One of the difficulties of preaching on Luke’s version of the nativity of Christ is that it is so darn well known.
How can a preacher offer good news (with the emphasis on “new”) when the story is so central to the Christian faith and is so familiar not only to faithful Christians but also to those who attend worship only Christmas and Easter and even to the wider culture? If people do not know the story from reading their Bible, they know it from Linus’s rendition in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
It is worth saying that preachers need not necessarily highlight something new in the text to help hearers recognize and experience something new about the story in relation to their context and lives. In other words, the newness of the proclamation may come more from drawing fresh analogies between the ancient text and the contemporary world than from some new revelation about the old, old story. Preachers will do well to find imagery where people experience the surprising revelation of God being born in our midst today that is still best described as incarnation to help people celebrate and experience the nativity of so long ago.
Still, familiarity with a story should not be mistaken for mastery of that story. There may indeed be new things to learn about the text. In what follows I offer two angles into the lection, which I rarely hear in sermons and may indeed offer a new point of connection between the ancient and the contemporary for some congregations.
The first angle concerns the role of the shepherds in the story and ancient society. Too often preachers paint these shepherds in idyllic fashion with Mary and her little lamb in mind. But Luke is careful to describe the shepherds as “living in the fields” (verse 8). These shepherds are not necessarily the landowners who own the flock and the fields — those persons are asleep in the comfort of their homes. The shepherds in the text are more likely the night-shift slaves or low-paid wage earners who protect the flock at night.
The reason this notice is homiletically important is that while preachers often speak at Christmas of Christ being revealed to the simple and lowly as opposed to powerful and noteworthy, they often miss that there is a stronger socio-economic element at play in the passage. Luke, more than any other New Testament writer, portrays God/Jesus as privileging the poor. Salvation for Luke is a reversal of the social status quo. In the Magnificat, Mary prophesies concerning what God is going to do in Christ (using the past tense to describe the eschatological future),
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
The story of the epiphany of Christ’s birth to the shepherds is the first sign in the narrative that this prophecy is being fulfilled. It is not just in Jesus’ ministry that God redeems the marginalized and oppressed; it happens already in his birth, and thus is core to his very being. For Luke, Jesus’ very existence and identity is one of turning tables on the inequality of the world.
A second angle into the text that may offer preachers and congregation new perspectives is to recognize the potential connection between this story and another in Luke’s gospel. The story of the revelation of Christ’s nativity to the shepherds is unique to Luke’s gospel — Matthew’s birth story, involves magi instead of shepherds (Matthew 2); while Mark and John have no birth stories. Another story unique to Luke’s gospel is the parable of the one who leaves the ninety-nine to find the single lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). The parallels between these two stories are interesting:
These two stories serve significantly different purposes in Luke’s theological narrative and we must be careful not to draw them together in such a way to distort those differences or to make one an allegory of the other. Still, one can assume that the similarities between the two stories are there to catch the readers’ attention, especially given that the two stories are unique to Luke. Two potential interpretive and homiletical connections seem to be suggested by the similarities.
One concerns the nature of the shepherds’ movements in the two stories. Any ancient person hearing/reading the parable of the lost sheep would recognize what is sometimes missed by contemporary audiences: the shepherd acts foolishly in the story. No good business person leaves 99% of her or his inventory at risk to recover 1%. Thus the shepherds in Luke 2 should also be seen as foolishly leaving their post to follow this sign. The Nativity, the Incarnation, invites, nay empowers us, to do foolish things that result in wondrous outcomes!
A second potential homiletical connection to be drawn between the two passages is that as the parable has to do with salvation so does the Christmas story. To draw this connection in a sermon, however, is to twist the roles a bit. In the parable, the shepherd saves the sheep when it is found. In the birth story, the one in the stable saves the shepherds who find him.
Infant holy,We praise God for this day when we celebrate your miraculous birth! Transform us as you were transformed so that we may perfectly love you with our whole being, for the sake of the one who came humble and powerless, and became glory and power, Jesus Christ. Amen.
O come, all ye faithful ELW 283, H82 83, UMH 234, NCH 135Angels from the realms of glory ELW 275, H82 93, NCH 126, UMH 220Go tell it on the mountain ELW 229, H82 99, NCH 154, UMH 251, TFF 52
While shepherds watched, Hugo Jungst