by David Baer, December 24, 2017
Text: Luke 2:1-14
The tree is trimmed, the Christmas lights strung across the house and the trees outside. The last-minute shopping is done. The guest room is prepared—unless you are the guest, in which case the suitcases were packed, your travel accomplished, and you’ve arrived. After you leave this place tonight, are there gifts to be wrapped awaiting you at home? Drinks and cookies to be served? Christmas brings so much activity, so much energy, that December can be a month of constant motion. When do you find peace?
The first Christmas was the same. A decree from the emperor sent ordinary people scrambling to register for a new tax, a new burden imposed by the powerful on the poor. No exceptions for the old, for the infirm, for expecting parents. And with Bethlehem bursting at the seams with travelers and no accommodations to be found, Joseph and Mary improvised and took shelter where they could. Mary went into labor far away from the comforting presence of her mother, aunts, and cousins who should have been there to help her. When do Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus find peace?
The shepherds worked their thankless job all hours of the night up in the hills. They were security guards, keeping watch and chasing off wolves and sheep rustlers. They were veterinarians, helping the ewes give birth. And for their trouble the townspeople saw them as dirty, shifty, and untrustworthy. In fact, they were ineligible to give testimony in Jewish courts—the word of a shepherd just wasn’t good enough.1 Outcasts working round the clock, when do the shepherds find peace?
Peace in Hebrew is “shalom.” It’s a greeting and a goodbye, a wish for health and happiness. In our language, the word “peace” sometimes takes on a negative meaning. Sometimes in the chaos that comes with living with 2 kids and a dog, I find myself saying, “Can’t I get some peace and quiet?!” Peace sometimes means the absence of noise, of conflict, of worry. Not so with shalom. Shalom is the Sabbath, a day of rest and enjoyment. Shalom is the health of the body, the family, and the community. Shalom is the storm stilled, the raging waves calmed, and all the wild forces of nature quiet and at ease. Shalom is peace, not as the absence of disruption, but peace as the fullness of health, justice, prosperity, joy, and harmony between God, people, and all the creatures. When does the creation find peace?
They longed for peace in Jesus’ day. Some people said, “Join the world!” Caesar Augustus, who had defeated all of his rivals on the battlefield, was the great leader sent by God to bring peace to the world, they claimed. Some others said, “Fight the world!” A Jewish hero was needed to defeat the occupiers, restore the kingdom to Israel, and win peace for God’s people. And some said, “Leave the world!” Peace was to be found by withdrawing from the noise and hurt, by living apart from it. In our own time, with hatreds and divisions, threats of war, and noisy, bombastic voices commanding all the attention, there are people who say the same things: join! fight! leave! Those are your choices, if you want peace. But will any one of these bring shalom? Which option would you take, if you had to choose? Where do you look for peace?
Is there another way?
The first Christmas message came from the angel who drifted down from heaven to the shepherds in the hills outside Bethlehem, trailing light and glory from heaven. What is it like to see a creature who spends its days in the presence of God, the holy, radiant energy that powers the universe, a creature bathed in otherworldly goodness? It is absolutely terrifying! The shepherds fell on their faces. And then they heard the first Christmas sermon: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you—you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Do not be afraid! Good news of great joy for all people! This is the stuff of shalom. And there’s a promise—go, look for the child, and you will find him. The mistrusted, despised, pushed-aside shepherds are the ones God now favors and trusts, the ones God is bound to with a promise. Because God loves the unworthy, the forgotten, the downtrodden, and it’s their testimony, their story that God requires us to hear and believe. Christmas shalom is what happens when the poor receive good news on behalf of the rest of us.
And the good news the angel gave those shepherds didn’t send them to a palace. It sent them to look for a child lying in a manger, in an animal feeding trough—a kid as poor and forgotten as they were. God’s presence in our world, God’s shalom, doesn’t trickle down from the top, from the princes and potentates. It begins in a stable, with a family made homeless by the whims of the powerful. Christmas shalom begins with the poor, the stranger, the alien, the unworthy and unloved.
And that includes the stranger and alien inside each one of us. That part of you that you don’t trumpet in your Christmas letter, that you don’t share on your Facebook page—the part of you that hurts, that struggles under a burden of regret—when the angels say, “Peace on earth among those God favors,” I want you to understand that tonight the part of you that you shove aside is favored, is chosen—God is well pleased with the poor and unloved and hurting person inside each of you. Christmas shalom is for that part of you most and first of all!
God has come to be with us, once and for all—a poor child in a family with no place to stay, holding court with ragamuffin shepherds as attendants. Shalom begins with God drawing near to us in those we have come to see as “other.” Peace in our world and in our lives begins when we recognize the stranger, the enemy, the ones from whom we are alienated and of whom we are afraid, as those whom God loves and has made holy with his presence.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, shalom, salvation, and fullness of life to the poor and weary ones God loves, God honors, God favors! Amen.
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993. p. 420, see footnote.