Tonight will begin a weekend of annual family gatherings across the world, all starting with the usual greetings and asking how everyone’s doing, including “How’s the rest of the family,” and if anything significant happened since last Christmas. And from time to time, depending on the family member, and how good or bad of a mood they’re in, they’ll also get into the dreaded current events and the cynical news from across the globe. Granted, 2015 has not exactly overflowed with “good news of great joy for all the people,” to the point that many of the young parents in those family gatherings this weekend actually keep themselves up at night worried sick about raising their children in this day in age.
Yes, undeniably terrible violence has broken out far too often near and far away, but it’s not just that: it’s the response from all these people broadcasted over every form of our modern day communication. It’s the hatred, it’s the lashing out at people, it’s the complete and utter disregard of everyone else’s character but their own.
Of course if you thought 2015 wasn’t exactly filled with “good news of great joy for all the people,” 2016, as we approach November, especially, will put this past year absolutely to shame. It’s going to be flat-out humiliating how we are going to act towards each other the next 365 days. It’s going to be unbelievably awful the things we’ll say to other cherished children of God of all ages. Our children and grandchildren and future generations will be, and very much should be, downright embarrassed to be in any way associated with us.
How much we desperately need this precious story of Christmas tonight, and for many…many nights to come, beginning with the angel who appeared to the shepherds. This divine messenger of God could have very well spoke to the rugged sheep-watchers in a much harsher tone. God was more than entitled to be absolutely furious with the way humanity had carried themselves since the beginning.
But for whatever reason the angel has no desire to make the shepherds cower in fear, no inclination to make them, and all of humanity with them, feel guilty; no yearning to command them in the most aggressive manner to start marching towards Bethlehem. Instead, the messenger of divine hope comes with the most incredible news of the greatest joy for all the people of all times and places: to the shepherds, to the people everywhere, to all children of God; a Savior has come to save us all. No condemnation, no shame, no “you better do this or else;” God had come to dwell in and with this humble world.
Then there’s Mary, a young soon-to-be mother, who like many today, was more than worried about raising a child in her world. Violence was breaking out around her too, but personally for her as a young Jewish girl, her community had shunned her for having a child out of wedlock, bringing shame upon her family. Joseph had his doubts about this whole divine conception. Mary must have felt so incredibly alone, so scared out of her mind not only about having the child, but being responsible for caring for this Son of God, who will end up redeeming the world.
However, not only did Mary have to believe that God would be with her during those nine months and beyond, but Mary had to believe that that same world she grew up in, that had kicked her out, that had pushed her away into complete and utter isolation from the most basic love and compassion; she had to believe that that world was still worthy of being rescued. She could have tried to convince God that it wasn’t worth it, try to change God’s mind to wait another thousand years; that surely humanity would improve by then. And yet God incited Mary to see that world that God still cherished through the eyes of her child, the one who would end up saving it, including the lonely Mary, forever.
But back to the shepherds, the ultimate downtrodden, looked-down upon, spat-upon, shepherds that they were. They are the witnesses not only for those long, long ago; but for us still to this day: for us who are so easily convinced with all the excess forms of communication that this world is on its way to utter destructive darkness, making us weary to even leave our peaceful sanctuaries of home.
Except, the shepherds show us that to better see the light of Christ, to find Christ Himself all the more, we actually have to leave our safe-havens of home to get a glimpse of the Christ child. Because, the truth is, the shepherds didn’t have to go to the stable. Christ was born. Salvation had reignited for humanity whether they went or not, but the shepherds refused to sit back and let God do God’s divine work without notice. The shepherds had to see it! Sure enough, those same rugged, downtrodden, spat-upon shepherds, would be the ones responsible to make sure this story was known to us thousands of years later, to experience the hope we so desperately need to hear not just once a year, but every night of our life. Their eagerness to find God at work in the world, we still overlook to this day.
There are still shepherds at work tonight, and not just the ones watching over sheep in pastures, but ones who refuse to believe this world isn’t worth caring about anymore. They’re the ones working in homeless shelters tonight, others working in medical missions in countries we refuse to talk about let alone go to, there are people who will not spend anytime whatsoever with their family tonight because they feel this overwhelming urge to serve those in need. Taken-for-granted shepherds hard at work beyond the attention of the masses of humanity are still alive and well thousands of years after they found God at work in saving the world and just had to tell that world about it.
Now there’s no question there’s still darkness in this world leading to captivating cynical attitudes even on this most joyous of nights. But tonight we gather not only to celebrate a historical event, even if it is the most pivotal one that set the stage for an ‘ole rugged cross and an empty left-behind tomb. Instead, tonight we gather because we still see God at work in bringing the same light that lit up the sky over Bethlehem into our life, and into the places where we have given up on all over the world. For whatever reason beyond our comprehension, God still insists on showing up, oftentimes without us even asking for it. God did so through a pack of rugged shepherds and a teenage girl long ago, and God continues today through so many people we take for granted in our own families, communities and around the world. Because what happened in Bethlehem, no matter how precious, no matter how holy the night: that was just the beginning! And for that, for God’s continued holy activity among us, we give thanks to that God of everlasting life indeed! Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Nan Dehnke, Pastor
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon