Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Season of Advent: Good News to and from Shepherds

There are some curious things we should notice about Jesus’ birth.

It was customary in the Roman Empire for poets and orators to declare peace and prosperity at the birth of one who was to become emperor. In that familiar pattern, comes the good news of joy and peace when Jesus is born. But the news of Jesus’ birth does not come in palace halls. Instead, it comes to the fields. The news is first heard by poor and lowly shepherds. Also, I believe Luke wants us to see the parallels between Jesus’ birth and the birth of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.

These first two chapters of Luke move back and forth between these two stories, a little about Elizabeth and Zechariah, a little about Mary and Joseph. Angels appear in both stories, announcements are made in both stories. John is born, and then Jesus is born. But there are some interesting differences between these two stories as well. At John’s birth there was a miracle (speech restored to Zechariah) and an inspired prophetic song. But not when Jesus is born. Luke has kept the story clean of any decoration that would remove it from the lowly, the poor, and the marginal of the earth. In the history of the church there have been many so poor and abandoned as to be able to identify with this scene. In many quarters, however, the church has not resisted the temptation to run next door to Matthew. From Matthew we’ve borrowed royal visitors with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We’ve placed a soft light on the manger straw. And we’ve filled the air with angels. When we borrow these items from Matthew’s story, I fear we miss something so important that Luke is trying to tell us.

Unlike so many world leaders in the past and present and future, Jesus did not spend his time here wielding His power. Jesus’ ambition did not lead Him to seek a position in the Roman Senate. Jesus did not spend His days trying to impress important and famous people. Jesus was not blinded by fame or fortune. No, Jesus was a different kind of world leader. He was born in a barn! His parents were poor peasants and the guests of honor at his delivery were smelly, common shepherds. The shepherds belong in this story, certainly, because they tie Jesus to the shepherd king, David. But they are also in this story because they belong on Luke’s guest list for the Kingdom of God, along with the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame.

Luke reminds us that Jesus came to move into the places that are filled with the most darkness and bring light. There are some people in this world that believe what they’ve done is too bad for God to fix. There are some who stay away from church, because they feel like they don’t belong in a room like this. There are some who feel they are too far gone to ever be found. And some of you may have felt that way too. If so, this story is for you.

Jesus didn’t come here for kings and queens—He came here for you.
Jesus didn’t come here for the rich and powerful—He came here for you.
Jesus didn’t come here for perfect people—He came here for you.
Jesus didn’t come here to keep clean—He came here to get messy.
He came here to take upon Himself all of our sin and darkness,
and to leave us with white robes and pure light.

And this Christmas story tells us at least one more thing.

Years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words:
The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for the captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in places of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the LORD to glorify himself. They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past. (Isaiah 61:1–4)
When folks in the first century learned about Jesus’ inauspicious beginnings, this statement from Isaiah made more sense. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, and the poor, in return, would come to be called Oaks of Righteousness. Those formerly poor people would rebuild ancient ruins. They would restore formerly deserted places. They would renew ruined cities. They would renew places that have been deserted for generations.

With His Son, Jesus, God the Father has given us a tremendous Christmas gift. And now that we have been blessed, God has invited us to go into the world as His ambassadors. To rebuild ancient cities and ruins, to restore formerly deserted places, to help restore broken relationships between moms and dads and children, to find places of sadness and to bring joy. Let’s never forget that along with the peace and joy and love of Christmas comes an invitation. An invitation to join the shepherds, to come and see and celebrate the coming of God into the world, and an invitation to leave the manger and go tell the world what you saw. Bringing the blessings of Jesus with you to give as gifts to the world.

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