Christmas Eve 2021
Christmas Eve.21 “A World Mostly Irreligious, Pt 1: Those Whom He Favors” Luke 2
The days were getting longer, but only just; barely, imperceptibly. But the nights were, if anything, darker, colder—the kind of cold you feel—first frost, first snow, the worst because you’ll still get a warm day in the 60’s, so, that first night, when it drops below freezing, it really gets into your bones, especially if you are a shepherd living out in the fields by day, by night, keeping watch over the flock, as I am.
You want to know about that one night in particular and you do well to inquire of it! It was the night when everything changed and yet, to eyes grown dim, hearts turned cold, everything remained pretty much the same. A strange night. I will tell you about it because you need to know, because I was there, I saw. I am witness to the Greatest Story Ever Told.
People have trouble with the Story I’m about to tell, I’ll warn you. Having prettied it up and dumbed it down for 2,000 years you see, the hard truth, the real Story is tough on ears and tougher on hearts grown softly sentimental with visions of fairies, sugar plums, balletic nutcrackers, Santas, steadfast tin soldiers, softly lit Christmas trees with presents beneath dancing in your heads.
None of that in the tale I tell! And I don’t like to talk about myself, but one or two things you need to know about me and my brothers to set the record straight, to acknowledge the credentials of the witness.
I am a shepherd. And your “modern scholars” have done a number on me and my tribe in your world grown mostly irreligious. You make us out to be rustics, dumbbells, illiterate louts with nothing going for us, as if the angels appearing to us first—telling us first, showing us the King first—was some kind of condescending (that means talking down to you) sort of joke-miracle.
If you think that, my friend, well… think again!
Do I look or sound like some rube or bumpkin? Well, I’m not. I read. I’m well schooled—better than most! What do you think we do all day and night? Just sit and watch sheep? No. We also read—the ancient scrolls, the great books. We have them always in our rucksacks, hearts, and heads. Lawrence of Arabia has nothing on us! At night, we chant the old story, the epic tale of our people around the fire. We’ll kill the occasional lion, tiger, and bear, (even the odd giant 🙂 who would menace our flock. We’re excellent with slingshots, decent with a sword when we need to be. We also have this little game we came up with using a shepherd’s crook, turned upside down, whacking little balata balls into the bunkers the sheep made. It would catch on, a little, with the Scots.
The angels appeared to us living out in the fields by Bethlehem, keeping watch over our flocks by night because Bethlehem is our city, you see; the city of David. The angels told us first because we’re David’s kin, the man after God’s own heart, whom God from the start especially favors, in every sense of the word.
Picture me then, not in one of those awful manger scenes in the Italian style you are so fond of, with frilly, fru-fru dress, pink, downy cheeks. No. A hundred times, no. Picture me instead like Strider in “Lord of the Rings”—one of the few books you have that I can stand with the film version (somewhat) watchable too.
We lived out in the fields around Bethlehem because it is our city—tiny but mighty. And because a world mostly irreligious and totally rebellious had driven us out there into the hinterlands as Strider had been driven out to be a Ranger by the tyranny of Sauron and his slave state. But make no mistake. Under the rough cloaks and the nomad ways, the blood of the Great King flows in our veins. So, when the King Returns, he comes to us first. Because we are his family.
We think our father David was at his best living as a pastoral nomad, a Ranger on the run from a tyrannical king, like Strider. I don’t know if he befriended hobbits? but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. We feel like when the palace and the pjs and the harems and the gold and the retinue and the hangers-on came, it ruined David, a little bit. Those were not his best days. He forgot, a little bit, who he was. Which is where the poetry (only a fraction of which you have in your Book of Psalms!) came from. He was remembering who he really is and what God’s favor really looks like.
So we were out in the fields near Bethlehem that night, having ranged a ways away when suddenly the Malach Yahweh, the Angel of the LORD stood before us (sword in hand as usual) and the glory of the LORD shone around us and we were sore afraid. Not screaming like little girls, not that kind of fear. But the Fear Isaac our grandfather (another shepherd, pastoral nomad-king) feared. It’s a good kind of Fear, a good hurt. Like Isaiah knew, seeing the LORD and feeling every bone in his body shaking and undone. Pain is weakness leaving the body. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation; but not entirely unwelcome, either. It promised new birth.
“Quit it,” the Angel said with a smile, “the whole Fear and Trembling thing. Leave that to Kierkegaard—whose books I see in your rucksacks. For see, I AM bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth (like an Egyptian mummy) and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the Malach Yahweh a multitude of the heavenly army—armed to the teeth—glorious beyond your limited imagination praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the Highest; and upon earth peace on those whom he favors.”
And you know the rest. We did as we were told. We went to Bethlehem. We ran (because we are not un-athletic) all the way, a mile or two, and found the babe wrapped like a mummy, like he’d come to die, weirdly; but we recognized our Brother, LORD, God. We made known to Mary our cousin and Joseph her guardian what the Angel said concerning this child. We also let the louts in the inn know—because we made a bit of an entrance and were a little pissed Christ was lying in a stable (that changed right away! He spent the rest of the night in the inn-keeper’s suite because we, uh… persuaded the wretched man).
The wretches in the inn did not get it. But our friend John will tell you more on that tomorrow! We let our families know and they got it. Yet, we continued living out on the margins of society, shepherding our flocks; because this world is cold, hard, blind—few get God come in our flesh. Because, first God must favor you with his word, cross, faith. Then you see that he comes to change everything!
By our Story, you are favored as we have been (divinely!) favored. By the Shepherd’s words, a bit of water, bread and wine—in these lowly forms, Jesus still comes and favors you by his Cross, (the forgiveness of your sins!) makes you favor him (as in resemble him!) scorned and belittled by a mostly irreligious world.
The days are getting longer, barely and imperceptibly; the nights grow darker and colder. But Light has dawned. The King has come; and Peace, surpassing understanding, rests on you whom he favors. Merry Christmas. Amen.