to come to you. God will always come to and for you. And God does not expect you to check your baggage at the door.
So come in your anger. Come in your joy. Come in your faith and come in your questioning. Come with your doubts and fears. For some of you being here is an act of courage. Thank you for being so brave. God is here. God is with you. God will go with you. And God will continue to love you beyond your wildest imaginations. Especially (and maybe essentially) on the days when you can’t feel it, don’t want to feel it, or can’t even love yourself. Christ the babe was born for you!