Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Shepherd's Story: Sermon on Luke 2:8-20

Listen—I don’t have long—I simply must tell you what I must tell you.

You know me. You know my brothers and me, and how we watch our father’s flocks of sheep and goats. We are shepherds. You know what that means. We are not people who are given to flights of fancy. We are not dreamers and we are not romantics. Our lives and our responsibilities are very real: We rise in the morning before the flock becomes restless. WE take a quick count—assuming the person on the night watch didn’t fall asleep—to ensure that no wolves or coyotes decimated their ranks in the night. Then we move them, with the help of our dogs, across the mountain terrain, to the stream that runs south-southwest of here. We let them drink. Then we move them, again, across the rugged land to a place where they can pasture. While they eat we keep a watch for predators—as you know, that is the most important work we do. We protect the flocks. There is no one better with a staff than my brother Ezekiel. He killed a stalking leopard with one stroke last summer. He left a would-be poacher maimed the year before. Still, no one, not even Ezekiel, enjoys the attack. But this is our life. It is very real.

And you know that, our ancestor David notwithstanding, shepherds are not held in the highest esteem. We are needed. Everyone wants our lambs and kids to adorn their table. Everyone wants the sweet milk of our goats to drink and to make savory cheeses. But no one much wants a shepherd around. We do a job everyone acknowledges must be done. But everyone would just as soon we stay out of sight.

What I am trying to say is... I don’t know why this happened to us. I don’t know why this happened to me. I only know that it happened. It happened to us. And we will never be the same.

There we were last night, keeping watch over our sheep on the cold mountainside. They had settled down. Two of my brothers had curled up in front of a small fire, the end of a long day taking its toll on even the youngest and strongest bodies. Ezekiel and I were keeping watch. We were settling into the silence of a starry night, and the ground was beginning to cover over with a light frost.

Suddenly there was someone right in front of us—no warning. He had not walked to us. He had not run to us. We had not seen him coming—he was right there!

But that is not what I meant to say. The thing was this: we couldn’t look at him. We couldn’t bear to look at him. He was so bright—it was as if the brightest lightning shone a hundred times in the same spot, for many minutes. It was what it is like if you stare and stare into the brightest firelight for a long, long, time, and then turn your head and try to see something in the dark. All you see is the light.

There he stood, burning, radiant. Though I could not properly see him, I had the sense that he flowed and moved about even as he stood completely still. Were they robes that swirled in front of me? Were they... wings? Ezekiel and I fell to our knees. We knew what we had before us. You know what we had before us. A messenger from Ha Shem, Adonai, the Lord. A messenger from God can mean only—death. We knew our time had come, and so we fell to our knees. It was an instinct: the instinct to beg for our lives.

Then he spoke, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. He spoke in our language, but he made it sound so beautiful... not the way my brothers and I speak at all. He sounded a little like a rabbi, only more beautiful, and more—filled with authority.

“Do not be afraid,” he said, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savoir, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The sound of his voice had awakened my sleeping brothers... I could see them out of the corner of my eye, huddled together like children, trembling. All I could hear at that moment was the sound of my own heart, beating, thump, thump. The messenger regarded us silently. Then there was a burst of sound as we all began to talk at once, our voices tumbling over each other.

“Good news...” “The city of David... that’s Bethlehem... that’s just a few miles from here...” “A Savior... but that’s what the Gentiles call their Emperor!” “How can a nursling babe be anyone’s Savior?”

Ezekiel had been silent until now. Then he spoke. “The Messiah? The one who is come to save our people? David’s son? The son of the shepherd?”

We were all silent again. The messenger swirled and swooped and somehow stood still. The voice like water burst forth again. “This will be a sign for you: you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” He waited a moment to see that we had taken in these words. Then the sky exploded, as if a hundred clouds had collided and issued a hundred thunderclaps, and we were all on the ground, covering our heads in fear. The flock, quiet until that moment, burst into bleating and stirred and stamped. I looked through my shaking arms and saw an army of a hundred—no, a thousand messengers, each as brilliant as the one who had spoken to us, so that the sky was no longer dark, but bright as a sunny noontime.

The messengers were calling to one another, and it was like rushing water all around our heads. It was like music. It was like the crackling of fire. They were yelling. They were singing! “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace, good will among people!” The noise was both exquisitely beautiful and painful to hear. It was as if there was too much beauty for this shepherd’s heart to take in at once. Finally we rolled onto our backs, looking and listening and gasping for breath, and laughing at the amazement of it all.

I don’t know how long we were there. But eventually the last messenger ascended into the starry heavens, and we were left alone with our bleating flock. We lay there for a few minutes, struck dumb by what we had witnessed.

Then my brother rose. “Up!” said Ezekiel. “Up! You heard him! You heard them! We have to go! We have to tell! We have to see!” Then he stopped, and a broad smile came over his dark face. “Did you hear what he said? He said, ‘To you.’ To you is born a Savior! To us!” We all stood breathless, as the truth of the words dawned. This Savior... this was not someone for the rich and powerful only, like the Roman Emperor. This was someone who was coming to us, for us. Shepherds! The lowest of the low! We knew what it meant. If we were included, everyone was included.

And now I have paused as long as I dare. My brothers have gone on ahead of me, and I will have to run to catch up. But I wanted you to know. I had to tell. And now I have to see, this child of God, this son of David, this baby shepherd who will save us, who will save us all. I have to go. I have to go! Thanks be to God! Amen.

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