How do you pray when your heart is full of uncertainty?
How do you pray when you see the structures you once leaned on for security like a good paying government job fail you?
How do you pray when a simple drive across town pulsates fear as imagines of gunfire and hate mongering have filled your computer screen for days?
How do you pray when there is no 10 month plan in your day-timer or 10 week in advance or even 10 days from now plan because you wonder how you are going to make it till tomorrow?
How do you pray when your heart feels unable to trust in the possibility of "the right answer" anymore because the world seems all do evil for that kind of blind faith?
How do you pray?
As much as there are no words, as much as there is no comfort, as much as the rage in us seeks to overflow in the places where love for neighbors dwelled . . . there was once a Teacher. There was once a Teacher who was asked by one of his disciples, "Teach us to pray . . ."
And to this request he answered:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”
Such words came from a Teacher with an uncertain future. Sure, he knew that all would be well in the end-- the darkness would not overcome the light. But the world was not there yet. Suffering, great suffering awaited him and awaited all those in whom he loved. This journey of hoping without giving up would be a long road ahead.
So he prayed.
This Teacher taught us to keep praying this prayer.
Alone. Two by two. In small community. In large groups.
Whenever we needed direction. Whenever we needed Him the most. Whenever.
A prayer that would give us the words for the days when we felt overcome with the hardship of our uncertain futures.
Today join me in praying a prayer this heart weary with the complexities and uncertainties of our world truly needs right now.
Who is on your list of people that you don’t like?
Of course, talking about people who we don’t like isn’t really something we often do in public, especially in church. And, I know it is Christmas. Most of us are well on our way to be appearing to be nicer than we seem with the corporate theme of “Peace on earth and goodwill toward all men”
But, seriously, I’m asking. Who is on your list of people you don’t like?
We all have them.
From the mechanic who installed faulty brakes in our car just last week to the neighbor who wakes up at 6 am and starts the leaf blower or the chainsaw directly below our bedroom window.
To the family member who tells racist jokes about our dear friends, even when we ask them to stop.
And horrifically, to the shooter who changed the world as we knew it on Friday morning—when 26 precious lives were taken from this world by gunfire at their elementary school.
(Such is of course an example of “people we don’t like” that I didn’t plan on including in my sermon for this morning. But nonetheless it happened. If you are like me, as the scenes of parents picking up their children from Sandy Hook Elementary rolled across the television screen on Friday and reports of how many parents would not —I couldn’t help but think oh so mean thoughts about the kind of person who would do such to innocent little children in school. Very mean thoughts in fact).
From the trivial to the tragic, there are plenty of really valid reasons to not like people—even as we know our calling as people of faith is to “love one another.” It is as my husband says to me after we’ve had a “friendly” marital dispute: “Honey, I love you but I just don’t like you right now.” (Anybody ever had been in this place too?). We all have people in our lives that we just don’t like, even if we love them or know that we should love them.
And along these lines, I suggest that the sermon title for this morning should be changed from: “Waiting with the Shepherds” to “Waiting with the Despised” or “Waiting with those whom we belittle” For the small chunk of our beloved Christmas story before us today features a group of folks who were very much disliked in their time. Though for many reasons that maybe weren’t fair—prejudge and classism— the shepherds were put down nonetheless.
When I say “shepherds” it’s hard to get your mind around the idea of the association of not liking them, isn’t it?
If you know anything about Biblical history, you know that scripture is full of stories about shepherds. If you are a child growing up in children’s Sunday School as some of us were—you learn how to get good at sheep crafts because there are lots of lessons by which they apply. I can’t tell you how many cotton ball sheep I made in all my years of church classes.
Pertaining to sheep, we tend to think favorably of them. Moses was a shepherd when God called him. So did David claim this profession and several of the prophets too. What more beloved passage of scripture do we have than Psalms 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want?” Didn’t Jesus later say, “I am the good Shepherd?
And these days- when we think shepherds we often think of cute kids with bath towels wrapped around their heads in Nativity plays.
Or we think of burly but strong characters from our coffee table manger scenes.
Or at worst we think of smelly field workers who could really use a hot bath, but not the despised.
I mean, how could we dislike characters that were among the first to worship and greet our Lord?
But, in the time of Jesus’ birth, to be a shepherd was not a ticket to popularity. While sheep are cute and the Bible seems to speak of sheep and shepherds often—what we need to understand is that being a shepherd in this day and time was the modern equivalent of being a trash collector or a someone who empties the latrines of our airplanes or someone who is forced to pick up trash on the side of the road as part of the patrol from jail.
For what does a shepherd do? They raise sheep and goats—smells and all. They guide their sheep to graze in open land. They live a nomadic life without a permanent address or even a P.O. box. They put up with some of the most unpredictable creatures on earth—fuzzy, stubborn creatures who don’t always go where they were led or remember to stay in the bounds of their owner’s land.
It was a rough life. We don’t know if they had mental health issues that had forced them outside the bounds of “normal” society. We don’t know if they had addiction problems. We don’t know if they had mother or fathers or wives to welcome them home once the herding was over. We don’t know if they wished they had a better job—if they’d only be offered the opportunity to thrive somewhere else.
