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Christmas Eve, Year C

It’s Christmas Eve. You don’t need me to tell you what to do. Do what you’ve always done. I know, there is something in you, in the faithful worship team, that says you’ve got to do something new, you’ve got to come up with a different way of telling this story. That sentiment is understandable.

Tell the story. That’s the best preaching advice anyone can give for this holy night. Tell the story. In as many ways, through as many media, with as many voices that you can gather together or broadcast online. Tell the story, sing the story, act the story, be the story. Your job is easy tonight, preacher. It’s about the story. The beauty and poetry and eloquence has already been done; you just have to point. The songs have been written on their hearts; let them sing.

OK, but whose story? Which story? Well, it’s Luke’s year, and Luke seems fascinated by shepherds. The old tradition is that Luke was a Gentile physician; that’s why his story sounds different. I don’t know if that’s true, but what seems clear in our Gospel text tonight is that he just can’t get enough of the shepherds. And angels. And that young girl who said yes. And a baby.

But the shepherds. Tell their story if you can. I know, we are used to thinking that they were lazy, relaxing in the fields, dozing and drinking with time on their hands. We aren’t the first to think that of them. That’s why they were considered unclean. They were rough characters, kept from proper worship and proper interactions with the “good people.” When Luke tells us that the people were “amazed at what the shepherds had told them,” we rightly think about the wonder of the story itself. But the added ingredient to their amazement was the source of the story. It was the shepherds who told this story. The shepherds who, according to them anyway, got a voicemail from God. No, a direct message, better than a telegram, a visitation. A manifestation. An angel, a whole host of them, singing and dancing in the heavens, about a baby in a manager. Uh-huh. Just what did they keep in those leather flasks all night long anyway?

I’m sure that is what went through the minds of at least some of those hearing this tale. These are shepherds, after all. But what if we’ve been a bit unfair to the shepherds? I read a commentator some years ago who said that we ought to see the shepherds as small business owners. They were hardly the only occupation who had to deal with ritual uncleanness; those rules were almost impossible to keep. Certainly, there were some in the business who were disreputable characters, but what business doesn’t have its share of disrepute?

Maybe the issue was that the shepherds were busy. Luke doesn’t say they were lazing about in the field. He says they were keeping watch. It was an important job. Someone even speculated once that perhaps this was not an ordinary, run of the mill flock of sheep, that maybe this was a group of the Temple lambs, ones raised spotless, unblemished so that they would be worthy of that sacrifice. It seemed likely that in Luke’s mind at least this was symbolic, that the announcement of the child born to be the perfect sacrifice would be announced with full angelic accompaniment to those who were keeping watch over the sacrificial lambs. Keep watch, says the child grown into a man, for you do not know when the day will come. Maybe he remembered the story as he said that. The story his mom told when he was little, and he would sit and soak up every word she said. The story about that night after a long trip to Bethlehem. The night when the stars seemed brighter than they do today. The night when a manger was the only refuge from the dark and the cold.

The night when they came, the shepherds, bringing with them the smells of the animals in their care. And how they told anyone and everyone who would listen what had happened to them—how they were keeping watch, doing their job, worrying about the predators and the hazards out there in the darkness; worrying about how they were going to get the sick ones to eat and the angry ones to live in peace; worrying about the fluctuations in the price of temple lambs, how they used to make a good living but now were just getting by; worrying about how long it was going to be until their next day off, when they could go and see their families and wash the smell of sheep off for a little while at least, when they could pretend to be just like everyone else.

And then the sky exploded. They thought their hearts would stop beating in their chests. They thought it was the end of the world. They thought they would never hold their little babies, or kiss their wives, or laugh with family ever again. They thought all their mistakes were coming back to trip them up, all their failings, all their doubts and brokenness, they thought what the villagers thought of them was going to be their legacy. They thought they were doomed to disappear into the dark like all the others they tell ghost stories around the fire in the middle of the night, when they are trying to keep one another awake because the wolves are prowling.

