Alan P. Sherouse
Scripture: Luke 2.8-14
“On earth,” they sing. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace goodwill to all.”
Maybe we’ve heard the angels’ song enough that it’s easy to hum along and forget that so much of the incarnation – the story of Christmas itself – is tied up in this phrase they sing. The phrase tells us that the one who is high and lofty, rising above it all, did not consider that position something to be grasped or clutched or protected, but humbled himself. He looked out at our world – broken, so often clumsily wasted and lost as it can be – and said, “Let me go to that place.” On earth.
In the words of the biblical scholar JD Crossan, the entire life and ministry of Jesus was rooted in the earthly “ordinary and everyday.” (1) Jesus’ stories featured recognizable characters. His miracles occurred on familiar roads. His teaching took place in accessible settings.
As a mentor of mine once said, “In presenting the kingdom of God, Jesus never asked people to leave their world.” (2)
UA Fanthorpe’s poem, “BC:AD,” reflects on this. A Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, Fanthorpe wrote original poems each year in her Christmas cards to her friends. In “BC:AD”, she imagines how such a mighty swing of history occurred through the altogether ordinary and earthly circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
Sometimes God appears to us in magnificence and wonder. But more often, God sneaks into a manger on the edge of a single-inn town. From the very beginning it happens on earth, in places like a field outside of Bethlehem, at times like the middle of the nightshift, with backdrops like the same starlit sky you’ve stared at countless times before, and to people like the shepherds.
Many of you were here Wednesday evening for the wonder and chaos of our first Spontaneous Nativity service, as some 70 kids – or at least those from that number who could be convinced to participate – donned costumes and stood in for the cast of characters as the story of Jesus’ birth was read and sung. There was lots of joyful noise, and it started right away back in the costume room, where children and parents had 15 minutes to shuffle amidst the clothing racks and claim a role. If you listen to some of the video footage taken in the dressing room, you hear several voices shouting, “I want to be Mary!” or others vying for the wise men with their sequined clothes and cool props.
There was less of a swarm around the clothing rack marked “Shepherds.” They don’t carry fancy gifts. No baby to hold. No center stage. Just a bathrobe and a headscarf, and maybe a staff until the prop-master runs out. No one lines up or boxes out to play that part. In fact, I know one little shepherd in my house that stayed up an extra hour Wednesday night, still curious and agitated about why she couldn’t play the role of a 3-year-old Mother Mary.
It was always a marginal role: the shepherd. Don’t be taken in by the pastoral, pristine images we’ve imagined. These are ancient minimum-wage workers. Shepherds worked hard and long days and nights, lived paycheck to paycheck, and all with livestock and a few others for company in the fields outside Bethlehem or some other backwater town. Subject to their employers, they were dependent on another for their hand to mouth existence. No spotlight. No center stage. It’s what you did because you probably couldn’t imagine doing anything else. And you probably couldn’t imagine your world being anything else.
How many nights had those shepherds gazed at the sprawling landscape or the ominous night sky until their view blurred into nothing at all? Had they stared at it looking for something like the justice and peace we long to see? Were they looking for evidence that God was with them? Did they ever stare at the sky and cry out with Isaiah, “God won’t you tear open the heavens and come down”?
What does it mean that the news is sung out to people like this?
On Thursday I had “one of those days” for me as pastor of First Baptist, where I feel I’m doing what God has called me to do, blessed to share in so many poignant and critical moments in the lives of the members of this community.
Late morning, I was planning to join others in the Sanctuary for the annual Christmas play put on by our Weekday School students and teachers, with all of its adorable music and costumes. The wise men, angel Gabriel, Mother Mary, and shepherds were all there assembled.
But first, I drove out to Pennybrn Homes for a pastoral visit with a beloved member of First Baptist: Sharyn. Sharyn and her husband Bill are dear to many of you, and many of you know that our prayers for them are all the more urgent these days, as Sharyn has had a return of her illness and Hospice has come just this week to care for her.
She was still as I came near. Quiet. It was a change from the vibrant, energetic conversationalist I had seen many Wednesdays and Sundays when I started here 2 years ago. We sat. We prayed. Bill joined us and we all held hands. In the absence of meaningful words of my own, I read from the Psalms. I read from the Prophets. And then I turned to the gospel of Luke, chapter 2, and I read the story of Jesus’ birth that we read today.
Soon after it was time to leave to make it back for the Christmas play. I arrived just as the pre-show music started. The preschool cast was shuffling about on the stage. All their parents were lined up like reporters at a press conference. And at the close of the play, I was asked to read the story once more: the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2.
I felt how jarring it was. How disjointed it seemed, this experience of reading the same story in the span of an hour at a Christmas pageant and at a bedside.
But, then isn’t that where Christ came? Isn’t that who he came for? Isn’t that where Christ comes still? Isn’t that where we will find him? With the weary one, the grieving one, the mournful one, the sick and fearful ones, the marginalized ones. He’s not high and elevated, but right here on the ground – this ground – on earth. His song rings out not just for the 4 year-old shepherds shifting their feet on the Christmas pageant stage, but even more loudly for Bill and for Sharyn.
We so often replay and recount the incarnation with grand spectacle and high volume, fancy costumes and tight harmony, as though we have to recreate the ethereal and lofty. We act as though we have to go someplace else or do something else to experience it. As though we have to play another role, or clean up our lives for God to dwell with us.
But look again at the birth scene. The one-motel town. The no vacancy sign. The barn out back. The feeding trough turned crib. The bands of cloth found within reach. The weary expectant parents. The deep blue midnight. And the farmworkers in a field.
Every earthly, elemental detail sings out to us as loudly as any angel choir that in in order to experience the love for which we yearn this Christmas, God does not ask us to leave our world. God sends Jesus to us. On earth.
(1) Contention from Crossan’s 1973 In Parables and many works since.
(2) Quoting good friend and former professor, Dr. Daniel E. Goodman.