Joy for Those in the Light, and All Are in the Light
A sermon based on Luke 2;8-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 17, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I subscribe to a wonderful Magazine called The Christian Century. I highly recommend it. The December 6th issue has an article called “What Joy is This?” It details the joy in Luke’s Nativity narrative. The author, a Catholic priest, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, notes that one of the most prominent elements in the world Luke portrays is joy. He writes
Luke’s account is not about just a few scattered mentions of joy but rather about a steady stream of quiet, profound joy.
Father Cantalamessa asks where the joy comes from, and his answer is
the action of God in history a God who acts. At the point at which divine actions “comes down” into history, it produces a vibration and a wave of joy that spreads out from “generation to generation.” Each action of God is a miracle that fills heaven and earth with wonder. 1
The good Father starts his good article by listing the build up of joy in Luke’s Nativity story, from elderly Zacharia’s joy in learning he’ll have a son, to John the Baptist leaping for joy in his mother’s womb, to Mary’s rejoicing in God, to (quote) “finally and fully exploding at the birth of Christ in the cry of the angels to the shepherds ‘We bring you good news of great joy!’” (end quote) 2.
That final burst of joy is at the end of this morning’s lesson. To appreciate the extent of that joy we need to understand it is derived from the action of God’s delivering on the promise of light in the darkness, metaphorically . . . and in the story, really. And actually that is why we celebrate Christmas at the winter solstice, when it is darkest, but the promise of more and more light arrives. There’s a lot of joy in the promise of light in the dark, especially on the creation-wide scale that Christmas brings!
As we heard, our lesson begins with a description of shepherds living outdoors watching their flocks in the dark. Christmas Carols, pageants and nativity scenes tend to make us hear this as idyllic with nice guys leaning on staffs as the sheep gently sleep, maybe even softly lit by the light of Matthew’s Christmas star–which by the way is NOT in Luke’s telling. That’s all fine, I guess, in some respects, but, that is not at all the picture Luke’s 1st Century audience would have imagined. See, way back then shepherds were really disliked, rowdy, tough guys. Here is how the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on this text puts it:
Shepherding was a despised occupation at the time. Although the reference to shepherds evokes a positive, pastoral image for the modern reader and underscores Jesus’ association with the line of David, in the first century shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other people’s land. 3
Shepherd’s in Luke’s day are lowly people. They are not liked, let alone loved. They are outcasts to the culture. They are expendable peasants on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. We can think of them in terms of the stature of people in our culture that we consider as ne’er-do-well; those we are taught to think of and refer to as lowlifes . Maybe like tough motorcycle gang members or in fiction the bad guys in a cowboy movie. Those kind of men are much more akin to the shepherds Luke meant than our notion of modern ranchers or farmers or any other type of shepherd we think of as workers hanging around in fields lawfully tending herds in a calm and placid way and place.
The shepherds’ job back then at night especially required vigilance and a toughness in the wilderness to respond to threats of wild beasts that might attack their flocks or them and landowners angry about trespassers, or worse herd rustlers. Keep in mind it is dark, really dark. There are not flashlights. At best, I suppose, there might be a small campfire or a little oil lamp. In other words, there’s just not much available light at all beyond what celestial bodies bring.
Again there’s a reason the shepherds are not asleep in that dark, they’re watching the sheep by night to fend off sneaky predators, angry landowners and sheep thieves. We need to think of the these shepherds as not just in the dark hanging around, but in the dark disliked by the culture and awaiting fearful things. They are on hyper alert.
I was trying to think of a modern image we might all be able to picture to take in the feel Luke was likely aiming for. I think if we imagine a cowboy movie scene out on the trail on a pitch black night with a herd tended to by tough questionable cowboys trespassing in wild lands with cougars and bears about, (maybe with an underlying musical score suggesting danger) . . . all of that approximates Luke’s setting. It is that sort of tense scene we can imagine the shepherds are in watching their flocks by night when . . . “an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”That would certainly cause fear in the dark for hyper alert desperados.
And in a culture where God was understood to be on the side of those with power and wealth (the elite), it would be amazing in that time and place that God would send an angel to those low lives telling them not to be afraid. It would be even more extraordinary that God would send that angel to announce the arrival of the Messiah (Christ) to such despicable-to-the-culture people. Nobody expendables getting good news directly from God in the dark as they trespass on the elite’s land is not expected. It’s the very opposite of what is expected.
