Shepherds: The Faces of Strangers

Third in a series: Faces Near the Manger, Delivered December 14, 2003 by Mike Batley.
This was the Third Sunday of Advent.

Sermon Text:
Luke 2:8-20

(video clip from Charlie Brown’s Christmas)

Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is about. Lights Please! Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown!

It’s difficult to follow the great theologian Linus van Pelt, but we will do our best here. If you’ve got your Bibles in front of you, grab one out of the pew if you don’t and turn to Luke, chapter 2 and let’s take a look at just the remaining few verses. We will connect the dots between what Linus read up to and then the end of this from verse 15-20.

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

Well, you know as well as I do that the days leading up to Christmas are just racing by us. Every day it seems like, we are 11 days out from the big event. And you know if you are anything like me you want to have the very best, very merriest Christmas possible, and I want to help. I want to help you in that. Now I know you guys are Central people. You’ve got your acts together. I am sure your Christmas shopping is completely done. Your Christmas cards with the big letter, what the family did last week. Those were all mailed the day after Thanksgiving and now you are literally fritzing about what to do with all this Christmas down time you are experiencing. I know, it’s just what do we do with all that free time? And again, I am here to help. So on your behalf I did a little hacking on the Internet this week so shush, shush, and I was able actually to access Martha Stewart’s Palm Pilot and found out what her to do list looks like from the last seven days, December 19th to the 25th and so I am here to share these things with you. Maybe these will help you to have the very merriest Christmas possible.

So Martha in order to enjoy Christmas as much as possible:

on December 19th, her plan is to decorate a home grown Christmas tree with scented candles handmade with beeswax from my own backyard bee colony.
December 20th, build snowman with exact likeness to the nativity scene.
December 21st, erect ice skating rink in front yard using spring water that I bottled myself. Beautiful.
Just a little something on the 22nd, maybe to just catch her breath. Install plumbing in gingerbread house.
December 23, release flock of white doves each individually decorated with olive branches to signify desire for world peace.
On the big day before Christmas, Christmas Eve, fax family Christmas newsletter to Pulitzer committee for consideration.
And then finally on the big day, Christmas itself; here is Martha’s plan. Bear son. If not possible, borrow one, swaddle and lay in color coordinated manger-scented with homemade potpourri.
Just some notes down. There you go. How to have the best merriest Christmas.

You know seriously though if you had any down-time and I really honestly hope that you do, I wish you would be using some of it to take time to remember why this time of year is so special. The reminder that God gives us in the Christmas story is something that we really need every year. We need to have our heart kind of reset with the wonder and awe of it. Not just the story, but its deeper ramifications that God really did come as a helpless child to a poor carpenter and to a out of wedlock teenage girl. And by observing Advent, the lighting of the candles, the stories that we tell, is a gift that the church gives us to really focus in again on the story and be refreshed by it. So this third week of Advent we take a focus look at the story again. We take a look at the strangers in the story; the shepherds.

Now to understand why God got in contact with the shepherds, I want us to actually skip forward ahead about 32 years or so and see what Jesus is doing. Because if we watch Him I think what we will discover is what French philosopher Maurice Blondel said when he said this, “If you really want to understand a man, don’t just listen to what he says but watch what he does.” If you really want to understand a man, don’t just listen to what he says, but watch what he does. So for us to understand what God was up to on that first Christmas night, we need to watch what Jesus is doing. And Jesus gives us two clear examples for us to see and both of them thankfully, so we don’t have to zip around a lot are in this gospel of Luke. So let’s take a look at them one at a time. Grab your Bibles again and the first passage that I want to look at is Luke 19. So just a couple of pages to the right there and while you are going there, we are going to go to Luke 19, 1-10. Now the reference may not be familiar, but the story is. We all know the story about Zacchaeus. We have sung it a lot. But let me read this real quick. 1-10.

