Beloved Gathered, peace and grace to you from the Son of God! We come here with many reasons for so gathering tonight. What are yours? Are you expecting mystery, or beauty, or holiness tonight? Are you looking for peace that surpasses human understanding and lasts longer than a news cycle? It is not an unreasonable desire. But it comes in ways that typical less-than-human imagination does not expect.As Luke tells it in his initial journalistic and prosaic fashion, there were no expectations other than a birth. If mystery was in the air for Mary and Joseph, it was only the question of where Mary and Joseph could find a room. If there was beauty to be celebrated, it was only the glow of mother with child safely born. If there was holiness, it was hidden to common people oppressed by unfair tax policies and self-serving politicians. Let me be clear. I am speaking about the 1st century. That’s how Luke tells it. Christmas begins with routine survival behaviors, with a dash of anxiety, for the refugees we now know as the holy family. They weren’t looking for drama or even holiness. They were just coping with a society that did them no favors.
Shepherds were just coping, too. But it is to these marginalized people that angels bring dramatic breaking news. To these coarse people warming themselves by smoky fires, angels announce that a Savior is born. Before natal news, however, the angels tell shepherds not to be afraid. Any of us would first be scared if angels showed up in our corner of the sky. If angels light up my night, I’d have goosebumps on top of goosebumps and only later might I ask myself what I was drinking. But God does not want our fear to keep God away. By saying “don’t be afraid” the angels plea that real humans let the really holy into their real lives. “Respect the holy, yes! Don’t presume you can control the holy, yes! But let the holy come close; even to come into your own hearts!”
All previous biblical stories of human encounters with God describe mortals as filled with fear. Fear with respect to God is not a bad thing as long as fear does not remain alone and control all other thought and behavior. To the shepherds–and so to all people–the angels announce God’s desire that fear would yield to trust, and that trust would energize conscience, and that conscience with trust would follow Jesus’ path of love from his manger past the cross. God in Jesus calls us to travel on his way, starting with the stark and real. Jesus will not be used or cutely packaged and so “controlled.” Jesus fiercely desires to enter and lead our lives as the enfleshed love of God. But Jesus will do so only under God’s terms of love, not our terms of control and expectation. This should add gravity to our joy. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”*
As with politics these days, so especially for Christmas, the big question is, “How is your conscience?” That the shepherds were fearful proves they had a conscience. They understood that the uncontrollable God was the subject of this breaking news, even if they themselves also were accustomed to exploiting the loopholes of a system rigged against them. By necessity they were street wise, or I should say, field-wise. But that didn’t dampen their desire for innocence. Like us, they yearned—and still do!—for so much better, for the Good News that sets everything right, and treats not just 5% or 1%, but 100% of the population with mercy and justice.
It is to those on whom no human mercy has been given–like shepherds–that Jesus is born as the personalized grace of God. The shepherds weren’t expecting a magical night. They were just doing their jobs. And they were just taking care of each other. They were doing the same things that you and I do when we know that we must attend to the essential good and human matters of daily life. They did all the things that we do when our psyches are stripped to utter honesty. So the angels come to the shepherds’ real human situation. And the Son of God comes into the simply human situation of Mary and Joseph, soon to be joined by unwashed field hands.
And what did that congregation of unclean shepherds and itinerant new parents receive there at the manger? Lives were made wonderfully human again. Laments of the oppressed were swapped for gurgling cries of joy. Swaddling clothes wiped away sin. And he who lay on the hay of animals opened his arms as God’s love for the world, to give himself as the Medicine of Immortality.** In such a human God-born place holiness happened and happens still…here and now…even with our own real and ragged lives.
Holiness claims its place in you. And the holy will insistently grow in its place. It will grow and assume more humanity yet. When it happens, we fear it, as we should a little. When we attune to it, holy news will fill our ears like angel song. Our eyes will sparkle with stars. God will warm our depths like the long sip of spiced wine. Then we like shepherds will light fires for others’ warmth. We will satisfy others’ thirst and hunger. We will grow the humanity that God honored when God became human. We will become more human by relying on God alone.
When humanity so grows, Christmas will be in the news cycle every night. And every day will blaze with holiness.
Merry Christmas! Happy Holy-days! Christ is born! Thanks be to God!
*Bonhoeffer, “The Coming of Jesus into our Midst”
**See O beata infantia and Irenaeus’ doctrine of the Eucharist.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX.