Luke 2:25-35; Luke 2:8-16


            The Christmas story is full of angels.  Last week we talked about the angels that came to Mary and Joseph, telling each one of them not to be afraid because God was with them.  This week the angels show up again…bucketloads of them…singing to shepherds on a hillside and giving them the same message.  Fear not.  A word about these shepherds.

            This summer we talked a bit about shepherds in Biblical times.  It wasn’t a popular profession, even though it was necessary.  Shepherds lived out in the open fields with the sheep.  They lived like sheep, they smelled like sheep.  They had to be ever vigilant in a boring job, spending the days and nights watching sheep be sheep, but if a wolf or a lion or a thief came, the shepherd had to risk his life to save the sheep.  Letting a lion carry away a sheep was not an option.  You had to chase after the lion and bring the owner at least a part of the dead sheep to show that you tried to save it.  In the story of David and Goliath, David reports to the king that in his life as a shepherd, he has killed both lions and bears with his bare hands.

            And yet for all that, shepherds were not respected.  Their testimony was not valid in a court of law.  They were down there on the social scale with women and children…worthless except for the profit they could provide.  So the first thing to notice in both of these weeks of angelic appearances is that angels are showing up and bringing God’s message to those with little or no social standing.  Mary and Joseph were poor, and the shepherds were a disdained class of workers.  We don’t have stories of angels showing up at the King’s palace or in the home of the High Priest. 

The good news is brought first to the poor, which is a model of what Jesus will do during his ministry.  Just two chapters later, before Jesus has even called the first disciple, we see him preaching in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth.  He reads from Isaiah and says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Then he announces to the congregation that those words have been fulfilled in their hearing.  The sermon ends with the people trying to throw Jesus off a cliff.  First sermons can be like that.

But the point is that the angels do exactly what Jesus later says he has come to do…to bring the good news to the poor.  Angels come to Mary and to Joseph and to shepherds.  And all of them follow the instructions of the angels.  Now, just like the message of the angels was potentially threatening to Mary, so it was to the shepherds.  They are told to go and find the baby.  While we often picture shepherds at the manger with sheep by their side, if you had multiple shepherds out on a hillside, there were more than just a couple of sheep.  Likely there were hundreds if not thousands of sheep out there, and they would not all be truckin’ into downtown Bethlehem, which was already so crowded that Mary and Joseph couldn’t get a room. 

The angels have asked the shepherds to leave their flocks unguarded.  If anything happened to those sheep, nobody was going to be rising to defend the shepherds.  Their account of what they saw would mean nothing.  In a best-case scenario they would be out of a job, and if they had harsh employers, it could get ugly indeed.  But the angels say, “Do not be afraid.”  They do as they are told, abandon the sheep, and head for Bethlehem.

What I want you to see in these familiar Christmas stories is that they are filled with foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry.  Here where Jesus is born in a borrowed stable, we are reminded of Jesus later saying to his disciples, “Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  The good news is brought specifically to the poor and marginalized, just as Jesus will later emphasize.  And it is not too long before the Gentile astrologers we have come to call the “Wise Men,” notice the signs and leave the court of Persia to find Jesus, a mirror of Jesus saying that the Gospel would begin in Jerusalem and then spread out to the Gentile nations.  It was not only for the Jews, but for all.

Those wise men, when they come, are naďve.  In realizing a new king has been born, they assume the old king is going to be pleased about the news and will know all about it.  So they go to Herod’s palace to ask where to find this new king.  Well, kings who are still on their throne are not really fond of new baby kings, unless it’s a baby they have sired.  So the misplaced trust of the Magi results in a gruesome act by a King who history tells us was notorious for his cruelties.  King Herod orders the slaughter of every child under two years of age in and around Bethlehem.  This, too, is a sign that the good news that Jesus brings to the poor and marginalized will not be appreciated by the rich and powerful.

Of course Mary already knew that.  In the beautiful poem we have come to know as The Magnificat, Mary speaks of the ways of God when she says, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  While the lowly and hungry cheer the coming of justice, not everybody feels the same. 

Mary is reminded of that when she and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple for the ritual of circumcision.  They come into the temple with two doves, the offering prescribed for the poor, and are met by an old man named Simeon.  Simeon takes the 8-day-old Jesus into his arms and prophesies about him, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”  Call me crazy, but I’m not sure it’s the prophecy I would want said about my child.

