It was a time of discord, dissention, fracture and violence. Politics were brutal. Governing the land meant deals with the powerful; incompetent appointments of the well connected; and threats against the most vulnerable. Loyalty to an ideology meant more than seeking the common good. And at the center was one man.
Sounds recognizable doesn’t it? Yes, that was the Roman Empire just before and during the time of Jesus. Israel was under Roman control. Land taken from the people had been given to the powerful interests of the day. The Emperor ruled, appointed, directed and set the tone for the Empire.
The masses of people were steadily sinking deeper into poverty and the elites were getting more and more wealth. The populace was restless, discouraged, and sought someone who could save them. They looked for a Messiah – whom they wanted to be a political leader who could overturn the power of Rome.
It was into this context that angels appeared to shepherds out at work in a field. Now shepherds were not bad people… but it was a hard and nomadic job, one that did not allow much time off. It did not pay well and most people did not want to do it. It might be vaguely equivalent to migrant farm workers in our present day. Shepherds were marginalized, exploited, vilified, and yet were necessary to the economy.
So here is the first scandal of the Gospel story. God sends messengers to THOSE people… those shepherds, to announce good news. Not to the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem, or the local chapter of the Pharisees, nor the Levites – the priests. So WHY them? They were not good faithful Jews. They did not follow the dietary laws, and observe the Sabbath, holy days or the fine details of the torah and the Biblical laws. They were not considered totally respectable… Yet the messengers of God come to them!
If we read through the scriptures it becomes obvious to most of us that God has special regard for the marginalized, the poor, the refugee in the land, the widowed, the orphan, the disabled, the despised… Again and again we hear God’s prophets from centuries BC to the present telling God’s people to care for the poor, the orphan, aliens and widow.
These messengers of God appear and tells the shepherds ”I bring glad tidings of a great joy for all the people; to you is born this day…a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
This special delivery message – a message of joy… is stated “to you…a Savior, the messiah was born.” Born for these shepherds… “and for all people…” Obviously God simply does not recognize the boundaries we humans put on our religion and our religious institutions.
God does things God’s way not ours. God does not operate a patronage system, doling out favors to those who have paid their tithes and followed the institutional rules. This joyous news of the angels is for all people – delivered to the shepherds who best symbolized the marginalized who needed good news then and now.
In every age and time there are many who need Good News; as well as those who need to be reminded that it is not our agenda or ideology that will lead us to the world as it was meant to be – for our world and society to be as they were created to be we must subscribe to God’s agenda for us and for all of God’s creation.
The birth of a baby is usually an occasion of joy. A new life is celebrated. The announcement of the birth in Bethlehem is called by the theological term Incarnation – meaning putting on flesh…
This announcement to shepherds allowed them to see this promised Good News embodied in this child. What allowed them to believe it because they could see it. Good News needs to be somehow embodied for most people to believe it is real.
The promise of the angels, the promise of Christmas – the promise of Jesus’ teachings, the cross and resurrection is a promise of Emmanuel – God With Us in whatever we are facing. A recent movie has one character saying “Everything works out well in the end. If it has not worked out well then it is not the end.” That is very much like the promise we have as those who follow Jesus.
The shepherds went to Bethlehem and saw what had been promised – the birth of Jesus. Yet on that night the promise did not come to its fulfillment. By the time of his death, Jesus has gathered a community of people, and started a movement. It consisted of people who pledged to continue to work towards Jesus’ shared vision of God’s intention for humanity and for creation. We gather tonight as part of the Episcopal branch of that Jesus Movement – deeply craving that Jesus vision might become a reality.
We who need good news have heard the proclamation of angels.
Will we, like the shepherds, go in heart and mind to Bethlehem to be reminded and inspired?
Will we renew our commitment to be the people of God and followers of the who we call the Prince of Peace.
Will we choose to embody and personally live out the Good News so we become the sign for others that the message of hope and compassion is real?
Will live in a way that resists the culture of empire and oppression of others?
Will we work and pray for the end of militarism, so that as Isaiah wrote “the boots of the tramping warriors and the garments soaked in blood may finally become fuel for the fire” as we live God’s new creation into being?
And the angel said – Do not be afraid;
For see – I am bringing you good news of a great joy
For all the people
to you is born this day in the city of David, a savior,
who is the messiah, the Lord…
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace, good will
to all God’s creatures and creation.
Don & Nancy