God Chooses Sides
Somehow, as God was giving me the gifts I have enjoyed throughout life, God forgot to give me co-ordination until I was in the seventh grade. Then, the gift was very nice: I played football, ran track, and did ok with basketball. But before seventh grade I didn’t have the gift of coordination – which made grade school gym class very painful. I liked it when they formed teams by counting off by twos. But I didn’t like it when the team captains got to choose members of their teams because I would always be chosen next-to-last. (Bobby Parks was always last but that was only because he was shorter than I was.)
I liked church better than school because there was none of that ranking in church … from best to worst, from most coordinated to least coordinated. So, for the longest time I figured that this was the way of God. God was more democratic in his dealings… more egalitarian. God didn’t take sides. There was no choosing. There were no “winners and losers.” Life in God’s kingdom was less like dodge ball than it was team pyramid building where everybody worked together instead of against each other.
I still feel this way for the most part. For the most part. But it is just when I lull myself into thinking that God shows no preferences that I find myself in the pulpit, as I am this evening, bringing to you the story of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ … a story in which God very much shows preferences, reveals partiality … a story in which God chooses sides. Chooses sides!
I’m talking about to whom God makes the announcement that the savior of the world is born – the shepherds. The problem with our manger-scene mentality is that we tend to put too many people in the manger. If we have anybody more than Mary and Joseph and their newborn, we have too many. They were alone!! Oh, we put the three wise men there. Well they weren’t there until long after the birth. But, if we are good Lutherans and don’t put the wise men out until Epiphany, we often still put the shepherds there. The shepherds weren’t there. They were out in the fields tending to their flocks. Well, if we know enough not to put shepherds there, then we still put the angel there. The angel wasn’t there. The angel was out in the fields giving the good news to the shepherds.
And this is where I am going with this sermon. Let’s review the story once again: “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 a great joy for all the people: to you (the shepherds) is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’
In making the announcement to the shepherds, God made a choice. He chose the losers … or at least those society had defined as losers. Shepherding was not considered decent work. These were the ones who were considered to be liars, degenerates, and thieves. Shepherds’ testimony was not admissible in court. Some towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their town limits. Since they had to tend sheep instead of observing the Sabbath, the religious authorities considered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees put them in the same category as prostitutes and tax collectors. Shepherds were not just losers, they weren’t allowed to play the game to begin with. Also, and here’s a new thought this year. These shepherds may not be the ones society rejected. They may be the ones who rejected society. They may have considered the rules put forth by the empire and by the church and said, “We’re not playing.” They may have placed themselves outside the normal order of things. Think of it: Those who society rejects are “low”, but those who reject society are the “lowest of the low.” But these were the people God choose to make the announcement of the birth of the savior. It is as if, in third grade, the team captain chose Bobby Parks first for his dodge ball team.
This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, it was not too many weeks ago that we heard Matthew 25 which said that ultimately, ultimately, God cares about how we tend to the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. And it was not too many weeks before that that we heard about those who God blesses: the poor, the meek, those who mourn, those who have not been treated rightly. And throughout the year we heard parable after parable with the theme, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
I struggled with this Christmas Eve sermon. The tension was between what I know most people want to hear tonight and what the text actually says. Most people want to hear about the silent night and to be lulled into sleeping in heavenly peace. They want to get away from the things they hear on nightly news or the things those talking heads argue about incessantly with their panels of experts on CNN and MSNBC that you want to throw a rock through the screen. We want what one commentator has referred to as “spiritual comfort food” or “chicken soup for the beleaguered soul.”
But the Christmas story is more than comfort food. It is an indictment of the status quo. Why not make the announcement to Augustus Caesar? Because it was an indictment of the entire notion that empires and rulers and power structures are good. Then why not make the announcement in the great temple that Herod built in Jerusalem? Because it was an indictment of the entire notion of the priestly system where God was commodified by the church and sold as a merchant might sell fine cloth.
If God were choosing to make the angelic announcement of the birth of Christ today, where would he make it? Another commentator stated bluntly, “He certainly wouldn’t make it in church.” God would make it out there to those whom he has chosen for his team: the poor, the homeless, the sick, the 13 million of us who will lose our health insurance this year, those on Medicaid, those who have made bad decisions, the rising number of people in Fairfax County – mostly women – who have died of opioid overdose this year. And, I’ll tell you who God might especially single out. He will make the announcement to the single mother who comes to our Tuesday lunch who is living in one room with her baby and wondering how she will pay the rent because ICE agents came one evening and took away the father of her child and the one who had a job and paid the rent. He will make the announcement to those who are described by words the Department of Human Services has been instructed not to use: the vulnerable, the transgendered, fetuses.
David Lose, recent president of our Philadelphia seminary, has said: “God didn’t come in Jesus to make things a little better, a little more bearable. God came to turn over tables to create a whole new system to resurrect and redeem us rather than merely rehabilitate us.”
Yes, be comforted by the carols and poinsettias, and candles this evening. It is, after all, a hopeful evening. But the hope isn’t so much that we shall sleep throughout all eternity in a heavenly peace as much as it is that God has entered our world now to shake things up and turn things upside down. Yes, God chooses. God has preferences. God ranks from highest to lowest. But, in God’s kingdom, the lowest hear the Good News first!
Text: Luke 2:1-20