From the very start, it is obvious that the life of this little baby is going to be challenging, inspiring, and controversial.  The poor, the oppressed, the blind, the outcast…they would love him.  The rich, the powerful, those with status and means…they would oppose him.  It’s all right there in the Christmas story.

Christians should not go drifting off into a Hallmark card at Christmas time.  It is a time of joy, yes, but not for all.  The good news that comes with a baby in a manger is that justice has been born.  The Kingdom of God has come to earth to live among us.  The great equality of heaven is not meant to only be out there and after death.  It is meant to come and dwell among us now.  Jesus will later teach his disciples to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven.”  News of a new king is not good news to the old king.  Lifting up the lowly means bringing down the proud.  Giving food to the hungry means a more equal distribution of wealth, and the wealthy seldom like to have their wealth distributed…especially by others.  Jesus is a sign of justice…a sign that will be opposed.  A sign that has been opposed from his birth.  Like Mary, we should ponder these things in our hearts.

I read Jimmy Carter’s new book recently.  He makes it clear why the coming of the Kingdom of God is opposed.  In 1900, the ten richest countries were nine times wealthier than the ten poorest ones.  By 1960 the ratio was 30:1.  In 2000, the average income per person in the twenty richest nations was $27,591.  In the poorest nations it was $211.  A ratio of 131:1.  The average family in the US has an income of about $55,000 per year, while more than half the world’s people live on less than $2 per day, with 1.2 billion people living on half that.  Will the Kingdom of God come easily and with rejoicing to the United States?

Remember the Tsunami?  There were about 200,000 fatalities in the eleven nations struck by the tidal wave.  However, every single month 165,000 die of malaria, 140,000 of diarrhea, and 240,000 of AIDS.  $2.50 per year from each American and European citizen could eradicate malaria and save the lives of almost 2 million people a year.  The annual United States foreign aid budget for fighting malaria has been $90 million, but 95 percent of the money is being spent on consultants and less than 5 percent on mosquito nets, drugs, and insecticide spraying to fight the disease.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Will it come?

Ah, but it has.  It came 2005 years ago.  Smelly, ignorant shepherds got excited and a poor teenager avoided stoning for adultery because her poor carpenter husband dared to believe angels.  Together with foreign astrologers they welcomed the Kingdom to a ratty stable.  Warned by angels they fled the cruel slaughter of King Herod and then brought the Kingdom back to Nazareth, where He grew and studied and matured until that day when He announced to the congregation in His hometown that God went out of the way to help the outcast and they tried to throw the Kingdom over a cliff.

But they didn’t succeed.  The religious authorities came after him with increasing venom as Jesus went about proclaiming the good news to the poor…the good news that the Kingdom had come among them and for them.  Eventually the Kingdom was betrayed and crucified…but even that couldn’t keep it from coming.  On the third day, he rose from the dead and the Kingdom was even more powerful than before.  Still it was a sign that was opposed.  It spread across Asia Minor and into Rome, and those in power hunted it and tortured and killed those who brought it.  But still it came.

And it still comes today.  In the same way.  With the same message.  And the same opposition.  The question is not whether the Kingdom of God will come on earth.  That is the proclamation of Christmas Day.  It has come.  The question is whether we will rejoice as a part of it or see it as a sign to be opposed.  Will we listen to the angels, leave our fears behind, forget about our jobs and our reputations and join with the one who was sent to bring good news to the poor?  Will we work for what he worked for?  Will we be willing to trade our home for a stable so that a world might be saved?  Will we give up our throne to the new king or will we seek to eliminate any threat to our power?

What if this church, right here in Westford, worked to convince every citizen of the United States and Europe to give $2.50 a year to wage war on malaria.  Suppose just the people in this room spearheaded an effort that saved 2 million people from dying from that preventable disease in 2006?  Thy kingdom come.  It has.  Thy will be done…aye, there’s the rub.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…

Foxes have holes and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

The Spirit of the Lord…has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

Fear not.  For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be for all people.  For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.

$2.50 a year.  A year, for God’s sake.

Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth.

Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.



Sermon © 2005, Anne Robertson

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