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up at him and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He is going to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, ” Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Now again, because we kind of know this passage and I don’t want to spend a ton on time on it, but I do want to make some quick observations. You may have noticed when I read it that Zacchaeus was not well liked. Why? Well, he was a tax collector. Now, my apologies to anyone in here, who might work for the IRS, but you know things haven’t changed all that much, have they? You know and please believe me, honestly I want to make this very clear at this point, I am not angling for an audit. So… But to be a tax collector and Jewish was a big deal. Because he was not collecting taxes for the nation of Israel. This wasn’t going to benefit the people he was collecting the taxes for. He was actually collecting taxes for the Romans. And the Romans as we know, not only were enemies of the Israelites because they had concurred Israel, but they were also occupying it. So, Zacchaeus was not only collecting taxes, he was collecting extra for himself. Scraping a little off the top, lining his pockets and apparently it was a good gig because he was very wealthy. Stealing from his own countrymen for the enemy. But it gets worse. You see here in the passage he is called the chief tax collector, which probably means that he was over a group of local tax collectors in a certain region, so they were all taking their little dipping, he was taking off of theirs and it was graft on top of the tax burden.

Now, there must have been some sort of buzz about Jesus during this time in his ministry. Maybe he had kind of reached a certain celebrity level. Whatever it was, Jesus comes to the town and the crowds pack in and Zacchaeus wants to see him so bad that he does something as humiliating as climb a tree for a grown man, just so he could see this guy that everybody is talking about. It’s a pretty amazing picture. Now, I don’t know about you either, but when I read a story like this my mind starts to create a mental movie picture and I always picture at this point in the story, Danny DeVito playing the Zacchaeus part. Just me. I don’t know who you would have in this part, but for me Danny DeVito really does the part. And what does Jesus do? He goes and he calls Zacchaeus by name. He goes straight to him and says, “I want to be with you Zacchaeus.” In other passages he talks about, I want to come. I am going to dine at your house. I am going to have dinner with you. Jesus made a point to go this man and invite himself to dinner with him; to be a guest at his house. Just that alone, that self-invitation changed Zacchaeus’ life. So what is going on here? A dinner invitation brings salvation. Hold on to that thought, that question for a second. Look at the reaction from that crowd again. They do not like it one bit. They begin to grumble, to murmur. They are now passing judgment both on Jesus and on Zacchaeus. Oh, he’s gone to be a guest of man who is a sinner. No doubt the head wagging and the clicking of tongues was going on here and no doubt if you could eavesdrop into the crowd at that moment we might have heard comments like, “Huh, you think you know a person and look what he does.” “I thought you said he was a religious person.” “Reputation is he claims to speak for God, but… look.” Now the unspoken judgment those people were passing on themselves was of course, we’re okay. We don’t do what he does, so we are okay. And that was nothing but spiritual blindness. Finally, look at the reaction from Zacchaeus. Change that overflows, repentance and restitution publically spoken, he was putting it out there for everyone to hear what he was going to do. He was already acting on his repentance. Got all that? Good.

Now let’s look at our second example. Wait Mike, what about the shepherds? We are getting to them. Hold on. We will get there. Turn back a few more pages in Luke, to chapter 5. I am going to look at verses 27 to 32. Now again, this is going to be a familiar passage and in fact, its amazingly similar to the one that we just took a look at. This time it involves Levi, the tax collector, who we later know as the disciple Matthew who wrote the first gospel. So let’s read this.

“After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, and left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belong to their sect complained to the disciples, “Why do you guys eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” Jesus answered them, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Notice the parallel tracks. Jesus makes it a point to go directly to Levi. Calls him to follow him. Immediately something happens to Levi and he does. I mean, what does he do? He throws a big party. Something public because of what’s happened. Then lets look at that for a second. Just that part. Why would Levi throw a party? Well, his life has just utterly changed. Profoundly. Wonderfully, because Jesus wanted him. Can you think of anything better to do? Is there really a better cause for celebration? How about we throw a party when people come to Christ? I think that would be an awesome thing to do. And here’s the next thing I love. Who did Levi invite? Who would you invite? If you knew this amazing change had come to your life, what would be the natural thing that you would want to do? I would get my friends together and tell them what’s going on. So he throws a party and invites his friend. Hey gang, come meet the most amazing person I have ever met. We have been hearing about him and you know what, He came to me. He accepted me. Come and celebrate our new relationship and this wonderful thing that has happened to me. And so he invites all of his friends. And who are they? The only people who are going to hang out with a tax collector. Other tax collectors. Other sinners. Other outsiders who don’t fit into that narrow exclusive definition that the Pharisee’s and the teachers of the law have for the in crowd with God. Levi throws a big party for the sinners on the margins of Jewish life and guess who is there right in the midst of it? Jesus.

