Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
Do not be afraid, she said.
I am bringing you good news of great joy, she said.
Riiiight. As if anything good ever happened in the field in the middle of the night. The shepherds were just doing their jobs, of course, trying to keep their sheep safe from wolves, and thieves, and the other things that lurk in the night, and suddenly, an angel appeared to them, shining like the sun in the middle of the night, telling them not to be afraid. I don’t care who you are, that’s funny right there. As if you could encounter an angel in the middle of the field and just be ok with it. As if nothing was out of the ordinary.
And then, of course, in the interest of helping the shepherds continue in their do-not-be-afraidness, just as soon as the angel has told them not to fear, a whole multitude of heavenly hosts appear in the field, singing and shining and if I’m a shepherd, I’m thinking to myself I probably ought to lay off late-night sips of whatever booze I’m drinking to help keep warm.
As if you can experience this sort of thing and not be afraid. As if you can come that close to being in the presence of God and not be completely and forever changed.
I don’t know about you, but while I have never had an angel appear to me while keeping watch over my flocks by night, I’ve experienced God. I’ve experienced God in kind words from others, in gifts that are beyond generous, in beautiful scenery, in a smile from my daughter, in an embrace from my spouse. I’ve seen people who have no real reason except for sheer trust in God sell just about everything they have and give the money to the poor. I’ve seen the church reach out to those who felt like they were excluded. I’ve seen the church reach out and embrace me. I may not have encountered a multitude of heavenly hosts, praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest, but I’ve seen God at work. It is a mystical thing, that kind of presence. It can leave you speechless, just devoid of any words that can do justice to the magnitude of the moment.
And so the shepherds faced the angel and said to themselves, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
And they went and found Mary and Joseph and the Lord himself lying in a manger, and they told everybody within earshot what the angel had told them. And then they left, glorifying God and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
You know, I’ll be honest, there are days when I can be so fed up at the state of things that I feel like I could be right there with the shepherds, right smack dab in the middle of the story, and see the angel and greet the baby and then leave, glorifying God for a minute or two and then going back to the same humdrum way things always had been. That’s how it seems to work for me: see something amazing, get excited for a while, then get over it and go back to my everyday life, as if nothing had changed.
I know I am not alone in this. I’ve been around the church long enough to know that this is how we are, by and large. We experience the love of God and our faith heats up for a while, and then we encounter obstacles and the nonsense that sometimes accompanies church work, and the intensity cools, until it seems like just making it to church on Sunday morning is more energy than we can muster.
And yet the shepherds did not go back to their old ways. The Bible doesn’t suggest that they all became televangelists or anything, but after they encountered the Christ child, they went back, praising and glorifying God for all they had heard and seen. They saw the face of God and were different because of it. They had to journey to get there, and they had to leave their flocks for a time, but they chose to follow Jesus and they were different because of it!
This all leads me to ask you a personal question. Let’s just get down to it, because I know you’ve got reservations at Athens Pizza or places to go and people to see. How are we different because of our faith? Having seen what we have seen, having experienced God, how are we different? How are we following Jesus? Are we really following Jesus at all?
Imagine if we followed Jesus like the shepherds did, praising and glorifying God for all we have heard and seen. Imagine if we followed Jesus in such a way that meant that we really believe that what we do here on Sunday morning and what we do when we leave here really matters to God and to the world. What kind of purpose would we discover? What kind of blessing? What kind of grace?
I say we should give it a shot. Let’s follow, but let’s do it together, because that is what the church is about. Ours is a journey that starts in the field, right where we are, but it does not stay there, for we have experienced good news of great joy. Christ has been born. We have experienced the love that comes from God, the joy that comes from serving God and serving others. And if we leave that love right where we found it, what good is this whole church business anyhow?
The journey starts in the field, but where it ends, I can’t say, for when you follow Jesus, all bets are off. There’s no telling where we will end up.
That’s a scary proposition of course. I don’t like going on trips without an idea of where I’ll end up, but then again, the uncertainty is no reason not to try, for there is no telling what adventures we’ll embark on, no telling where we’ll end up, together.
Let’s make 2014 the Year of Following Jesus, just to see what will happen. Let’s talk about Jesus in worship, let’s think about Jesus as we serve God through serving others, let’s ask Jesus for help when we are tired. I want us to even try to think like Jesus in committee meetings, although I am a little worried about what that means for our committees. Let’s see, together, what happens when we meet God, face to face. I hope that if this is your first time here at North Decatur, you’ll join us on the journey, for there’s no better place to start than at the beginning.
Now, it would be silly to begin a journey without preparing. So let’s prepare the way. You got two postcards in your bulletin today. One of them is for you to keep as a reminder of your call to follow Jesus. The other is stamped. Spend the next few days thinking of who needs that invitation—who ought to be a fellow traveler on this journey of faith. Who needs the encouragement, who needs the love, who needs the prodding it takes to get up off the couch and really follow? That’s the person I want you to send the postcard to.
Sign it, don’t sign it, it doesn’t matter, but do send it, because I believe that there is something special happening here, at North Decatur United Methodist Church. And keeping it to ourselves doesn’t do justice to the ways that God is being made known here, in this place.
Now, a postcard is no substitute for the journey. You can’t follow Jesus via correspondence course. But it’s a start. It’s a start.
I am convinced that if we stick together on this—if we really spend a whole year really trying to follow Jesus—not the fake Jesus we see on TV, nor the white Jesus, nor the sanitized Jesus we sometimes like to talk about—but the real Jesus we read about in the Bible, if we actually live like we mean it when we say that Jesus is the one we are following, we’re going to find ourselves returning to where we started, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, as it has been told to us. And who knows, our encounter with God may be so profound and we may be so unable to keep our mouths shut about it that people may still be talking about it, two thousand years later. Dear God, let it be. Amen.