Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

Click here for directions
 

A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Rise Up Shepherd and Follow

Rev. Kathy Donley

12/24/15

 

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 2:1-20

 

Every Sunday this month, our children led our call to worship with a bit of drama.  Along with some adults reading the roles of Mary and Joseph, they came knocking, looking for shelter.  Every week, they were turned away.  Every week, until last Sunday, when the innkeepers found space for them in a stable and they were welcomed in.  This was our version of a 400 year old Mexican  tradition called Las Posadas, which means ‘the inns” or “the accommodations.”  It is a traditional way to re-tell the story of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and finding, as Luke says, no room in the inn.

 

There is another, parallel tradition also practiced in Mexico and the southwestern United States as well as in Spain.  It is called Las Pastorelas, or “the shepherds”.  On Christmas Eve, the story shifts from Mary and Joseph doing the seeking, to Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus as the ones being sought, this time by the shepherds.  There is something compelling about this story. These nativity plays were begun in the Middle Ages and they are still being acted out today. 

 

The story begins around a fire on a hillside outside Bethlehem.  The shepherds are doing their job, which involves keeping warm and not falling asleep, and every once in a while, peering out into the darkness to make sure the sheep are still there.   The ground is hard. Any night may hold danger.   They talk amongst themselves.  Perhaps on this night they are remembering last week’s funeral for Uncle Jacob, that great practical joker, or commenting on how unusually warm and rainy it is for this time of year.  The smell of wet sheep is not especially pleasant.  And maybe the conversation turns to politics.   The current event is the census  -- Rome’s attempt to inventory the wealth of the empire for the purpose of maximum taxation.  It can mean nothing good for the shepherds. 

 

Before Rome took over, ancient Israel had struggled against Syrian domination.  Now their land is ruled from Syria by a Quirinius, a governor appointed by Ceasar Augustus.  Out in the darkness, among friends, the shepherds may be voicing their anger and frustrations and fears about the census and the soldiers and the large shadow cast by the empire.  It is just the venting done among friends, but to a Roman ear, it could sound like rebellion. 

 

And then in the darkness, someone appears.  They are terrified.  Justo Gonazalez, a Cuban American theologian says, “Their fear is not surprising.  Those of us who have lived under dictatorial regimes have often had similar experiences and reactions.  We learned to shudder if someone knocked at our door in the wee hours of the morning.  Such a knock could easily lead to your ‘disappearance.’   Imagine a group of peasants in a country devastated by a combination of tyrannical government and economic exploitation.  They do not have to be conspiring or having a subversive conversation.  They just have to be there, and to know what has happened to other peasants, who ran afoul of the government.  Suddenly there is a bright light, and an unknown person stands before them.  It is not surprising that they would be terrified.”[1]

 

This is not the idyllic scene of Christmas cards and carols.    As their heart rates return to normal and the adrenaline works its way out of their systems, they struggle to makes sense of the angel’s words: 

 

“This will be sign for you.  You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”  Swaddling clothes they understand.  Bands of cloth were a common practice.  It kept the baby warm and may have been used to keep a child’s limbs straight.  Every baby will be wrapped up like that.  It’s not much help as a clue.  But “lying in a manger” – that’s unusual.  It probably refers to a feeding trough, but it could mean the stall where an animal was kept. 

 

And so they set out to find this one baby, somewhere in Bethlehem, in the middle of the night or maybe its early morning by now.  Luke doesn’t bother to tell us what they did about the sheep. 

 

This story is so familiar to us that we may forget how unlikely it is.  The shepherds need a Messiah, a Savior, a Liberator, someone who will lead them to shake off the oppression of Rome.  That’s who the angels announce --  “unto you is born this day a Savior”.   The manger is an unlikely place. Peasants are unlikely parents.  One would expect a liberator to be born into a military family or the family of revolutionaries or maybe even a priest’s family.  But not some unknown peasants from Nazareth, even if they are related to the great King David.  A baby born to peasant parents and laid in a manger is an unlikely place. 

