Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7 + Psalm 96 + Titus 2:11-14 + Luke 2:1-20
During seminary and for a short while after I moved to Chicago from Atlanta, I used to work the overnight shift at the Children’s Hospital to help make ends meet. It wasn’t the first time I’d worked overnights. I’d spent a few years after college working 2nd and 3rd shift at group homes and emergency shelters, so I was used to the strange mixture of quiet and crazy that comes in the middle of the night.
Hospital wards are more quiet by night than during the day. The lights are dimmed so that families can rest, though you still see screens glowing softly in patients’ rooms or from computers at the nurses’ stations. Down in the cafeteria however, or in the labs, the lights are turned up and you can hear the hum of the fluorescent bulbs overhead and the motors of the waxing machines being pushed over the linoleum tiled hallways as custodians use the peace of the night shift to clean and prepare for the coming day.
These are the people I think of when I hear the gospel of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8) Living in the fields. The shepherds lived where they worked. I’ve known a lot of people like that, people who worked two or even three jobs, leaving their own children at home alone, overnight, to clean offices or to do laundry or to take blood pressure readings. People who spent more time at work than at home. I’ve known just as many folk with only one job that gets just as many hours, first one in and last to leave, burning the midnight oil, or both ends of the candle. For each one of these late night workers there’s often another laborer at home making meals, cleaning rooms, resolving disputes, wiping tears. Living where they work.
I suspect we all know something about these shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
An on-call chaplain’s work is kind of all or nothing. If things are going alright, nobody really wants to talk at two in the morning. So, when your pager goes off it’s almost always because something is really wrong. An ambulance is about to arrive, or a heart has stopped beating. I suspect it’s the same for shepherds. If the sheep are quiet in the night, it’s because they’re sleeping. If they’re restless, you worry about wolves. Not angels.
“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.” (Luke 2:10-12)
Setting aside for a moment the fact that it is an angel delivering this message, I’m struck by what an underwhelming sign the shepherds are offered. A child wrapped in bands of cloth is like a baby in a diaper. It’s what you do with a newborn child, you swaddle it. You wrap it up tightly so that it can get accustomed to the wide open world outside the familiar warmth of the womb. As for “lying in a manger,” maybe that would have been odd, but maybe not. These were, after all, shepherds. People who lived where they worked, among animals. I guess I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that lots of people lay their babies in mangers, or anywhere else they could keep them warm and off the ground. We’re not talking about rich people here, not people with baby shower registries. We’re talking about shepherds, overnight workers, very practical people.
And then remember the messenger. This is the good news celebrated by an angelic host, that God’s long awaited messiah has finally arrived, and the proof is that a baby is wearing a diaper and sleeping with some animals.
When I worked at the overnight shelter we would get the strangest phone calls after midnight. They’d always start out really normal, and then they got really weird really quickly. The angels’ appearance to the shepherds feels like that. First, a lone voice in the middle of the night saying, “do not be afraid.” Then a total non-sequitur. Then a chorus of voices. Strange enough to make you wonder if you’d dozed off and imagined the whole thing.
I’ve asked myself if I would do as the shepherds did. If I would go with haste to see this ordinary miracle, the arrival of the messiah. I’ve asked myself what in that strange message and strange messenger might rouse me out of my late night routine and make me want to see this infant Lord.
I think it’s the manger. At least, if I’m the shepherd, I think it’s the manger. It’s so ordinary. It’s some old wood where you keep the animals’ food. It’s the reference to animals made to people who made their living taking care of animals. If I’m the shepherd, keeping watch over my flocks by night, and the angel comes to me and says, “the anointed one of God, the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior, is coming into the world tonight — and look! He’s not so different from you! He’s just a baby in a diaper, lying with the animals” then I’m intrigued, because I didn’t think that’s how salvation would look. Like a shepherd, or a night chaplain, or the charge nurse, or the overnight cleaning crew, or the young lab tech, or the security guard at the admitting desk, or the EMT climbing off the ambulance, or the young parent holding her child, or the worried father trying to be helpful. That’s not what I was expecting at all.
And isn’t that what they saw, when they got to Bethlehem, a family like theirs trying to get through the first night after a hard birth. This was the sign God offered to people walking in the dark of night. God has entered human experience the same way each one of us did, cold and small, fragile and dependent. God has not picked some other, better, life to inhabit. God has chosen your life.
I don’t know what you came here tonight hoping to see. I don’t know if these old words and old songs remind you of the heavenly chorus or of your own fond memories of Christmases past. I don’t know if you arrived with a heart full of wonder or heavy with grief. All I know for certain on this silent, holy night is that “God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11) by entering the most familiar, the most ordinary, the most beautiful, the most precious life of all.