As quickly as all these thoughts raced through their minds, came another, fast on its heels. Fear not. The voice spoke in their heads without having to go through their ears somehow. Good news. They heard or felt, or just somehow knew. To you is born a savior. To you, us? they thought. Surely not, maybe the “good” people in town. “Maybe the priests and leaders, the rich and powerful,” they thought. A sign to you, a babe wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger. Now mangers, they understood. Mangers were their business, their language. Mangers and saviors seemed to make some odd kind of sense to shepherds.

Then the song began, and what a glorious one it was. It brought tears to the eyes of these rough and burly men used to the hazards of the wilderness. It made their hearts light, their minds rest, their hope soar. It was glorious. When it ended, they didn’t dare to breathe for a long moment. When they did, they looked at one another, hoping they weren’t the only ones to hear this message. But they could tell by the look on each face that it was real, and it was theirs. “Let us make haste,” they said. They made room in their busy schedule; they made their way, breathless and hopeful, like Moses and the bush, they turned aside to see.

What are you keeping watch over? What will you make room for? Whose story will you tell?

Or what of Isaiah’s story. How would you tell Isaiah’s story on this night? Well, I read Isaiah 9 and heard Katrina and The Waves. No, not the hurricane; the pop group. You remember “Walking in Sunshine” don’t you? OK, yes it was a few years ago, mid ‘80s (‘80s music, gotta love it, right?); but the song was remade in 2005. OK, it’s still an oldie, I guess. But it’s just one of those unforgettable pop songs that gets in your head and can’t get it out. Yeah, sorry, I just put it back there, didn’t I? “I’m walking on sunshine, wooah.” Gripping chorus, I know. “I’m walking on sunshine, wo-o-oah.” Wait, it gets better. “I’m walking on sunshine, wo-o-o-ah, and don’t it feel good!”

OK, it doesn’t get better. But it is catchy; it is upbeat. The opposite of the Advent mood, it seems to most of us. I don’t know why the song came to mind, exactly, but I had to look up the lyrics to the verse. “I used to think maybe you loved me, / now I know it’s true, / and I don’t want to spend all my life / just in waiting for you / now I don’t want you back for the weekend / not back for a day / no, no / I said baby I want you back / and I want you to stay.” [1]

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). We used to wonder if God loved us. And now—because of Christ—we know it is true. We know. We don’t wonder; we don’t wander in the darkness. We know. What better reason for celebration can there be than that?

And we don’t want to spend our days in just waiting. Katrina had in mind something else, I know, but I couldn’t help but think of Advent. If the waiting of Advent is just empty, just wondering, just “who knows, let’s see what might happen; just . . . I don’t know . . . just, just.” If that’s all it is, a distraction, then we don’t want to wait anymore. But if our waiting is full of the knowledge of God’s love for us, and we move forward living in that love not just on the weekends, not just for a day, but for now and for the rest of our existence, we can live surrounded by that love, secure that the fulfillment we wait for is tasted in the joys of living in this moment. What we wait for is what we already have, but even more confident in the knowledge and presence and joy. And tonight more than any other night, what we have crashes into what we’re still waiting for; where the now bumps against the not yet.

The light that the people of God have seen is a light we can live in each day, whether the light is still visible to our eyes or not. We can walk on that sunshine, even on the cloudiest of days. We can bask in that glow, even in our dreariest moments. Advent can be, and is, a reminder of what we already have, as well as a reminder of what once came and is promised again. Isaiah reminds us that though the light has shined, the establishment is still in the future; the authority has to grow so that we can make our way to endless peace. We don’t have to look hard to be reminded that we aren’t there yet. And yet, there is peace within us; there is peace among us. We just have to choose to make it last, to make it our priority, our vision and our goal. We just have to walk on the sunshine of peace right here and right now. Merry Christmas!

[1] “Walking on Sunshine” by Kimberley Rew, Richard St. Anthony Martin, and Christopher Garvey Copyright BMG Platinum Songs, Stb Music, Inc., and Memory Lane Music Ltd.

In This Series...

First Sunday of Advent, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday of Advent, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday of Advent, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Christmas Eve, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes First Sunday after Christmas, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes


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In This Series...

First Sunday of Advent, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday of Advent, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday of Advent, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Christmas Eve, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes First Sunday after Christmas, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C - Lectionary Planning Notes