Don't Be Afraid - a Christmas sermon
Today's reading from the second chapter of Luke is, of course, the classic Nativity story with which almost everyone who grew up in a Christian church is familiar from years of Christmas plays and other celebrations.
To those who grew up with the King James version of the Bible, certain phrases from the Nativity are almost treasured talismans: "shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night ... wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger ... on earth peace, good will toward men ... "
It tells of the night that our Earth became what writer Philip Yancey has called "the visited planet." And after that night, everything was different. History split into two parts. The second Person of the Trinity, Who had created this time-space universe from afar, entered it as a human to change forever our world's balance of power.
On that first night in Luke 2, Christ was still a newborn Baby, and His Father's angels were announcing the good news of His miraculous birth, but not to Caesar Augustus or to Cyrenius the governor of Syria, nor even to Herod, though he would find out from the three Magi soon enough. The angels appeared to simple shepherds on a lonely hillside.
Why shepherds? Have you ever wondered that? Why shepherds?
In the first century, sheep herders had a rather unsavory reputation. The ancient historian Jeremias wrote that "most of the time they were dishonest and thieving." Pious Jews were warned not to buy wool or milk from shepherds, as it was probably stolen. Shepherds were not permitted to testify in court as witnesses. A midrash, or rabbinical commentary, on Psalm 23:2 says there was no more disreputable occupation.
How better to announce the birth of the Friend of sinners? How better to introduce the One who would be rebuked by the religious in-crowd for partying with tax collectors and prostitutes, who would assemble a ragtag band of fishermen for His disciples, and would be crucified between two thieves. If you were making up a story about the Messiah, would you have written it like that? I wouldn't.
Isaiah said the Messiah would be despised and rejected by society, and Jesus spent most of His time ministering to those whom society rejected and despised. How fitting, then, that the angels of Jesus' birth appeared to shepherds and said, "For unto YOU, you dishonest, thieving shepherds, unto YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Christ the Lord." He's going to be YOUR Messiah. The Messiah of the disreputable, the Messiah of the scorned and unloved. YOU, He will love.
That's why ... shepherds. So what did the angel tell them?
First, don't be afraid -- which meant, at least in part, not to be afraid. It's night, they're probably miles from town, the sheep are grazing on the grassy hill, and all of a sudden there's a light like the spotlight of a police helicopter on them, and an angel appears, perhaps in a white robe with wings, perhaps even a halo, at least that's how they're depicted in ancient paintings. The New International Version says they were terrified. And the first words out of the angel's mouth are, "Don't be afraid." It makes sense.
But I think it meant more than just that. I think it meant that the coming of Jesus need not strike fear in the hearts of anyone except Satan and his demons. People, no matter who they are or what their situation or where they are on life's journey, need never fear the arrival of Jesus on the scene. I wish the same could always be said of His followers. The coming of Jesus is always good news -- in Greek, the word is "evangelion," meaning the Gospel, as it's called in the New Testament. "Jesus is coming," the angel told them. "Don't be afraid."
Second, he told them this great and joyful news is meant for everyone worldwide -- Jew and Gentile alike. Today, it's not just for those of us who live in the West, or for those of us who speak English. It's also for the Iraqi and the Afghan, the Israeli and the Palestinian. The good news of the Gospel is for all people around the world.
What difference would it make in the way we see the world if we believed the good news of the Gospel, the unconditional love of Jesus, is meant just as much for the Taliban and al Qaeda as it is for us -- that the forgiveness and compassion and love of Jesus is as much for Osama bin Laden as for you and me?
Third, the angel told the shepherds about a Baby Who would be the Savior. The Greek word we translate "Savior" was soter, the rescuer, the lifeguard, the one who pulls your child out of the swimming pool when she's drowning. And he told them that this Rescuer's message is one of peace and good will; peace to those beset by the tragedy of war; good will to those who are oppressed, and to everyone worldwide.
Then, as quickly as he had appeared, the angel vanished. The choir stopped singing, the spotlight was turned off, and the shepherds were alone in the darkness on the hillside with their sheep -- with a decision to make. We're told they looked at each other for a moment, dumbfounded and probably still a bit frightened. Then one of the shepherds said, "Round up the sheep, we need to get to Bethlehem."
So they went. And for their obedience, there in Bethlehem, in a cave meant for keeping the animals of the travelers resting for the night in the inn ... there they met the young mother ... Mary. They also met Joseph. It was the shepherds who were the first "outsiders" to see the Baby, Who at that very moment was changing history, and Who would turn their world and ours upside-down. "Emmanuel" has come, "God with us!" Don't be afraid!
Glory to Jesus Christ!
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