 

It is unlikely timing.  The people need liberation now, right now.  Who knows what might happen in the next few years.  This is no time for a baby Messiah – we need the full-grown version on the scene, right now.

 

It is an unlikely story, to remind us that God arrives in unlikely ways.  And if, we and the shepherds are going to seek God, we need to be prepared for surprises. 

 

In the last month, a member of Emmanuel said this, “while we are waiting for the Messiah, there is no reason to think he or she won't be coming as a Syrian or other refugee, even a Muslim. After all, he came as a Jew the last time...”

 

Some of us may find those words unsettling.  Jesus returning as a refugee?    Those perilous pictures of Syrians crossing the Aegean Sea come to mind. Surely he wouldn’t be among them, right? He could drown.  And yet, a baby born 2,000 years ago would also have been one of the world’s vulnerable people. 

 

But Jesus as a Syrian, or a Muslim or a woman? . . . That can’t be right, can it?  Yes, these words are provocative.  They disrupt our categories, our expectations of a triumphant Jesus who will come trailing clouds of glory or on a white horse with trumpet sound.  If they make you uneasy, then perhaps you have just a tiny sense of how disruptive the angel’s message was to those shepherds.

 

And the shepherds themselves were unlikely recipients of this message.  Shepherding was a despised occupation.  Shepherds could be romanticized, as King David was, but they were usually ranked with tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers and other low-lifes.  Because they were away from home at night, they were unable to protect their women and so were considered dishonorable.[2]

 

It is to these social outcasts that the angels announce good news.  Euanglion is the Greek word here that gets translated “good news.”  It is the word usually used to proclaim Ceasar’s propaganda, news of victory in battle or things that applied only to the elites among Roman citizens.  But this good news is for all people, beginning with the lowly shepherds.  The angel says “To you is born”  Not to someone else, someone better, more important, more sorted out and respectable – to them, right there, where they were, as they were.  God arrives in unlikely ways. 

 

Sometimes we forget this.  “We think that God is most likely to be found in beautiful respectable places, like a candlelit church or on a glorious mountaintop or in the lives of upright people who have gotten their acts together.  We still lazily refer to some places as god-forsaken – certain inner city neighborhoods, refugee camps, war zones – but the truth of Christmas is that no place is god-forsaken.  In fact, the places God arrives first tend to be those where there is pain and disgrace, poverty and need.”[3]  As you celebrate tonight, tomorrow and through the weekend, remember the shepherds.  Give yourself permission to be like them, ready to be terrified and amazed,  ready to run to Bethlehem or some equally unlikely place, to receive the good news.  And let me put an earworm in your head to help you remember, because I know that what you remember from Christmas Eve is not the sermon.  Let’s sing together call and response style. Your line is “rise up shepherd and follow”.  You sing that when I point to you. 

 

There's a star in the East on Christmas morn,
          Rise up shepherd and follow.
It will lead to the place where the Savior's born,
          Rise up shepherd and follow.

Follow, follow,

          Rise up shepherd and follow.
Follow the star of Bethlehem.

          Rise up shepherd and follow.

 

If you take good heed to the angel's words.
          Rise up shepherd and follow.
You'll forget your flocks; you'll forget your herds.
          Rise up shepherd and follow.

Follow, follow,

          Rise up shepherd and follow.
Follow the star of Bethlehem.
          Rise up shepherd and follow.

 

“And in that region, there were shepherds living in the fields. And an angel of the Lord appeared and the glory of the Lord shone and they were filled with fear. And the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for behold I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people: for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. . . . And the shepherds said to one another”—and across twenty centuries, to you and me—“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see.”  Thanks be to God. Amen.

 



[1] Justo Gonzalez, Luke in the Belief Commentary Series, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010) , p. 34.

 

[2] Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels,  2nd Edition, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 232.

[3] This paragraph was taken from a sermon by Rev. Anne LeBas “Come to the Manger” shared with the PRCL list-serv, December 23, 2015

 

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