There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of God appeared to them, and the glory of God shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for ALL people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you who is Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all creation.’
That’s how an evangelist named Luke tells the story anyway. Now I am a recent transplant to Ft. Lauderdale from New York City, but I started life in the hills of Arkansas. I could tie my shoes years before I ever saw any need to wear them. And even now at the age of 40 after much travel, urban living and higher education, the truth remains that to the core of my soul I’m as country as a collard green and I no longer waste any energy denying that fact. I was a child of the rural mid-south and so stories of livestock and those who watch after them tend to get my attention.
Luke commits his version of this story to paper during a turbulent time in history. He was writing to people who felt disenfranchised and who desperately needed hope. And so he says, There were shepherds living out in the fields.
Shepherds were not highly regarded by society’s upper crust. They worked outside. Luke basically foreshadows a scene from Brokeback Mountain, showing us shepherds living outside. They worked hard and they worked with sheep. Sheep ain’t roses, let me tell you. People living and working outside, among livestock, they could be dirty and…well, no one has ever thought of marketing their fragrance. Glade doesn’t make a sheep scented candle, you know what I mean?
When these hard working, unkempt people would come to town, people would just not acknowledge them sometimes. You can imagine people clutching their purses and covering their noses and looking the other way. That’s who our story is about tonight. People not warmly embraced by society. They were maligned and vilified and harshly judged and viewed with suspicion, and while THESE people, living outside were watching their flocks an angel showed up to THEM. The ones that larger society had forgotten or condemned were the very ones to whom God first announces Good News, according to Luke.
Of course, at first this disturbed our shepherd friends. Maybe they had spent too much time in isolation and had finally had some kind of breakdown. I mean, please, if you ever think you’re being visited by angels you might wonder if it isn’t time for a vacation, and maybe some medication. But in response to their fears, the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.” We hear that throughout the gospel: Don’t be afraid.
The angel isn’t there to make their lives worse; the angel has come to bring GOOD NEWS of GREAT JOY for ALL people. The good news isn’t just for some people. No one gets left out of this party. Whoever you are, you are God’s and nothing can separate you from God’s love. This is good news of great joy for all people, even people that other people haven’t treated with proper respect, my shepherd friends.
If we stopped right there, the story would be empowering enough. But there is more. The angel not only affirms the shepherds by coming to them and empowers them by telling them to not be afraid, the angel then continues with one more gift.
Nearby, a child has been born and this child has somehow been anointed by God already. Christ or messiah – these words both mean Anointed. A baby has just been born who is anointed by God. OK? That’s nice. But wait – here’s the sign, the twist, the way God seems to work: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough.
This child, anointed by God is a lot like our shepherd friends. This baby is born to an unwed mother, temporarily homeless, in a barn. You’ll find him, not dressed in beautiful baby clothes but wrapped up in cloths, rags, lying in a trough, on top of hay that cows bury their faces in and eat.
And once this good news is delivered, the angel is joined by other angels singing and praising God and announcing God’s favor for ALL people – God’s desire for peace in all the world.
The good news to these shepherds is that a baby is born. This baby is anointed with God’s grace and the power of God’s spirit. But this baby isn’t lying in a fancy crib in a palace. This baby isn’t even lying on a soft blanket in a cozy cottage. This baby is wrapped in cloths, lying in a barn, born to parents who are facing difficulties in life. God has anointed, called, favored, blessed the most unlikely of candidates. Isn’t that just God’s way?!
The Good News is that God doesn’t have one soul to waste. God’s love isn’t just for the few, the elect, the pretty, the privileged. God’s love is for ALL people. God’s Peace is for ALL people. God’s empowerment is for ALL people. You can even find God, and maybe especially so, among the least and the lowly. God’s anointed one, God’s angels, God’s message, God’s miracles are found with the shepherds, with the young pregnant girl who gives birth in a barn, with a baby who is wrapped in rags lying in a manger.
Race, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation…none of these things earn God’s love nor do any of these things push God’s love away. God’s love in unconditional, all inclusive, and to the people who have never heard that or who have been told the exact opposite this message of divine love is truly Good News.
If you have ever felt like a poor shepherd, living outside of power in the margins, terrified when messages about God appear in front of you, hear this story again tonight. It is OUR story, your story, all people’s story: Do Not Be Afraid. I Bring You Good News of Great Joy that will be for ALL People…
That’s the eternal Christmas message. And every time someone really hears and embraces it, angels rejoice and sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all creation.” Amen
This homily was delivered by Rev. Canon Durrell Watkins at the 8 PM and 10 PM Christmas Eve services at the Amaturo Theatre in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, 2006.