A Sign for YOU Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7 Luke 2:1-20
Have you ever felt “unwelcome” anywhere? Have you ever said to yourself, “Oh. I don’t belong here”? It’s something we begin to learn at a young age—there are certain places where we are welcome to go, and other places that are off limits. I’m not just thinking about places marked “authorized personnel only” or restrooms that are marked with another gender—I’m really thinking of those times when we get the feeling, “This is not a place for people like me.” Ever feel that way? I certainly have! I grew up in a fairly modest household, and my life was good. But we didn’t shop in expensive stores or eat out at elegant restaurants or stay in nice hotels. In fact, it wasn’t until I grew up and left home that I began to get acquainted with people who were accustomed to these finer (more expensive) lifestyles. And when I went with them to one of those ritzy places, I always felt a vague uneasiness—a sense of “I don’t belong here.”
It really came home to me when Melissa and I were on our honeymoon. We had spent a couple of days in London (you’d be surprised how cheap it was to go there in February!), and then we took a train up to Scotland. We spent time in Edinburgh, then I wanted to show her where I had spent a year of graduate school. In St. Andrews, we went to an old mansion that had been converted to housing for graduate students—my old residence hall—and I showed her the glorious entryway and the ancient wine cellar with a vaulted stone ceiling that was used as the dining hall. Then, I took her to the common room to show off its old-world elegance. At the other end of the room, a few students were reading and relaxing, and one of them (obviously English) said, in a loud voice, “Excuse me! This is not a place for tourists to go ambling about!” I mumbled some sort of apology, overwhelmed with that old sense of “I don’t belong here,” and hurried Melissa out of the room. I tried to make light of it by telling her, “Don’t worry, Honey. The English were cheeky when I was a student here!” But my ears were burning and I rehearsed that scene over and over in my mind, imagining all the snappy comebacks I could have said to that fellow!
I think that, deep down, I still carry with me a smoldering anxiety, a carefulness to not go places where I’m not welcome. It’s a question about my worthiness, my “acceptability.” If you have something of that same anxiety, I’m going to ask you to focus on it for a moment—dwell in it—feel what it’s like to not be welcome. I want you to do this so that you can identify with some of the main characters in the birth narrative read tonight—the shepherds. You may ask, “What’s wrong with shepherds? Why wouldn’t they be as welcome as anyone else?!”
Shepherds in First Century Palestine
Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, there was a young shepherd boy named David. He was out tending his father’s sheep when he was called in to be looked over by the prophet Samuel. You see, Samuel was looking for the future king of Israel, and God had sent him to Bethlehem, the home of Jesse. But all of Jesse’s sons had been viewed—and rejected—and Samuel asked if there was another son. When he saw David, God let him know that this was his choice for king, and Samuel anointed him! David’s Kingship brought in what is known as “the Golden Age” in the history of Israel. He was an outstanding warrior, a gifted leader, and a fine musician. Many of our Psalms are attributed to him, including the 23rd Psalm which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” This shepherd imagery was perfectly acceptable as it described God’s “shepherding” us through all the adventures of life! And shepherding was an honorable profession.
But, by the time of the Savior’s birth, things had changed. The religious authorities advised people NOT to encourage their sons to become shepherds, because they would always be considered “unclean.” They would not be able to keep the Sabbath properly, or follow all the ridiculous rules the Pharisees cherished so much. No, by the time Jesus was born, shepherds were at the bottom of the social scale, just above lepers. They were NOT welcomed in high society. They lived on the fringes, with no expectations of being included in any Godly activity! They would have been considered very unlikely candidates to hear angels proclaiming the birth of the Savior!
Of course, these shepherds were expecting a Messiah, a Child predicted in the passage in Isaiah we just heard. But a child destined for the throne of David would surely be born in a palace, wouldn’t he? He would be born into power, and would wield power to make life better for us, right? They were ready to welcome a king, but expected that shepherds would still be socially unacceptable, and surely not welcome into the presence of the King!
To YOU Is Born This Day a Savior
When the first angel appeared to the shepherds, the first words were typical: “Do not be afraid!” Then came the amazing announcement, “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.”
Needless to say, these shepherds were NOT accustomed to being addressed by their social superiors—much less by heavenly beings! They would usually gather their news by interacting with other common people, hoping to catch scraps of good news. They would never have imagined being the FIRST ones told! The angel continued, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
It was only humble people that wrapped their babies in bands of cloth, and they would have said to each other, “That’s what we do with our babies, we shepherds and other lowly folk.” And this baby was not born in some fancy mansion where they would have a beautiful bed—no, this baby was lying in a manger!
I need to explain something here: when you and I hear the word “manger,” we automatically think “stable,” because that’s where we keep livestock. But, in first century Palestine, every humble home had two levels: a raised platform where the family lived and ate and slept, AND a ground-level area where the family donkey and cow and goat would be brought into every night for security and to help heat the home. At the edge of this raised platform there would be a few scooped-out depressions full of hay so the animals could stand on the lower level and eat the hay. This was a perfect place to put a baby.
So, when the angel said they would find the child lying in a manger, the shepherds would have said, “That’s where we put our babies! The Savior has been born into a poor home, not some palace!”
And, while they were wondering thus, 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 left, the shepherds remembered that the first angel had said, “You will find the child,” and it hit them: “Maybe they would let us in to see the baby, even though everybody else looks down on us.” So they went, they saw, and they told Mary and Joseph about the angels and what they had been told about the child. Then they had to get back to their sheep, and they glorified and praised God for all that they had heard and seen! They—SHEPHERDS—had been included in one of the most momentous events in history!
A Sign for YOU
I love it that the angel said, “And this shall be a sign for you.” Do you remember that feeling of not being wanted? When we feel that way, we can hardly believe that the good news is for us. It must be for someone else—someone more holy, someone who is smarter, or richer, or more popular, or whatever. But when Jesus started his ministry, the Bible tells us that “the humble people received him gladly.” He made it clear to them that the good news of the gospel included them! Those who were rich and privileged—most of those folks snubbed him. It was the poor, the lame, those who were hurt or rejected by their society—these are the ones who first understood that the Good News is for everybody—especially those who need it most!
I want to finish tonight by reminding you of a story Jesus told about a man who prepared a big feast, a banquet to which a lot of well-to-do neighbors were invited. They all sent excuses that they were otherwise engaged and could not come. So the man sent his servants out to gather in all kinds of lowly people to come to the feast. And tonight we have a reminder of that banquet—The Lord’s Supper.
This meal is also A Sign for YOU—a giant banner that says, “You are welcome here!” All you need do is receive the good news!