So in light of Father Cantalamessa’s article and the angels joyful cry, let’s find the joy in light in the darkness and the divine proclamations to the shepherds. Jesus spoke in parables. His stories have symbolic and subversive meaning in metaphors and allegories. Jesus Followers carried on that tradition including the authors of the Gospels. 4 So it is fair for us to consider the symbolic meanings of darkness and fearful watching and God favoring outcasts with good news. Indeed whether we think the Nativity stories did or did not literally take place, we still need to find meaning in them. Without meaning, they are . . . meaningless.
My point is the angel did not just come to speak to some particular shepherds hanging around in the dark. This whole scene can be heard to represent the theology of Jesus and the early Jesus movement, that God as love comes in the darkness bringing the great light of Christ, and not for the elite alone, but God also favors expendables, perhaps first because they need it since no one else is favoring them (those the culture is not there for and does not care about or for) . . . God favors lowlifes.
Lowlifes. The light of Christ is meant to include lowlifes. The good news is meant to include lowlifes. AND this is critical . . . that means there actually are no lowlifes. None to God and to Jesus. This means whatever we think of ourselves or others we and they cannot ever be out of God’s love or favor. Ever! Where ever there is darkness God’s light is there.
This news when disclosed makes the angels sing. It makes the whole army of God’s angels, called the multitude of the heavenly host, praise God saying
Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those God favors.
And shepherds – who represent the outcasts– matter enough to God that light is shining to get them out of darkness, God cares enough to send angels to them. THEY ARE FAVORED.
Last week we heard how God sent an angel to another lowly to the culture person, a teenaged female– Mary– and she found favor with God. That was in Luke as well. Luke is showing us God favors everyone. God’s light shines so deep into the dark it glows upon those in the crevices, the hidey-holes the culture shoves people into. Whether sick, poor, alien, imprisoned, young, old, LGBTQ, believer, non-believer, Jew, Greek, Slave, Free, Male, Female Red, Yellow, Black or White we are all precious in God’s sight! The good news, the joyous news, is God’s love is so vast, so unconditional, it reaches the unreachable. You, me, our neighbors, our enemies, the marginalized and are cared for and loved.
In the book The First Christmas one of my favorites about the Nativity stories, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan observe that
Shepherds were from the marginalized peasant class, the class that most acutely experienced oppression and exploitation by Rome and her client rulers. They were therefore among the “lowly” and the “hungry” of Mary’s Magnificat hymn in Luke . . . That they are the first ones to hear of Jesus’ birth is significant: the good news comes to the poor and the despised. It is consistent with the portrait of Jesus in the gospels. Matthew Mark and Luke all report that Jesus’ message and activity were directed primarily to the peasant class. According to them . . . he was active in the countryside, in small towns and villages where the peasant population lived. As Luke later puts it, Jesus message was “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “sight to the blind,” and “to let the oppressed go free,” The message to the shepherds foreshadows the message of Jesus. 5
See, just as we can hear The Magnificat which we looked at last week as an overture covering the promise and actions of Jesus as God incarnate played out, the angels’ song in our story this morning can be heard as an overture to Jesus first sermon in Luke, which in turn contains the promise of God’s actions through Christ that do occur and are to continue to occur.
Reading from Isaiah in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth Jesus stated that
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That the shepherds in the dark are first to hear of Jesus’ birth is significant: the good news comes to the poor and the despised. All of humankind is favored. But those on the margins need to hear that, and those not on the margins also need to hear those whom the culture out-casts are favored. No matter where anyone is on life’s journey, this is joyous news. It doesn’t matter what we believe or don’t believe, it doesn’t matter what we did yesterday or are thinking about doing tomorrow, it doesn’t matter what anyone else believes or claims, right now and forever we are loved. Everyone is loved.
That my friends is light in the darkness. It is God’s action every moment of everyday for everyone. It’s joyous news for the world.
1. Cantalamessa, Raniero, The Christian Century, “What Joy is this?” December 6, 2017, p10
3. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol VIII, p 65
4. Borg, Marcus, Crossan, John Dominic, The First Christmas, p. 46-52
5. Ibid. , p 7.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2017 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED