Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7
This is one of my favorite jokes. I know I’ve told it to several of you before: “What did the rat say to the pigeon? Are you an angel?” I love it because it is about perspective and relationship. I’ve heard it said many times that pigeons are glorified rats, and to a rat, a pigeon must seem something glorious.
This evening we have neither rats nor pigeons in our readings or traditions, but we have shepherds and angels. The shepherds were the rats of society. They slept outside. It has probably been awhile since they bathed. At a time when all the world was to be counted, it seems that they counted for nothing. Why else were they not in the towns of their birth, like Joseph?
Yet, the pigeons come to them, nonetheless. The angels come to them, of all people! The shepherds weren’t used to anyone paying them any attention. They had never heard fine music and trained voices before, let alone heavenly ones. I think of God, hatching this plan, wanting to tell someone to come and see the new thing God was doing. This is God’s birth announcement. Only God doesn’t send it to the kings and queens and the rich and famous. He knows they’d just chuck this announcement in the trash. They probably get hundreds of birth announcements every year. Think of God chuckling as he imagined the reaction of the shepherds to this display of light and sound, to this news. Usually, nobody cared to include them in any kind of celebration. But God goes to them! God had their full attention.
God goes to them, because God knows they will be responsive. They will get it. “Here is a king for someone like us. We don’t have to worry about having the right clothes to go visit. He’s living in a barn. We’ll fit right in. We don’t have to have the right gifts or worry we’ll say the wrong thing. This is a baby who won’t judge us by our job or clothes or way of talking.” This was news they were ready to hear. Nothing will ever be the same again. If you are comfortable and you hear that, it isn’t going to be good news of great joy. But to the shepherds, something new coming into this world meant something good. They were excited and joyful. They paid a visit to the Holy family. Then they went out and shared the happy news and the story of their experience with anyone who would listen.
God also goes to them, because they are shepherds. God is announcing the king of the shepherds to the shepherds. Jesus is one of them. Here they are just outside the city of David, shepherds, just as King David had been as a boy. Now God was coming as a shepherd king to look out for the people, tend and care for them, and save them so that none will be missing. By announcing to the shepherds, God is showing the kind of King Jesus will be. Jesus will talk to shepherds, even if no one else will. Jesus will live like a shepherd, wandering the land, and having no place to lay his head. And Jesus will rescue like a shepherd, and lay his life down for the sheep.
We get to spy on this close encounter in the fields by night. I wonder who else finds themselves witnessing this birth announcement. Were there people living nearby who heard and saw what occurred? I like to wonder what the sheep thought of all this! It is almost as if God, bypassing the rich and well-situated and going to the shepherds sweeps all of us into this story. We get to hear and imagine how this went and think to ourselves, what about me is like a shepherd? In what way am I a little rough around the edges? When have I been an outcast? When have I had no possessions in this world? When have I given of myself to the care of another? We who have been insiders and enjoyed the privilege of riches and being invited to the party, find ourselves on the outside looking in and learning from those we might have otherwise dismissed. We get to learn from them what it means to welcome our Savior.
Tonight we hear that the light shines in the darkness. At times the light is dim and it seems there isn’t enough to shine on everyone. At times resources are slim and some are left out—there isn’t enough food, enough energy, enough loving families, enough education. The entrance of Jesus into this world was a reassurance that there is enough light and joy for everyone. That the good news and the light and the music went first to the shepherds meant there was enough for them, the last of the last. If there is enough for them, there is enough for everyone. All good things originate with God, food, warmth, shelter, light, love, and joy. God is abounding in all those things. Jesus came to show us that this world is full of all these good things. It is simply a matter of sharing them, of valuing one another enough to spread them around. It is a matter of not fearing, because when we fear we take matters into our own hands, we hoard and collect. When we no longer fear, we find love, we accept a Savior, we humble ourselves to go and visit a helpless, squalling rugrat, we act more like shepherds.
The angels say, “Fear not, for we bring you good news of great joy.” Jesus became human. He experienced fear. But he didn’t let it rule his life. He was directed by love, instead. Here he is, a tiny baby. He probably has his nights and days mixed up. And his mother swaddles him. Swaddling helps calms little babies who have been used to being all squished in the womb. It helps them feel protected. Here he had come from the heavens, from the beginning of time, to being confined in a womb month after month, and now found himself exposed and open, arms flailing, eyes lacking focus, unable to help himself in any way. So his mother wraps him to help him feel secure. Jesus took on the confinement of the womb, the limits of a human body, to come and be one of us. He took on our joys and our fears. He accepted the limits of a human life in order to help us break out of the limits we place upon ourselves and others that keep people from fully living life. And as a consequence, he later found himself, once again wrapped in bands of cloth, the grave clothes he discarded in the cave where he was buried, at the resurrection. Then suddenly, the limits were thrown away, or rather neatly folded there. Jesus threw off the limits of prejudice and judgment his whole ministry. He threw off the limits of arbitrary rules of society that kept people like shepherds in their place. And finally at his death he threw off the limits of life and death and broke the barrier between the world and the Kingdom of God. He extended new life to all God’s children. Knowing that we can live in God’s Kingdom now, we are freed from all our limitations to serve God, serve our neighbor, serve God’s beautiful world. The opportunities for Kingdom life are limitless.
Jesus came into this world, by starting out in a womb, then in a manger, and snuck right past our barriers and limits we tried to put on God. God has been here all along with love for us, but we rejected the message. God came to us through Moses and we twisted the laws into ways of earning God’s love, and complained and got lost a lot. God came to us through kings, but we still weren’t satisfied and went our own way. God came to us through nature—trees clapping their hands, flowers blooming in the desert, a snowy mountain right outside our window—and we missed the point and exploited the earth for our own gain. So God sneaks right in as a little baby, somebody nobody would notice, in a manger, a place no one would think to look, in the most ordinary situation, a birth, just like every other human or animal. May you find the Christ Child sneaking into your life this season, and growing into the Christ who challenges us to throw off the limits that we place upon ourselves and others, and instead repeat the sounding joy of God’s love to everyone from the shepherds to the angels and back.
There are no rats, only angels, because God has lifted us from our old life and given us wings to fly, with new perspectives to see our neighbors and new possibilities for ourselves and for this world.