Sermon - Christmas Day

What the shepherds knew

Sermon by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh

Christmas Day 2016

St. Luke’s Cathedral, Portland


If you count last Sunday’s pageant, this is the fourth service in which we have heard the story of shepherds, angels and sheep. I have a question about the shepherds. Why were they raising sheep in the first place? Of course, sheep were food for local people and the Roman army. Given their location, it is also likely that sheep were also raised for the work of the temple in Jerusalem. In other words, it is quite possible that the shepherds were raising sheep to be sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins, to get people back into right relationship with God and their neighbor, and to give all of us a fresh start in this life and the life to come. The temple rituals in Jerusalem were highly developed and impressive. Herod (the father of the Herod of Christmas pageant fame) had built a truly magnificent temple building, the foundation stones of which are at the temple mount in Jerusalem today. The Temple Industrial Complex was quite amazing. Its efficacy, however, wasn’t all that clear. The shepherds could see that despite everything they did, people around them were still suffering and alienated from God and one another. They could see that despite lots of sacrifice, elaborate liturgies and a myriad of smells and bells, the world was still not quite the way God created it to be. The angels came to the shepherds at Christmas to tell them that all that was about to change. From the angels, the shepherds learned that the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes was the Lamb of God, the great high priest, and the new temple all wrapped up in one -- and that through him everything they had spent a lifetime working for would be accomplished. The shepherds knew that, like the sheep they raised, the purpose of that newborn’s life would only be fully realized in its death. They understood that Christmas would only truly be complete in the context of Good Friday and Easter.

But what about in the mean time? While they might have served the temple, the shepherds spent their time in the fields. They were used to finding God in the gritty realities of daily life. Knowing that the baby’s name was also “Emmanuel” – “God with us,” they would have understood why the church’s name for this day is not “Christ’s mass” but rather “The Feast of the Incarnation.” Shepherds were used to looking up into the starry sky and wondering at the vastness of the universe. That night they learned that the God was not up there somewhere but right there with them. That night they learned the great sacramental principle that physical things can become holy things. That night they learned the great truth of Incarnational Theology that God loves us just we are and things like little babies and like bread and wine are where we can experience God the most. As I said last night, Christmas is not about presents; it is about presence, God’s presence, that is with us every day… and every time we gather around this altar together. Experienced in communion and community, Christmas is not a day but is an incarnational way of life.

Is that true for you? Can you rejoice in what God is doing and will do in the world – even if it is sometimes hard to see? Can you receive the healing that comes from knowing that God is with you, that forgiveness is possible and that Christmas is fulfilled in the new life of Easter? This morning I invite you to follow in the shepherds’ steps and make your own journey to the manger, reflecting on the words of poet John Betjeman, a man who in his wondering hit on the greatest truth of all. Hear these words from his poem Christmas:

And is it true, and is it true, This most tremendous tale of all, Seen in a stained-glass window's hue, A Baby in an ox's stall, The Maker of the stars and sea, Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is, No loving fingers tying strings. Around those issued fripperies, The sweet and silly Christmas things. Bath salts and inexpensive scent And hideous tie so kindly meant, No love that in a family dwells, No caroling in frosty air, Nor all the steeple-shaking bells Can with this single Truth compare - That God was man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine

Posted in: Sermons 
Post Date: Sunday, December 25, 2016 9:37 AM