The Third Sunday of Advent – The Shepherd’s Joy
Luke 2:8 – 15
- Prelude – “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” and “Angels We Hae Heard on High,” traditional carols; Carlos Xavier, flute
- Welcome – Pastor Brad Beeman
- Hymn 240 -: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” by Charles Wesley and Felix Mendelssohn; Bill and Lynnette Baughman, hymn leaders; Donna Grubbs, piano; Pauline Olsen, organ
- Advent lighting – Linda Jarvi, Ely Springer
- Prayer time – Deacon Kathleen Charters
- Special music – “Pat-a-Pan” and “Il Est Ne”, arr. by Brant Adams; Carlos Xavier, flute, Donna Grubbs, piano
- Scripture reading – Luke 2:8-15; Marsha Chatfield
- Advent drama – The shepherds; Margaret Cox, Jim Stoffer, Harry Stayner
- Sermon – Third Sunday in Advent – Joy; Brad Beeman
- Hymn 2096 – “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” African spiritual; Bill and Lynnette Baughman, hymn leaders; Donna Grubbs, piano; Pauline Olsen, organ
- Sung Benediction – Hymn 206, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” by Kathleen Thomerson; Bill and Lynnette Baughman, hymn leaders; Donna Grubbs, piano; Pauline Olsen, organ
- Postlude – “Shepherds’ Farewell,” by Hector Berlioz; Pauline Olsen, organ
I was walking through Douglas Park in Santa Monica on a Sunday afternoon. Now, just to offer some context to this story, Santa Monica had a population of 96,000 people. It also had a homeless population of 19,000. That is no exaggeration and no joke. I was privileged to be a part of multiple homeless task forces for the city and county. The homeless literally flocked to Santa Monica. It was almost always warm. There were always showers available at the multiple beaches. There were coordinated services that dealt with every aspect of homelessness; physical, spiritual, and emotional.
Every park in Santa Monica was open to the homeless for sleeping. Every park had bathroom facilities that were open 24 / 7. The homeless were as much a part of the community as TV and movie stars. I would consistently walk through the parks to check in with homeless folks I knew, just to make sure they had what they needed. I knew where they slept, ate, felt safe, and felt unsafe. Douglas Park was less than two blocks from our home, and was on the famous Wilshire Blvd. It was a wonderful park for families, particularly children. The children and families had gotten used to having people in sleeping bags around. It was just a part of life. Yet, on this Sunday afternoon, there was something different.
As I walked by one of the duck ponds, a heard a voice in the bushes telling something to go away. They seemed terrified. They were hidden deep in the reeds just at the water’s edge. I approached slowly. I told the imagined perpetrators to leave him alone and that I would beat them back if necessary. I called out to the man and asked if I could come into his home. I let him know who I was, even what I was and that I was not out to get him.
You see, about 70% of the homeless in that part of California were paranoid schizophrenics. They saw things no one else could see. They were constantly under attack from a multitude of sources. They trusted no one. To gain their trust was immensely difficult.
I asked his name and shared that it didn’t have to be his real name. There was a lot of silence. I shared that I wasn’t looking for him; that I was walking through the park as I did every Sunday afternoon. I shared briefly about Tom over there, and Jimmy over there, and Larry on the other side of the pond and my relationships with each of them. I shared that my goal was to protect him…that I would protect him even if it put me in danger. He had me look around to see if “they” were still there. I shared, “All I can tell you is that I don’t see them, any of them.”
I heard a rustling in the reeds and then he came partway out. He looked around with a kind of panicky examination of the surroundings, and realized that he was not under attack. He thanked me. I shared that it wasn’t just me. It was the two of us working together and that I believed God wanted to protect him as well. I had my clerical collar on so he asked, “Are you a pastor,” he asked? “Yes,” I shared.
He smiled. Then he asked me the strangest of questions. “Are they real,” he asked? I asked, “Are they real to you?” “Yes,” he said. Then they are real. He smiled again and moved further out of the bushes. The smell emanating from him was almost overwhelming. I did everything I could not to react. He was watching for that. After a while, he shared his name. It was Norm. It was his real name. Once he felt safe he began to share more and more of his story. He had been married. He had two grown children. He hadn’t seen any of them for a very long time. He had been a tenured professor at Cal Tech where he taught astrophysics at the graduate level. He had won awards and had been recognized as one of the top professors in the world. He then gave me his last name. Then he told me the rest of his story. It was heartbreaking as his incredible brain began to turn on him. Over time he became more and more aware of his fears. He found himself turning toward another personality, one that would protect him.
