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This fall I have had more occasions to be visiting people at Lions Gate Hospital than I would like. That’s not because I don’t like visiting people in hospital, it’s because I don’t like my beloved people being in hospital. On one of those visits when I had my bible in hand I was asked if I would read the one about the shepherd. You know, the one that begins “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Many of us know that passage off by heart. I myself have recited it countless times at memorial services, gravesites and immediately before and after someone has taken their last breath. It’s always the line about walking through the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil that seems so relevant in those moments. When we walk through death’s dark valley, it is good to know we are not alone.
It seems that shepherds are accustomed to shadowed valleys. They know the geography of the dark. And so it should come as no surprise to us that the shepherds in the story of Jesus birth are watching their flocks by night, by the cover of darkness.
I’ve never been a shepherd myself, not in the real sense of the word, but I have spent time in darkness. And I know that sometimes we can become quite accustomed to dwelling there. Sometimes dark places can provide a sense of safety especially if we are trying to hide or if we don’t want to feel exposed because there’s something we are protecting.
For example, on Wednesday when we gather for our annual Blue Christmas service, we will pay close attention to the lighting in the sanctuary. If you are struggling with the season or grieving, the last thing you want is someone shining a bright light into your darkness.
So I wonder if the reason the shepherds were terrified that night when the glory of the Lord shone around them was because they felt exposed by all that light. Most of you have heard this story enough times by now that you are aware that shepherds in ancient Israel had a reputation for being scoundrels. They were thought to be dubious characters who operated on the shady side of the law. They neglected their religious observances and were associated with trespass and dishonest sheep-dealings. They were rough and tumble toughs guys who fought off wolves and robbers under cover of dark. They were more like gangsters than the gentle sheep herders portrayed in our nativity sets.
My guess is that last thing they would have been looking for or maybe even longing for as they tended their flocks by night was some goody two shoes angel showing up with a search light spouting a message about peace and goodwill.
These guys really didn’t know anything other than darkness. They were very familiar with it. In this way, perhaps they share more in common with us that we realize. Not necessarily the part about being dishonest scoundrels who lurk in the shadows although I’m sure some of us do resonate with that aspect of the shepherds. I’m thinking more about the way we have come to know darkness in our world in these last few years.
Last year at this time on the world stage we were dwelling in the darkness of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This year we are dwelling in the darkness of escalating violence between Israel and Hamas and the threat of a widening conflict. Maybe you’ve heard that all public celebrations of Christmas have been cancelled in Bethlehem this year. There’s no Christmas tree in Manger Square, no Christmas parade, no Santas on street corners, no decorations, no lights. Except, of course for the big spotlight that is shining on our world exposing its distinctive lack of peace this year.
I can’t help but notice the way this exposure has made many of us feel uncomfortable this season. It’s been hard for many of us to go to Christmas parties and deck our halls and buy gifts for our loved ones knowing the darkness that has descended on far too many innocent people.
And yet, it’s this cover of darkness that connects us with the very heart of the Christmas story, reminding us what its actually all about. So maybe we shouldn’t shy away from this darkness too quickly. Maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of the light being shone upon it. It’s into this same kind of darkness that the message of the angel is delivered pointing us towards peace and goodwill with the most unlikely sign that God is with us. The sign of a baby born in a humble manger.
In addition to seeing the headlines that Bethlehem has cancelled Christmas celebrations this year and along with all the other horrendous headlines coming out of Israel and Palestine, you may have seen the news story about the nativity scene that has been set up in a Lutheran church in Bethlehem. In amongst a pile of concrete rubble lays the baby Jesus with Mary and Joseph, the animals, the shepherds and the magi seemingly picking their way through the ruins to gather at his side.
It’s a poignant reminder that the coming of the Christ child doesn’t always take away the darkness and the disasters of our lives, it meets us in those unlikely places, the places where we, like the baby are vulnerable and needful of healing, grace and love. It’s in these shattered places, the Christ child can be found, even if we cannot see it at first glance because we have become so accustomed to the dark.
When the angel appeared before the shepherds bringing them a message about peace on earth and goodwill for all people and the glory of the Lord shone around them, the story tell us they were terrified. I’ve suggested that their terror may have come from being exposed, from having a light shone into the dark corners of their lives, those places that seem like they might be beyond redemption, beyond repair. But I suppose it’s also possible that what scared those tough and hardened shepherds was simply love, love that searches us out and finds us in our vulnerability.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of love this week as dozens of photographs have filled my inbox, pictures of my strapping six foot nephew holding his brand new baby girl. In fact, I’ve been thinking about love that touches us in our vulnerability since the first Sunday in advent when I watched a number of you rocking baby dolls wrapped in swaddling clothes while you prayed for the children of the world at one of our spiritual practice stations. I was touched in my own vulnerability watching that scene as my ache for the children of the world to know the kind of love that puts an end to war was exposed.
So if what the angel told the shepherds is true, that love found in human form, love found in our frailty and vulnerability is what gives us the power to create a world full of peace and goodwill, then no wonder those who clothe themselves with a tough exterior like the shepherds would quiver in their boots upon hearing this news. This is the kind of love that makes us realize just how much we need each other and beyond that just how much we need Emmanuel, God who is with us in our darkest hours.
If we are daring enough to the let the light of this love shine upon us we will have to allow ourselves, like the shepherds to have our hard shells broken open, so love can pour into our hearts and we like them can become messengers of love to our fear filled and hurting world.
No wonder the sign the angel pointed towards, the place where love is born was not found in the glory shining all around the shepherds, it was found in the feeding trough in the barn, in the company of two young people who appear to be homeless and who in another version of this story will soon be refugees, in a town called Bethlehem, there amongst the rubble of a foreign occupied territory, in a place we have to bend down low and face our humanity to see.
May the light shine in the darkness of our world and in the shadowed corners of our own lives this year. May we know great love and deep and abiding peace.