All we DO know is that to be a shepherd in Jesus’ time was to be unseen by those outside of the working class like them. It was to be overworked, without holidays or weekends off. It was to be paid less those with more important jobs in palaces, the city square or even at the temple. And most of all to be shepherd was to be a little less human.
And it is to this collection of guys the multitudes of the heavenly hosts appears at night saying, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.”
The Presence of the Living God comes to this unlikely band of sheep herders and says, “The best thing that has ever happened to the world is in your hood. Your heavenly Father has picked you first to see it. Now, go!”
Wow—what a special invitation this all was!
But, remember our theme. Today we are talking about what it means to wait. In particular, what does it mean to learn from the waiting the shepherds did to get to this climatic moment in their lives?
Different from other sermons in this series, we’re not talking today about the process of actually waiting and what it was like for the shepherds to hear the good news. Because, hey! I don’t imagine that this group of fellas thought they were waiting for anything special at all. No wonder scripture tells us “they were afraid.”
So, today, rather, we’re taking this opportunity to wait with them, to consider that these were THE ones who were asked to attend to the birth of Christ first. What does it mean to wait for Jesus alongside the lowly among us? What does it mean to wait with those in our life this Advent season who are on our “I don’t really like them very much” list?
It’s one of those piercing questions because of who’s on that list. I don’t like to go there. I don’t like to be forced to consider the fact that I think I’m better than the men who pick up my trash every Friday morning.
I bet you don’t either. It’s easier to go about life as if we’re the most important character. It’s easier to go through life as if we are kings and queens of our own kingdom, inviting only those in our lives who are we like.
But, what if we began to wait with the shepherds among us? What if we saw the world from the perspective of those in whom our society doesn’t value? What might our waiting entail then?
In a mid-size US city much like ours, a man named William Well is homeless. He was interviewed recently by a television station about his story. This is what the reporter said about him:
William is a convicted felon and recovering addict who’s stayed sober four months and counting.
The reporter says about William, ”He’s ready for the cold shoulders and weary eyes likely to greet him from the family next door, should he land a spot in supportive housing for the chronically homeless. For now, though, he’ll bide his time on a waiting list.”
At 59 years old, the Chicago native insists that he’d be happy just to hold down a job and mind his own business.
William says: “At this stage of my life, I wanna be able to help myself … buy my food, buy my clothes, pay my own rent,”
“You’ve gotta give a person a chance,” he said. “It’d make me feel like a man.”
But men like William who walk the streets every day aren’t those who we often give a second chance too.
It’s annoying sometimes to be greeted by a homeless person at an intersection of a shopping center, isn’t? Or, to be greeted by someone going door to door in our neighborhood asking to do odd jobs around our yard? Or to be given a flyer by a person standing a street corner for a service or product we could care less about and becomes just one more piece of paper to have in our purse of pocket?
We look at people like this as beggars, wasting our time, or most of all suspiciously who are just going to take and take and never give back to society. We look at their criminal past and judge them without an eye for the possibilities for the future. We often don’t think God could appear to them, speak through them or be the central characters in a play school children would perform for centuries to come, as the shepherds became that night.
But, the God we know of our beloved Christmas story is the God who appears to those in our world we might dislike, despise or might otherwise overlook in our busyness.
The God we know of our beloved Christmas story is the one who goes where the hungry seekers of faith are found-- those who have been rejected by the world, who are working jobs at fast food restaurants, in cleaning companies, and as street cleaners.
The God we know our beloved Christmas story is the God who often goes outside of the bounds of the city to find those who are ready to worship the Christ child—those in the trailer parks, those in the shacks of country houses, and those who find themselves camped out in the woods of Reston in the tent cities because they have nowhere else to go.
If we truly want to be people who wait with the shepherds as the third candle of our Advent this year asks us to do, then we’ve got to first re-orientate ourselves to the types of people that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ asked to come and worship Him first.
One of Bill Watterson’s famous Calvin and Hobbes cartoons speaks of the type of mania we deal with this time of year: “Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food, and beer.... Who'd have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment, and spirituality would mix so harmoniously? ”
There’s a popular phrase this time of year and I bet you know it. And it’s “Jesus is the reason for the Season.” It’s kind of the Christian catch phrase we use to talk about the rise of consumerism and emphasis on all things Santa that seem to take the thunder away from Jesus.
And of course, it’s true, Jesus’ birth is the reason for all our preparations and waiting this Advent season, and yes, it should be our main focus.
But, I’m here today to offer you something more. Who are we waiting beside? What kind of people are we waiting with? Are we waiting for the celebration of Christ’s birth this year alongside people just like us? Or are we waiting with the shepherds?
Who will be around your dinner table this Christmas? Who will you buy presents for? Who will you befriend in the New Year? If there's anything I've heard over and over about this school shooter in the past 24 hours it is that he was "a loner." Where were his friends? Where was the church?
I dare suggest that if we wait with the shepherds among us this Advent season, what we’ll really find this Christmas is Jesus.
. . . Jesus who humbled himself, coming from all the lights of heavenly glories to become a baby, a tiny, helpless baby so that we could all know how much God truly loves each and every one of us
. . . Jesus who came to help the broken, the tired, the lame not the well and happy
. . . Jesus who came to teach us God’s abundant grace lavished on all of us, not just the select few.
If we want to know Jesus, let us wait with the shepherds among us, let us learn of them, and most of all let’s invite them in to our lives.