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Sunday, December 22, 2019
Scripture: Isaiah 52:7-10 & Luke 2:8-20
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Hi. My name is David, and I’m one of the shepherds who happened to be keeping watch over the flocks of sheep at night not far from Bethlehem on that fateful night. We shepherds don’t really like public speaking, but I’ve always been a little different from the others. I think it’s my parents’ fault. I come from a family of shepherds, yet they gave me the name of our peoples’ most famous king, David, who began his career as a shepherd. I guess I’ve always been a little different from the others because I don’t mind talking to groups. I have a little bit of the poet-musician in me, like my namesake, but more on that later.

To understand what happened that night all those years ago, I want you to know more about people like me. While our trade always pushed us outside of the places of importance, in our day sheep were an essential part of the economy. We may not be the most important, the most educated, or the wealthiest, but if the world didn’t have shepherds, the entire economy would be a mess. Our flocks not only provided food, but they also were absolutely essential to our religious practices. Not for nothing, but our grazing close to Jerusalem wasn’t a mistake. We know where our market is!

Before I get into what happened on that night, I want to tell you more about sheep and shepherds. Did you know that shepherds are mentioned in the Bible over 100 times? Did you know that sheep show up over 400 times? To understand God’s word, you need to know about shepherds and sheep. The Bible calls God a shepherd. Our kings were to shepherd the people like a flock. Some of the biggest names in the Bible were shepherds – Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and David (love that name!) included. Jesus, whose birth occasioned my talking to you today, used this imagery in his teaching. He called himself “The Good Shepherd.” He told stories about shepherds that were metaphors to what God was up to in the world. What’s fascinating to me is that he ends up being both a shepherd and a lamb, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Being a shepherd is hard work. It’s not at all like your images of it in America with rolling hills of lush green grass. This is Israel. Not a lot of grass to be had around here. Shepherds don’t own large tracts of land for their sheep. Rather, we traveled to where there was food and water. It’s a good thing that sheep don’t require as much water and grass as some other animals, so they work well here. Did you know sheep aren’t particularly smart? If shepherds weren’t around, they would be in huge trouble. They are prone to wander from the flock. They also cannot even find their way into a sheepfold – even when it’s in sight! But, here is something interesting about the sheep – they can recognize the voice of their shepherd. Even in the dark of night, we can separate the sheep just by calling them.

Our job as shepherds never ends. Since the sheep aren’t fenced in, we have to protect them from predators – did you know that we have wolves, bears, and lions around here? We have to find them adequate space for grazing, find water, and tend to their injuries. There are also bad people who try to steal our sheep. We usually carry two pieces of equipment with us, a rod and a staff. The rod was a clublike weapon we’d use to protect the sheep from the predators, but the staff is a directional tool to get the sheep where they need to be. When the sheep would enter the sheepfold, we’d do what is called “rodding the sheep,” which basically involves setting our staff on the back of each sheep to count them, to make sure they’re safe and where they need to be. (Which makes me want to correct the interpretation of that Proverb “spare the rod, spoil the child.” We didn’t use the rod to club our sheep! It’s a directional tool to bring them to health and fullness of life! Why would we ever physically harm something we care for? But I digress.) It’s a 24-hour a day job, which is why some of us were awake when that angel showed up.

I was one of the shepherds on duty that night. It was just a night like any other. The sheep aren’t all that interesting at night. They mostly huddle down for sleep, but my job is to make sure that they are safe. I told you that I’m a little different than most of my shepherd peers – that I have an artistic streak – so I was quietly humming tunes to myself to keep awake, when all of the sudden the sky exploded with light and sound. In the dullness of the night the mind has a tendency to wander, but I can tell you that this encounter was the real deal. I deal with shepherds and sheep all day, so when this angel disrupted the night, I fell on my face in fear. I imagine you would have done the same because this was just not normal.

Maybe a good way to help you understand what this was like for us is to hear it in the songs you all have written to describe what was going on. I told you I fancy myself an artist in the vein of King David, so beautiful words and music make my heart sing. Let’s start with the song you all like to finish with, “Silent Night.” It describes just a bit how it all felt. I invite you to sing with me, but as you do, pay attention to the poetry of these lyrics.

Silent Night (v. 2) 122
Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight;
glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing “Alleluia:
Christ the Savior is born; Christ the Savior is born!”

Yeah, we were quaking for sure. The peaceful tune you put to that song really misses out on the fear involved when heaven breaks into the still night. He’ll never admit to it, but I’m pretty sure one of my colleagues threw up when this all started. The spiritual, “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” gives a little bit more of the story.

Go, Tell It on the Mountain (v. 1-2) 136
Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;
go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!
While shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night,
behold throughout the heavens there shone a holy light!

Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;
go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!
The shepherds feared and trembled when lo! above the earth
rang out the angel chorus that hailed our Savior’s birth.

I can tell you now that I have no problem telling the full story, but in that moment it was all I could do to keep from running away. Go, tell it on the mountain? I wasn’t even sure I was going to survive the next few minutes!

But the angel spoke in comforting words. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said. Easier said than done but at least I could get my heart rate under control a bit. “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.” What news was this? A Savior? In the city of the greatest shepherd we had ever known? Amazing. But why would this news be delivered to a bunch of shepherds? Surely there are more powerful, connected people out there who could do more with this message! Before I could gather my thoughts about this news, the sky filled up with more angels, singing praises to God about what was going on. You captured this well in your song, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

O Come, All Ye Faithful (v. 3) 133
Sing, choirs of angels; sing in exultation;
sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest!
O come, let us adore him; O come; let us adore him;
O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord!

O come let us adore him, indeed. That was our response after the sky cleared of the heavenly host and we caught our breath just a bit. In the darkness of the night we could see a star shining brightly over the small town of Bethlehem, sitting just south of the majesty of Jerusalem. We decided to do the only thing we could in that moment. We had to bear witness to what the angel had said, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” So several of us left our sheep in the care of the others while we went to Bethlehem to see what was happening. We made our way to the stable. We saw the young mother, exhausted from giving birth but glowing with that smile only a new parent has. The father had a look of wonder. The child was just as the angel told us – sleeping in the feeding trough. It’s hard to believe that such a great gift – a Savior – could come in such a small package. We might have expected something magnificent, but the quiet of that scene was even greater. Sing with me:

O Little Town of Bethlehem (v. 3) 121
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.

Or in words that still resonate in my lowly shepherd’s soul:

Once in Royal David’s City (v. 2) 140
He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor and meek and lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.

Having borne witness to this great but strange event, we knew that we were now messengers. We heard the angel’s promise. We laid eyes on it for ourselves. We had a message to start spreading that instant. We began with our coworkers back in the fields. Our souls erupted into song:

Angels We Have Heard on High (v. 2) 113
Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be which inspire your heavenly song?
Gloria…in excelsis Deo! Gloria…in excelsis Deo!

In the time since that glorious night I’ve often wondered why God chose shepherds as those who should hear this message and bring it into the world. After all, we’re not important. We’re not educated. We’re not even terribly religious. But I believe I know why now. We shepherds were a stand-in for God that night because that child was destined to be a sacrificial lamb. The one – the Lamb of God – would be held and welcomed by those who knew how to care for a lamb. Shepherds know that these lambs need care because they will one day be offered for the sins of the people. I’ve come to know that this Lamb is the greatest of all.

So, while I’ve kept up on the shepherding, I’ve become a messenger too. I have news too good to keep to myself. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, who announces salvation.” Indeed, God has brought salvation to the earth through this Jesus. So, together let’s proclaim this good news to the whole world!

Joy to the World (v. 1) 134
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.