He would often argue with that other part of him, sometimes out in the open. He knew the looks. He recognized the fears. But he couldn’t differentiate between what was real and what wasn’t. His fears grew deeper, his anguish more pronounced, and his belief that he was under constant attack became overwhelming. As we got to know each other, I could recognize which side of him I was talking to. There is a lot more to this story, but I share all of that because of what we’re focused on this Sunday.
Last Sunday I talked about Mary and a little bit about Joseph. They should never, ever have been a part of any story related to a savior or Messiah…ever…never. They were the wrong kind of people from the wrong place with the wrong approach to their faith, and didn’t fit what Israel was looking for. They had the wrong lineage, weren’t priestly, and certainly weren’t royalty. Everything about them was wrong. And if that wasn’t enough, we have to then come to this day. If Mary and Joseph were wrong, we then have a whole other population that was even more wrong. They were shepherds.
In as much as I shared about our seeming need to make this Christmas story into some kind of gentle and wonderful pageant, and I’ve shared just how wrong that is, today takes it even further. These shepherds were not the gentle people we seem to sing about, or even visualize in our Christmas stories or on our Christmas cards. The shepherds were filthy, among the smelliest parts of humanity. They didn’t bathe – ever. They didn’t use bathrooms or even latrines. They had one set of clothes and wore them until they fell apart. They were thieves, never to be trusted. They were not religious at all. They were hired by flock owners who didn’t have the time to tend their own sheep. Flock owners knew they would lose around 20% of their flock to shepherd theft and to fulfill the shepherds’ need for food and clothing.
The sheep provided both. During the offseason, shepherds lived in caves or hastily built shacks in places where no one else would go. They would find places around ditches where water would run during the rainy season.
Here’s an example of what an old shepherd looked like. The picture was first thought to be a woman, only to then realize that it’s an old man. What you see is everything he owned.
These were the lowest of the low. They avoided cities and towns. Cities and towns didn’t want to have anything to do with them. When they had to go into towns, the looks they received were scorching, judgmental, and scornful – as were the words they would hear. It was simply awful to be living the life of a shepherd, very much like a paranoid schizophrenic who is filthy, talks to himself, sees someone who isn’t there, and who stinks in a way that would make you throw up. But God chose them, these shepherds. Now think about that for just a minute. They were the first to receive the news that the savior had been born. They were the ones who, unlike any others, had the heavens open up to them and were the first “Good News” receivers. I mean, how bazaar is that? But God chose them…yup, chose them.
It would be like Norm being the first to receive the news. No one believed that God would choose this group of shepherds. But God did. And in that group came an overwhelming sense of joy and wonderment. And now, with this part of the story, we really deal with light; overwhelming, frightening, illuminating, even blinding light. It was heavenly light, holy light, unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. The heavens literally opened up so that the reality of the news could be seen and felt. It was done so that the gravity of the hope could be revealed…but to the shepherds? But like I said about Mary last week, if God can choose shepherds then God could choose even us, any one of us…any of us, even all of us.
As I was preparing this message, I kept trying to figure out who, in today’s terms, would be like the shepherds. Who comes to mind when we think of filth, or when we think of abject poverty combined with overwhelming mistrust? Who comes to mind when are looking for the epitome of disgusting? That’s when I thought of Norm. So many would see him in a different light; as dangerous, disconcerting, and filthy. They would see him as unapproachable. But as I shared with him, that’s not how God sees him. God sees him as one of his children, a part of God’s creation. Yes, he is one who is struggling, even suffering, but even Norm believed in a God who can make people whole, him included.
We have to ask ourselves, partially because of this part of the story, who is it we are judging, and might God see them differently than we do. So, friends, who comes to mind; and maybe, just maybe, the light of Jesus will shine on them, bring them overwhelming joy and send them the message of the angels, “For on this night in the city of Bethlehem a child is born…Emmanuel, God with us.” God chose the shepherds, and they listened and followed. You think their lives were changed? I can assure you, they were forever changed. Because of the light that shone that night, our lives can change, and become more than we ever thought or imagined. Again, if it can happen for shepherds, it can happen for us.
But, theirs weren’t the only lives changed by this baby. Next week we’ll explore another set of totally unexpected guests, for now, let’s pray…