Notice again, the reaction. Grumbling. Murmuring. Jesus would you just please fit into our neat and comfortable definitions of what’s holy? Jesus would you stop messing with our way to appear right before God? Again, here’s Jesus dining with tax collectors and sinners. Now again, why is that so significant? What is so special about sharing a meal with these people that so bothers these religious people, these religious leaders? Well Brennan Manning in his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, says this about how intimate this act of meal sharing is. He says this, “Sadly the meaning of meal sharing is largely lost in the Christian community today. In the Near East, to share a meal with someone is a guarantee of peace, trust, fraternity and forgiveness. The shared table symbolizes the shared life. For an Orthodox Jew to say I would have dinner with you is a metaphor implying I would like to enter into friendship with you. Even today, an American Jew would share a donut and a cup of coffee with you, but to extend a dinner invitation is to say, come to the miniature sanctuary of my dining room table where we will celebrate the most the sacred and beautiful experience that life affords. “Friendship.” That’s what Zacchaeus heard when Jesus called him down and invited him to dinner. And that’s why Jesus practice of this table fellowship caused such hostile comments from the very beginning in his ministry.

So, we see in these passages that we read and many others, Jesus going on purpose to the left out, the sinners, the marginalized, and in his teachings in ministry he includes Samaritans, prostitutes, demon possessed, and strangers. Now why? Why would we do this? Well, we know obviously from his words much of the motivation that made him do this. He said, “I have come to call the righteous, not sinners.” The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. But, I think something else was going on here. Maybe something a little below the surface. We have all heard the cliche’s. Maybe you have even been the end result of one of these, like father like son, or an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I believe that those cliche’s were enforced in these stories. That Jesus was merely imitating his Father when he interacted this way with these people. That he was reenacting in his ministry what the Father did that first Christmas night with the shepherds.

So let’s again reference back to that. Go back to Luke 2, 8 and 20. We have heard this story now. So you don’t really need to read it again, but think about it. Of all the people that God could have announced the birth of Emmanuel to. God with us. The Savior. The Messiah. This long awaited One. Well, I’m sorry but the shepherds don’t even show up on my radar screen. You know if you want to get the word out, there would seem to be more influential people, more together people that you would want to go and make this announcement to. Well you know, they just fall into that sinners group, don’t they? And literally during this time, they did. Theologian Carlos Riley (?) says that sinners were those whose daily occupation rendered them ceremonially unclean and not in the Pharisee’s eyes to be associated with. And because of the shepherd’s job to be out in the fields, to be with the sheep, they literally were considered unclean. But being out there with the manure, with the uncleanness of the animal, they could not go into the temple until they were ceremonially cleaned and that was a big deal. And yet on this momentous night, who does the Father go straight to on purpose and with such a glorious show, do you think he was trying to make a point? I think so. Not only a point, but just as Jesus did again, Jesus was taking his cue from the Father making a very intimate point.

You know when Sarah and I had our boys, our four boys, one of the things that we did with all of our labors and deliveries is, is soon as the baby was born and everything was okay, we would kind of usher everyone out of that room as quickly as possible, and we tried for just the next ten or fifteen minutes, as long as they would allow us, just spend time Sarah and I and that new child. To us it was an amazing, intimate moment where we just kind of basked in what God did and this new life and we wanted to connect with that child and connect with each other. It was for us the height of intimacy.

But what does God do in exactly this same moment when his son I s born? He invites strangers into this event. Not only strangers, but low status, manure on them strangers, ceremonially uncleaned sinner strangers and what does he do? He connects with them. And what do these shepherds do? I love it. The same thing that Zacchaeus and Levi. They follow the invitation right away, they worship, they celebrate, and they go out and tell what they have seen. If you really want to understand a man, don’t just listen to what he says, watch what he does. God the Father and Jesus his Son are saying in their duplicating actions, these are the people who we are welcoming into our kingdom. These are the kind of people who will populate our kingdom. They know they have nothing to offer, so they know the value of the gift given them. The sick know they need a doctor. The poor know that they need help. And we, me and you, need to be reminded that we really are them. We were strangers at one time. That’s where we came from. That’s the reason why we need to go over these stories year after year. We can’t let them become familiar to us. There is too much important in them. And we have to remember not to forget our own story, because that’s what the Pharisee’s did. They forgot their own story.

