The beloved author Frederick Buechner tells the story about a Christmas pageant a friend of his took part in as the rector of an Episcopal church. Buechner writes:
The manger was down in front at the chancel steps where it always is. Mary was there in a blue mantle and Joseph in a cotton beard. The wise men were there with a handful of shepherds, and of course in the midst of them all, the Christ child was there, lying in the straw. The nativity story was read aloud by my friend with carols sung at the appropriate places, and all went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host, as represented by the children of the congregation, who were robed in white and scattered throughout the pews with their parents.
At the right moment they were supposed to come forward and gather around the manger..., and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a [little] girl...who was smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoe could she see what was going on. 'Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men,' they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, 'Let Jesus show!'
At Christmas time, we too want to let Jesus show -- in our church, in our community, in our lives. Christ is born! Joy to the world! The Lord is come. And we are grateful.
The nativity story from Luke 2 is so well known to us, we probably could recite it. But because of that, we may also gloss right over the terror and amazement and glorious joy in it. After all, you and I live in relative comfort and ease. But if we put ourselves with the shepherds on that night, we may experience something very different than the warm safety and rich beauty we experience here in this church and in our homes. Because at the time Jesus was born, shepherds were among the dirtiest, loneliest, most avoided people around.
The American Bible Society tells us that keeping herds of animals like sheep and goats was a common occupation throughout the many generations of life with the people of Israel. Early on, these herders were wandering nomads. They lived in tents and owned very little personal property. They moved from place to place in search of food and water for their flocks. They survived by eating and drinking the meat, milk, and cheese their flocks provided, and they used the animals' wool and skins to cover themselves and make their tents.
Closer to Jesus' time, as urban life became more developed, shepherds may have also lived in or near villages. They had the right to let their flocks feed in pastures outside the villages. Landowners and farmers would often hire the shepherds to help with their harvests, so shepherds were migrant farm workers.
The life of a shepherd was not easy. They spent most of their time outside watching their herds, no matter what the weather was, and the temperatures could be extreme. Usually they'd sleep near their flock to protect the sheep from thieves or wild animals.
Shepherds had tools that could also be used as weapons -- a staff to ward off enemies, a crook to rescue a stray sheep. They worked in teams, keeping watches at night, taking turns. Sometimes they'd play a flute to dispel the boredom. It was a lonely, raw, hard life -- among the lowest levels of society. Shepherds just weren't admired in Bible times.
They're even called loathsome or abhorrent in Genesis 46:34. In fact, people then often believed that being a shepherd was a punishment of God for their ancestors' unfaithfulness (Numbers 14:33).
Commentator William Barclay points out that the orthodox good people of the time despised shepherds, because they lived rather dirty lives, and couldn't follow all the details of the ceremonial law. They were unclean. They couldn't observe all the meticulous hand washings, rules, and regulations of the law. They were too busy dealing with their filthy flocks. So the righteous looked down on shepherds as very common folk who should be avoided.
And yet... here they are, front and center in the Christmas story. Here they are, the first people beyond Jesus' own parents to be told of this glorious news. The filthy, lonely, hard-working, loathsome shepherds living in the fields with a bunch of dirty animals -- God wants them to hear the good news. God wants to let Jesus show to them first.
It is a quiet night, they are watching their flocks, making sure all are together and safe. Then boom! An angel of the Lord stands before them. And when the shepherds see the bright glory of God that accompanies the angel, they experience a healthy, holy fear -- the fear of almighty God. Certainly they had never seen anything like this before.
The angel tells them, do not be afraid. It's good news! It's great joy! For all the people -- including you shepherds! Today a child is born who will be the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. Now, these are simple shepherds -- they probably have no idea of the theological import of all this, what these names mean. All they needed to know, and maybe all we need to know, is that God has done something glorious and amazing -- and it's good news of great joy for all of us. Let Jesus show!
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God..." I love that word "suddenly" there. It's almost as if the praise of God could not be contained in heaven --it bursts out in the midst of these simple, rough shepherds, as the whole heavenly host sings "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace...."!
Who knows how long this glorious heavenly anthem rings. I'm sure it echoed in the hearts of the shepherds forever. And after the angels leave them, returning to heaven, the shepherds say to each other, "Let's go see this thing!"
And they go with haste and find Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they see this, they make known what had been told them about this child; and all who hear it are amazed. And then it's back to work for the shepherds. And yet they would never be the same again.
God's good news is for everyone. For working-class, even impoverished shepherds possessing virtually nothing, and later for majestic magi possessing wealth, power and prestige. And God's good news is for you and me.
I wonder what happened to the shepherds after this night. Obviously they were changed. But they still had their work to do. Their position in society didn't change. But I'll bet they told everyone they could about their glorious experience. And they continue to bear witness through this story in Luke 2, year after year. They continue to let Jesus show.
You and I have probably never seen an angel stand before us, we haven't heard heavenly angels sing praise to God. Or maybe we have and didn't even realize it. Nevertheless, we have been given the good news. Jesus has come, our Savior, our Messiah, our Lord. After the holidays, when you get back to your routine, whether it involves shepherding sheep or not, how will this reality change your life? Who will you tell about it? Who will see this Jesus in the way you live your life?
In Frederick Buechner's story, after the little girl cried out, "Let Jesus show," he writes, "There was a lot of the service still to go, but my friend the rector said that one of the best things he ever did in his life was to end everything precisely there. 'Let Jesus show!' the child cried out, and while the congregation was still sitting in stunned silence, he pronounced the benediction, and everybody filed out of the church with those unforgettable words ringing in their ears."
"Let Jesus show!"
American Bible Society: BibleResources.americanbiblesociety.org/node/1002
James Wilson, www.freshministry.org/121502.html
Frederick Buechner, "Let It Show," from Sermon Illustrations at his website, http://frederickbuechner.org/