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Do Not Be Afraid: The Shepherds

Luke 2.8-20

Amos crept along the edge of town, trying not to be noticed. He was a shepherd, a social and religious outcast, and wasn’t generally welcome even in the small community of Bethlehem. After all, the religious leaders hated shepherds because their work kept them from ever being ceremonially clean. And the rest of the community hated them because they were dirty, uneducated, and just bothersome.

Nether Amos nor his compatriots ever came into the town unless they had to. The only reason they had sent him now was to get a couple of tools repaired by the blacksmith. And the only reason they sent Amos was that he was young and could outrun the Roman police if they spotted him. He walked around to the side of town that would require him the least amount of distance walking through town to the blacksmith. But he still waited until close to dark and now that he had visited the smith, he walked as fast as he could.

As he walked,  He was afraid that someone would spot him and turn him in. He was afraid that someone was stealing his stuff back out in the fields. He was afraid that something might happen to his portion of the flock and he would have his pay docked. He was afraid that he might not have enough food to keep him strong enough to ward off the animals that attacked at night. He was afraid…all the time.

He jumped when he heard the banging of a fist on a nearby door. He saw officials going door to door talking to all of the inhabitants, all using the same canned speech. Eventually Amos put together enough words to figure it out. “Quirinius…census…how many…line of David?” Clearly there was some kind of count going on, trying to figure out how many people lived in town, and whether they were part of the right bloodlines or not. As he passed the last house on his way out of town, he relaxed. After all, no one would be coming out into the fields that night. No one was about to come and count him or his compatriots. No one bothered, because to them, he and his fellow shepherds simply didn’t count.

 

Have you ever met Amos? Of course, you haven’t met a shepherd that lived in the fields of Bethlehem in the first century Palestine. But have you ever met anyone with a similar story as Amos?

I know that some of you have. Anyone who has volunteered at Family Promise has probably met a modern-day Amos. Or the food pantry. Or LINK. Those suffering from homelessness or housing insecurity tell a story similar to Amos every day. Their lives are gripped by fear. There is fear over what authorities will do if they are found. There is fear about their lack of security, of food, of shelter, of a predictable life. There is fear about how others look at them, look down at their kids at school, or judge them when they see them around town. There is fear about losing the few possessions that they do have: sometimes just a backpack or sleeping bag, or even those who have secured housing often fear that something will happen and they will be thrown into homelessness once again.

Deep down, like Amos, those suffering from homelessness feel again and again like Amos: that they simply don’t count.

 

And yet, look at what happens to Amos and his compatriots. Luke 2 tells the story of the birth of Christ, and it does it in a narrative form, telling the story. But look again at the first line of dialogue after the birth of Jesus. The first words spoken by anyone to anyone after the birth of the Christ child:

Do. Not. Be. Afraid.

The angels show up to those people who don’t count. They don’t count to Quirinius. They don’t count to the officials doing the census. They don’t count to the priests. They don’t count to the good, upstanding citizens of Bethlehem. They don’t count to anyone.

Except they count to God:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

We took a long time in the Two-Way trying to figure out why the angels were only talking about those whom God favors. The first question that came to mind, then, was who does God not favor? But a closer reading of the text reveals more. The Greek word here is eudokia, – not to be confused with Udoka, KU fans – and it is inclusive instead of exclusive. In other words, the shepherds were to understand that despite what the world around them said, God was pleased with them. God delighted in them. God favored them. God proclaimed loud and clear to them: “You count.”

Robert Redman writes it this way, “The social location of the incarnation continues to challenge our notions of who is blessed by God….The favor of God—the grace of God—comes not to those who think they’ve earned it by birth or education or success in the world. The grace of God sneaks into our world under the radar of our religious expectations, in the person of Jesus.”

For the angels to show up to the shepherds first speaks volumes about what God was going to be about in the person of Jesus. And about what God is still up in in this world. God still shows up first to those who are marginalized and outcast in our society, with the following promise:

You count.

Every January, there is an event that takes place on the streets of Lawrence. Usually called the “point-in-time” survey, it does what Quirinius never thought to do. It arms citizens with pencils and clipboards—and gloves and hats on usually one of the coldest days of the year—to count. To count those in our community suffering from homelessness. This year, they counted close to 400, an increase of 35% from the year before. Including close to a hundred children. And in their counting, they found information helpful to Family Promise, and LINK, and Habitat for Humanity, and Bert Nash, and a host of other organizations trying to be less like Quirinius and more like the angels. Less motivated by fear and more motivated by love.

Today, this year, and in the years to come, may we find ourselves aligning ourselves with the angels, with those who are caring for those in need, those in fear, those hurting in our community. May we remind ourselves of the radical story of love that comes with the Incarnation, and look to the grace that “sneaks” into our world through the love of God. May we double and redouble our support for those on the front lines of that love.

And may we sing with the angels the Good News: “All God’s children are favored children!”

This time the banging didn’t startle Amos. Because he was the one doing the banging. On every door, on every street. The angels had delivered to him and all of his compatriots a word that they could hardly believe. A word of grace. A word of love. And not only that, but they sent the shepherds on a search: will you find the baby lying in a manger.

So now, Amos and his friends turned Bethlehem upside down, looking for a newborn baby. They searched high and low, under every rock, in the attempt to find the baby. Of course, they got some stern looks and a few less-than-friendly words of response, but Amos didn’t care anymore. He wasn’t afraid anymore. As he ran through the streets, praising God and searching for the baby, his fear had been replaced by something more substantial. It had been transformed by love.

And as he ran and laughed through the streets, he could only reflect that love to everyone he met—every angry face at the door or unbelieving look down the street. Until suddenly, he froze in his tracks. He heard it. Through the thin walls of the stable, he heard it. The sound of a baby’s cry. For Amos, it was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard. It was for him a message: “You count for something.” And it was a promise: “the baby has come for us all.”

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