Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Secrets - The Cross under the Shepherds' Unworthiness

Preached on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014

Scripture reading: Luke 2:1-20

Photos Taken at Desert Aire, WA: December 2014
The ancient rabbi’s had a tradition of looking down on shepherds. This is strange, because the Old Testament is full of positive references to shepherds. The Lord is our shepherd. (psalm 23) The kings of Israel and Judah were called shepherds. The Messiah (the Christ) would be called the shepherd.
But the rabbis were in love with the purity and perfection of God. They thought this was part of his majesty and glory. So they were always trying to get their people into the discipline of purity and perfection in the form of cleanness. They were always washing everything, all the time, and it all had to be done a certain way.
Being a shepherd was dirty work. Sheep are dirty. The shepherd’s couldn’t have carried around all the water that the rabbis’ washing rules would have required of them, even if they had wanted to.
And they grazed their sheep on other people’s property. They were suspected of having sticky fingers, meaning something more than being dirty: meaning that things went missing when the shepherds had come and gone.
The rabbis ruled that a shepherd’s testimony was not admissible in a trial. The shepherds, for their part, developed special a code of conduct that required them to live down to the low expectations of others.
In the light of this, it stands to reason that, naturally, God would choose the shepherd’s to be his most authoritative witnesses to the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, in Bethlehem. The angel messengers didn’t bring the good news to King Herod, or to the priests in the Temple, or to some school of rabbis debating the laws of cleanness.
Some people are certain that these shepherds must have been very special (much better than your average shepherd) in order to be entrusted with such a wonderful message. But that would be just as wrong as thinking that we must be better than your average person in order to be entrusted with such a wonderful message. That would be a serious mistake. That would be the kind of mistake that only people like us could make.
The God we first meet in the baby Jesus grew up to be called “the friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 11:19) God does his best work, and God has the greatest freedom to be truly himself, when he works through the rough and the unworthy.
God saw to it that he would come into this world through a girl named Mary who was pregnant before her wedding. God, as a boy, was raised by a man named Joseph, who took personal responsibility for such a girl.
Of course they were innocent, but they were judged by others as if they were guilty and unclean. Sometimes their neighbors wouldn’t even call Jesus the son of Joseph; they called him Mary’s son, and you know what that means. (Mark 6:3)
A God who took his own majesty seriously would never come to earth to die on a cross for the sins of the world. A pure and perfect God would never use a manger, a feed trough for animals, as a sign of his kingdom.
For people like the shepherds, who never took their own worthiness seriously, the manger was the perfect sign for the king of the kingdom of God. The manger told them that this king would be perfect for them. The baby in the manger told them that the kingdom of God was simply and truly designed for the rough and the unworthy.
The shepherds were the perfect sign of the kingdom of God for Mary and Joseph. I think God chose them because they would be a comfort to Mary and Joseph.
Mary and Joseph had probably held the high ambition in life of being poor but respectable. Their baby had taken away their respectability, because the timing of the baby made them suspect. Jesus was making their life really rough even though, through him, they were being intimately touched by God.
And here came these shepherds who were born and raised to be rough. They had no ambitions of respectability. But the shepherds had been intimately touched by God. They knew that God was at work in that baby, and so they knew that God was at work in Joseph and Mary, who were having such a hard time. The shepherds were the perfect sign of the gospel. They were perfect sign of the good news that Mary and Joseph needed to remember.
My first church, after I was ordained, was on the Oregon coast. The town had its share of tourist businesses, and artists, and summer houses, but it was mostly a lumber mill town. I never before had lived in a place where I knew so many people who had jail and prison records, or who went to jail or to prison after I met them.
Mill workers were expected by others (and they expected each other) to live the code of the rough life. There was a lot of drugs and alcohol. There were lots of fights, especially around the tavern. I remember hearing about a knifing. I remember hearing about a shooting.
One of the biggest mistakes that I made, in that first church, was that I didn’t spend time in the tavern. I would have served Jesus better if I had spent time in the tavern.
I think it was my first Sunday there, that one of the church members told me that she hoped I had big feet. She said I would need big feet to fill Mickey’s shoes.
Mickey was my predecessor who had died a couple years before I came there. He was a lay-minister (unordained, or untrained, whatever that means) and he had served that church for twenty years.
After his stint in the Army and fighting in Italy in World War Two, he came to Lakeside and worked in the mill. He lived the life of the mill worker. For years he was devoted to the rough life: until he met Jesus, and then his life began to change. But I think he was always true to his story. He became good with a rough goodness.
Mickey met Jesus largely with the help of a guy named Hutch. Hutch taught the adult Sunday school class in that church forever. When I was there I taught the older kids, but sometimes I would sit in on Hutch’s class.
Hutch was a great Christian. The life of Jesus was strong in him. Hutch knew this Jesus of the manger and the cross.
Hutch had been one of those mill workers who lived the rough life; who lived down to the low expectations of others. He did his time in the tavern and he told me how he used to walk down the street carrying a pipe in his back pocket (not a pipe for smoking but for fighting). And then he met Jesus, and his old roughness changed into a rough goodness.
Hutch was older thank Mickey, but he was the perfect sign of the Lord of the manger and the cross. In a sense it was the unworthiness and roughness of Hutch that got through to Mickey, so that Mickey could meet the Lord of the manger and the cross.
Or it was the story of roughness and unworthiness touched by the grace and power of God that got through to Mickey. It was that version of the good news that gave Mickey those big shoes I was called upon to fill.
We have a God who is not impressed with our worthiness. Chances are that no one else will be impressed by our worthiness either. The God of the manger is the master of touching people in their roughness, and touching them in their unworthiness, and shaping them there, and giving them wisdom there, and making himself visible there.
If you know Jesus, then you have a manger or a cross in your life where Jesus lives. If you don’t know Jesus, then you have a manger or a cross that Jesus wants to occupy.
Your good impressions, and your successes, and your self-confidence will not be a sign of the Lord named Jesus. The only place others will see the true sign of Jesus in you will be in some manger or some cross where you have met Jesus.

This is one of the secrets of Christmas. This is what makes Christmas one of the signs of the good news of the gospel.

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