Faith In Real Life Blog
“Prepare for the Unexpected”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
December 14, 2022
8 Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19 and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.
Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus is unique. We are so familiar with the Christmas story that we conflate the different versions. There are no shepherds in Matthew’s account and no Magi in Luke’s. The gospel writers had different slants on the same event and they used different imagery to describe the man Jesus who we call Christ. At least in my experience, Luke’s passage is enjoyed more than it is examined. Both are important..
First a look at the passage itself. This dramatic announcement is the harbinger of hope for all humanity. It comes to unexpected people, in unexpected ways. It disrupts lives. It validates Mary, transforms the shepherds and leads to rejoicing. These are all themes in Luke’s Gospel account. Luke is determined that we should know the good news is for all people—not just the qualified candidates. That ultimately means the good news is for us.
1. In Luke, the good news is first announced to the ordinary. Contrary to a more romantic view, these shepherds were much more likely to be hired hands than owners of the sheep. An announcement that literally changed the world came first to the night shift of the Department of Animal Control. It continues a theme begun with an improbable mother and an improbable birth. God acts in unexpected ways that are often outside of our imagination. And in this case, God announces the Good News to the poor and the lowly. The privileged are welcome but the good news comes first to people on the margins—people who are vastly more likely to be dismissed than noticed. But people who are not noticed usually appreciate when they are. God’s love means more to the people who know they need it. It is one thing to hear the grand announcement—”I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” and quite another to hear the words “TO YOU is born this day.” That is personal. The Messiah comes to everyone of us and especially to those of us who would say ‘Yes but…’ because we could not imagine we qualified for such love.
2. We almost always hear the words “Do not be afraid” when there is a heavenly appearance. But who wouldn’t be terrified? No matter how good the news was, it was intrusive and disruptive. I can’t imagine the news made the first bit of sense to these men. The shepherds could only rely upon what the word “Messiah” meant in the context of traditional expectations—and we know (after the fact) that Jesus’ version of messiah did not remotely match such expectations. Then, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” This was not a choral group singing the doxology. The heavenly host was the military arm of heaven. These were the enforcers of a warrior God. It would have been incongruous to see them in the first place much less to hear them singing of peace and good will. Again, the inversion of human understanding of who God is is foreshadowed.
3. Overwhelmed, the shepherds decide to check things out for themselves. They go to Bethlehem and find Mary, Joseph and the baby. A side note here, the shepherds did not have a GPS or Google Maps. There were a lot of mangers in Bethlehem. But focusing upon the ‘how’ misses the wonder and urgency of their seeking. When they arrived, “they made known what had been told them about this child.” This report matters to Mary. Her angelic visitation is being externally validated. We read that when Mary took in this news from perfect strangers, “…Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” It is one thing to have a smart child and another for outsiders to see the same thing. All of us need our dreams, visions and insights validated. This visit from the shepherds did just that. The shepherds, Mary and we need confirmation of the Good News.
4. Finally the shepherds returned rejoicing. They heard the promises, they saw for themselves and they were transformed. Faith does not require a suspension of common sense. Faith does not require a lobotomy. In real life we need confirmation. Our experience needs to match the promises. We can soar with Advent and Christmas traditions but then we must dig in and check out those promises for ourselves. When that happens, we too, will rejoice. We too, will be transformed.
We await a Messiah who challenges our expectations and who leads us beyond what we think we know. The ancient Jews expected a God who demanded purity. They expected a conquering warrior God who would reward the faithful and who who right the wrongs of an oppressed people. We are not so different. As often as not we expect God to grant us relief from the hardships of this world instead of a God who enables us to face those hardships. We, too, try to define who is deserving of God’s grace and who is deserving of God’s wrath. But in real life, we learn God does not act in such humanly predictable ways. It turns out the Good News—the faith that we are loved, the faith that love matters and the faith that love will prevail—often is learned in the most unlikely of ways.
I asked our FIRL groups how had they discovered the Good News. In the majority of cases, people described discovering the Good News in unexpected places. Most people in the group have lost someone they love. Some have lost children. Discovering the Good News in grief is certainly unexpected for most of us. Yet it is surprisingly common. Nesie Williams, who has known grief beyond my imagining shared a quote from Frederic Buechner that sustains her: “Faith is a way of waiting—never quite knowing, never quite hearing or seeing, because in the darkness we are all but a little lost. There is doubt hard on the heels of every belief, fear hard on the heels of every hope.” Learning to hold on to the ebb and flow of faith becomes faith itself. There is room to doubt: room to fear; and room to hope. That is Good News. On the face of it, it is every bit as unlikely as the Good News being announced by Warrior angels to the disenfranchised and unclean.
If we are to receive the Good News, we must suspend our certainties about how the world should be long enough to discover God in the unexpected. The only thing I am confident in is that God’s love is constant. The how and the why of the this world is above my pay grade. God loves unclean shepherds. God loves in the midst of terrible suffering and loss. God provides a way when we can not see one.
God is with us as life is. We do not have to be certain. We can doubt and question. We may feel lost and abandoned. But learn to wait. Learn how to discover new life. That is how the Messiah saves. Trust in the Lord.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.