Preached by Pastor Tracey Leslie, December 24, 2014
We Christians have lots of arguments about worship. It’s true, you know. We disagree about the kind of songs that should be sung and the kinds of instruments that should accompany them. We disagree about how long the worship service should last and whether it should be mostly preaching or whether other parts of the service have value, too. We disagree about how long the preacher should preach and whether they should use notes or preach extemporaneously (that is, without notes). We disagree about whether the service should be casual or reverent; quiet or boisterous. And, of course, we work awfully hard to get you all here… thanks for coming, by the way. Which might make us all begin to wonder, what is worship about anyway?
Well, as for Christian worship, the precedent or pattern was set on that night long ago by some rather unqualified attendees: shepherds. Now, they look very romantic in our manger scenes. But they were anything but.
When I was in seminary I worked at a facility for juvenile offenders. I know, it might sound funny coming from someone so tiny, but I never found the young men particularly intimidating. They’d had pretty rough lives and dysfunctional families. But I can tell you what I didn’t like about working there… the smell. For some reason, I suppose as part of their rehabilitation, it was left up to the young men to keep the premises clean. It was a dreadful plan. Not only was the house dirty and had its fair share of vermin; it smelled horrible. When I came home, I would hang my coat on a hook on the wall outside my apartment.
You should know, I only really see out of one eye and that one requires plenty of correction and already, my hearing isn’t keen… as evidenced by the number of times you hear me say, “What? What?” But God gifted me with one keen sense… my sense of smell and it was sorely offended at that juvenile facility.
And I can imagine it would have been every bit as offended had I been there with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus when those shepherds showed up. Shepherds in first century Palestine really didn’t have a lot going for them. They were blue collar workers who smelled all the time. They weren’t known for their social graces… after all, the majority of their time was spent with animals. And many of them were even known to be little shifty and sneaky. But with all those strikes against them, I’ll give them credit for this much: these ones sure knew how to worship. Luke tells us that their encounter with that tiny baby caused them to depart from that manger with an outpouring of praise. Words of worship on the lips of some pretty rugged, simple and kind of crude guys. But they just couldn’t help themselves. They were, apparently, overjoyed and after all, that was the point, wasn’t it? That’s what the angel said to them, “I bring you good news of great joy.” I can’t imagine there was a whole lot of joy in their line of work. Stuck out in the elements day and night; animals (and some pretty dumb ones at that) your most frequent companions; smelly work; lonely work; physically demanding work. You wouldn’t catch me signing up. And so, as if the angel hadn’t been shocking enough, I imagine the promise of such an incredible joy was quite the hook for those guys. They beat fast tracks into town to check out this baby in a crude feeding trough that dangled the promise of great joy. And, upon laying eyes on him, they knew he was something special. So impressed were they to be in the presence of this little baby that, when they left that place, they were worshipping like crazy…. Glorifying God and praising him. As a matter of fact, they follow the lead of the angelic host precisely. Just like the angels, they praise and they glorify God.
When those shepherds leave that manger, they’ve experienced what the angel promised – great joy. Now, my guess is, they didn’t quit their day job… or, in this case, I guess it was their night job, too. It wasn’t as if now, suddenly, that baby had scrubbed them clean, provided them with a new, fancy wardrobe, liberated them from the cold, damp evening air, or catapulted them to the top of the social ladder. It wasn’t as if the mega jackpot winning ticket was tucked inside those swaddling clothes. They returned, Luke tells us, which means they must have just gone back to their flocks; back to the same old, same old… except for the fact that, clearly, things weren’t the same. Something was dramatically different now and it was different all because of this tiny baby tucked to bed in a feeding trough... a baby who would save them. That title, Savior, Soter, was used by Roman Emperors who liked to fancy themselves as the bringers of peace on earth… except it was peace at the end of a sword and really more of a reign of terror than of mercy; more bad news than good news and not a whole lotta joy. But this was different and the shepherds knew that. They knew that this Savior, a baby born in a stable and tucked into a manger by parents who were little more than peasants… Well, that wasn’t your typical kind of Savior. After all, who among the powerful and elite would have allowed the likes of them to visit? No, this would be a Savior for the little guy… and gal. A baby that embodied the manifestation of God’s glory and power; and, to know that God loved them and cared for them enough to send this Savior for them… Well, it was as if their gratitude knew no bounds. They couldn’t contain the joy they felt; they just had to praise God for what he’d done for them… for them.
And that’s what worship really amounts to. It’s not about a particular style or format. It’s about our expression of joy because we have a God who cared enough about us to send us a Savior. And, not one of glass or ceramic delicately placed atop our mantles. No; one who dwelt among people the likes of us – ordinary, hardworking, and sometimes a little rough around the edges; one whose crib was a crude feeding trough. One who would do whatever it took to save us… even if that meant dying for us. Whatever it took to deliver us, that little baby would do and good news like that… well, who could help but be joyful and give thanks to God? Who could help but praise God and sing it out: “Glory, glory to God in the highest?”
There is an old, Christmas legend that tells of how God called the angels of heaven together one day for a special choir rehearsal. He told them that he had a special song that he wanted them to learn… a song that they would sing at a very significant occasion. The angels went to work on it. They rehearsed long and hard… with great focus and intensity. In fact, some of the angels grumbled a bit… but God insisted on a very high standard for his choir.
As time passed, the choir improved in tone, in rhythm, and in quality. Finally God announced that they were ready… but then, he shocked them a bit. He told them that they would sing the song only once… and only on one night. There would be just one performance of this great song they had worked on so diligently. Again, some of the angels grumbled. The song was so extraordinarily beautiful and they had it down pat now… surely, they could sing it many, many times. God only smiled and told them that when the time came, they would understand.
Then one night, God called them together. He gathered them above a field just outside of Bethlehem. “It’s time,” God said to them… and the angels sang their song. My, did they sing it! “Glory to God in the highest… and on earth peace and good will toward all…” And as the angels sang, they knew there would never be another night like this one, and that there would never be another birth like this one.
When the angels returned to heaven, God reminded them that they would not formally sing that song again as an angelic choir, but if they wanted to, they could hum the tune occasionally. One angel was bold enough to step forward and ask God why. Why could they not sing that majestic anthem again? They did it so well. It felt so good. Why couldn’t they sing that great song anymore? “Because,” God explained, “my Son has been born… and now earth must do the singing!”
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