So what can we do with this? How can we live differently this Christmas season in light of what we see God, Jesus, Levi and Zacchaeus and the shepherds doing? Can we make an agreement? That for the next 11 days, maybe longer after that, I would love it, but just on purpose for the next 11 days would we look for strangers in our midst? Would you imitate both the Father and Son as they made it their point to seek out those taking up the margins of their world? Wait, wait, wait Mike. Are you asking that I go out to the outcast, out there and reach out to them? Yes I am. And for some of you that might literally mean like going out to the street, a soup kitchen, the steam grates, the homeless shelters, where you can roll up your sleeve and be the gospel to those people. God is going to call some of you to do that and you need to be listening for it. For most of us though, I want you to look for the stranger that may be right in your midst. Where there is a sole part of your routine that you don’t even see him anymore. You know, what this might look like is going out of your way at the office Christmas party that’s coming up to look for that awkward person or that person not like you and make your way to them. Now can I be so bold as to say, and don’t just be polite. Try to connect with them. Be curious about them. Listen with your hearts. That’s the start of intimacy.

Or maybe you’ve got a neighborhood Christmas party coming up. How about going out of your way to meet the people that you normally would avoid or at least the people that you don’t naturally gravitate to, you don’t talk to them because they are not like you or maybe they are not easy. Being an aroma of the gospel to those neighbors. Maybe you are a student. What would it look like this Christmas season to get outside of your comfortable and safe group to go across those lines? Find someone you could sit down with at lunch, in a class or a sporting event. Pursue them on a personal level and listen with care.

Now gang, why would we do this? You know, to be honest. To go out of our way for these kind of people, it’s a least a few things. It’s uncomfortable. It’s extra work. It can be awkward. There is risk involved and sometimes you know frankly it can be messy. Why would we do this? We do this because like Zacchaeus, Jesus has called us by name. He said, I want you. I want to have fellowship with you. He wants to know us and has called us by name and we can do this because out of that overflow, that memory that Jesus has called us by our name, we have an unbelievable Christmas gift to share with others. So again, if I could be so bold, if you would do this I will guarantee you two things. Two things I will guarantee you. That you will get at least two presents this Christmas. The first present you will receive if you do this, is joy. It’s always the key byproduct of living outside yourself and in line with God and Jesus. And secondly, I will guarantee you this present as well, you will be surprised. People because they bare the image of God are amazing creations. Be prepared to be surprised by their character and their stories if you allow them to connect with you and you listen.

So there. Don’t say I didn’t give you anything for Christmas. Now, to racquet this down, to make this even easier, one of the things that we have included, maybe you have gotten it, is this post card. This is not for you. Okay? This is for you to invite someone to our Christmas Eve service. So would you take one? There is extras at the welcome center and begin to think and pray who you would like to put this in, whose hand you would like to put this in and say I don’t know what you are doing Christmas Eve, but we’ve got a pretty good thing going on at Central and we would love to have you a part of it. Would you come with us? Here’s a card that tells you about the times. Let’s figure out when we can go. Now right away when I said that somebody’s name popped in your head and the ushers are going to come forward now and they are going to hand you a little slip of paper. Come on up. I will talk why you guys do that. And you’ve got a name already in your head. What I would like you to do is to take this and write that persons name on down there and say this is who I am going to be praying would accept my invitation to Christmas Eve. So they are going to come and pass those out and if you want to so we can all be in this together, we can be praying for these people, we can be thinking about them this Christmas, these are the strangers in your midst, we put baskets up here and as the band plays its next song, if you want to come up and put these names in the baskets below the manger, we can be praying for these things as well. It’s cool to think that we can be like strangers. We can be like these shepherds. We can remember our story and we can turn around and do what they did, reach out and tell what we have seen, tell what we have heard during this Christmas time. Would you pray with me? And what I am going to do is leave a little bit of time of silence at the end of my prayer as the band comes up and I want you to fill that time silently with these people that you are thinking about inviting.

Would you pray with me? Lord thank you for your story. Thank you for the wonder and awe that you left heaven and perfect fellowship, you left the comfort of your Father and you came down and were completely dependent on a little child for our behalf. Lord thanks for the pictures that you leave us of those you invited to this story. Strangers, those we would never even choose and you chose them because of your extravagant love. Lord, we pray right now in the quietness of our heart for those people who we would love to see hear this story this Christmas. Lord again, thanks for this time of year. Help us to remember your goodness and your grace. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.