This year, I’ve been paying attention to Nativity scenes. I have several that have been given to me over the years, and what I have found fascinating is this: with the exception of a Nativity scene that I inherited from my grandmother, which has both shepherds and wise men, the rest of my Nativity scenes feature only the wise men surrounding the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and assorted animals. I find this rather odd, because if we read the birth stories in Matthew and compare them to Luke, we’ll find clues that the wise men actually did not show up the night that Jesus was born. And, the church has known that for the thousands of years that there has been a church, and they dealt with that by having two separate feast days: Christmas, to celebrate the night when Jesus was born and the shepherds came, and Epiphany, twelve days later on January 6, which celebrates the arrival of the wise men. Over the many years and the changes in culture that have happened since the church established this, the feast day of Epiphany does not get celebrated anymore unless January 6 falls on a Sunday (which it does next year!), and so we tend to skip over the wise men in Sunday morning worship. My theory is that this is why the stories from Matthew and Luke have been meshed together, so that we crowd in the wise men with the shepherds: to make sure the wise men are not left out of the story. But that doesn’t answer the question of my Nativity scenes with only wise men and no shepherds. And I’ve been wondering why the wise men generate more fascination for us than the shepherds do. Is it because our society is more fascinated with wealth and privilege than we are with ordinary people? Is it because most of us have no connections to farming anymore and therefore relate better to the wise men than we do to the shepherds? Or is it because we want Jesus to be that person who is due to receive rich gifts and be recognized as a true king at his birth, when he was only mockingly recognized as a king at his death? I think these are all possibilities, and very likely it is a combination of these and other reasons that the wise men are now squeezed in to Christmas with the shepherds.
But the story that the Gospel of Luke tells, that we hear tonight, is not the story of wealthy strangers from a far-off land. We are putting that story aside until January 6th. Tonight, we hear the story that Luke tells: of an ordinary Jewish couple caught up in the machinations of the government, forced to make a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, arriving at their family home to find no room for them, and having to bed down with the animals. It is the story of a very pregnant woman having to give birth to her firstborn among the animals and laying that child in the animals’ feeding trough. And it is the story of ordinary people doing their ordinary job of watching sheep out in the fields at night, when suddenly they see angels in the sky telling them about the newborn Savior, and then quickly going and crowding themselves in to this place with animals, new parents, and a newborn baby to see. There is nothing glamorous about this story at all, except for maybe the army of angels that appears in the sky. And that, I believe, is truly the good news for us, because, in the end, we really do have more in common with those shepherds than we do with the wise men.
Just think about it: the shepherds were ordinary guys, no one special, minding their own business, and watching those pesky sheep in the middle of the night. Remember that sheep are not the brightest of creatures, but they are of great value both for their wool and for their meat. The shepherds were outside of the circles of power. They had no connection with the mighty Roman Emperor Augustus or even this guy named Quirinius who was governor of Syria. And yet: God chose those shepherds to hear the message of the angels that night. Here was God’s Son, born in the home of ordinary peasants and laid to rest in an animal’s feeding trough. Even though Jesus was born of the line of David, David’s family had no more political power in the land of Palestine. Right from the start, God was signaling that God’s kingdom come on earth was not going to be a direct challenge to the reign of Caesar, but that it was going to be a different kind of kingdom: one where the poor and the ordinary were valued above the rich and the powerful, and one where, as Mary had sung earlier in Luke’s story, God was going to throw down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly; one where God was going to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. Right from the moment when Jesus was born, God was signaling that God’s kingdom was going to be the reverse of all human expectations for what that kingdom would look like.
Just think about it: the shepherds brought no gifts for Jesus. They probably had nothing that they could give. The sheep that they were watching might not have even belonged to them. So, as Mary lies in the same area with the animals, recovering from having given birth, a bunch of shepherds suddenly crowds into this small area with her, Joseph, and the baby, telling a fantastic story of angels who came and told them that the Messiah had been born and was lying in a manger. To Mary and Joseph’s credit, they did not throw these strangers out, but rather, the Scripture tells us, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Perhaps Mary was thinking about how, in this new kingdom that was being ushered in by her newborn son, those who have nothing to give but themselves, like the shepherds, would be welcomed and loved by her child. And perhaps, just perhaps, Mary allowed these strangers, these rough shepherds, to hold her new baby and coo over him, and wonder at him close up.
And so, you see, we ourselves are like the shepherds: we have nothing of our own to give Jesus, our Savior, because everything we think we have actually belongs to someone else: God. Even our very selves belong to God. And yet, God wants to be in relationship with us so much that God sent Jesus, God’s son, to be born of a woman into this sinful world, to live among us and to eventually die for us to show us fully what God’s love truly looks like. The baby Jesus looks at us from his manger and says, “It doesn’t matter that you have no rich gifts to give me. I love you as you are, and I invite you to come and look upon me, for I have given myself for you.”
Luke tells us that the shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. I can’t imagine that they glorified and praised God in silence. I imagine that they were loudly talking about this experience both among themselves and anyone they might have met as the new day was dawning. And that’s something that the shepherds have to teach us each Christmas Eve: we should not be silent about praising and glorifying God. Some of you here this evening may not be Lutherans, but for those of you who are: we Lutherans have been too silent about Jesus for way too long. We need to be out there telling people about this Savior who welcomes us just as we are. Our social ministries, such as our community meals and such, are very important as we do what Jesus has taught us to do. But too often, we don’t include telling people explicitly about Jesus as part of these social ministries. And that’s really too bad, because, how could we not? Here is our God, who came down to earth as a human being, in the form of a baby boy, because he loved us so much. Here is our God who asks us not to come with tribute to him, but to come just as we are so we can see and understand how much he loves us. Who among us doesn’t want that kind of love? We should be telling everyone about this Jesus and how much he has done for us and how much he loves each person on this planet, no matter what.
So, come as you are to worship the baby in the manger. Come as you are. It doesn’t matter what sins haunt your life. It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, Hispanic, straight, gay, rich, poor, or somewhere in between all of this. Come and experience the love of God made manifest in this baby in the manger. And then go, and tell everyone about that love and that they, too can experience it for themselves. Glorify and praise God as you go from here back into your everyday lives, just as the shepherds did, but knowing that now everything has changed for the better. Amen.