Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Shepherds

This Sunday is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and the focus will be on the shepherds who heard the Good News from the angels and then hurried to Bethlehem to see the Christ child. The title of my sermon is “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Shepherds” (with apologies to Willie Nelson). R. Alan Culpepper writes in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Luke,

“Shepherding was a despised occupation at the time [of Jesus’ birth]. Although the reference to shepherds evokes a positive, pastoral image for the modern reader and underscores Jesus’ association with the line of David, in the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ land.” The Rev. Brian Stoffregen writes on his biblical commentary blog, Crossmarks, “In a Christmas Day sermon I described the shepherds”:

They are people whom we wouldn’t expect to be worshiping Jesus. Because of their jobs, shepherds normally didn’t make it to the Temple worship services. They didn’t practice sabbath day observances. They were seen as ignorant, irreligious, immoral, crude and vulgar Jews – and they smelled bad, too. I would guess that we wouldn’t like anyone to describe our church members using those kinds of words: ignorant, irreligious, immoral, crude and vulgar. Those aren’t words you use to describe good, Christian people.

Stoffregen continues “A member reminded me every Christmas afterwards that I had ruined Christmas for her with the comment about smelly shepherds. What would we expect from men who slept in the fields with sheep and without showers?”

I’m hoping I won’t ruin your Fourth Sunday in Advent with visions of smelly shepherds, but we will take a look at the shepherds who were, scripture tell us, the first people other than Mary and Joseph to see the Christ child. I think God is sending a fairly powerful message right there. For many people, the shepherds were not just physically unclean, they were religiously unclean as well, as they were unlikely to observe the various “purity laws” in effect at the time. Seen as unclean by many, God gives them the gift of being the first to see—and proclaim!—the wonderful birth.

We’ll be singing some good Christmas carols on Sunday as we journey that much closer to the joy of Christ’s birth.

Joseph, Journeyman Carpenter

This week in worship we’ll turn our attention to Joseph with our scripture lesson from Matthew 1:18-25, which describes the culturally delicate situation Joseph finds himself in as he learns that Mary is pregnant, and he knows for sure that he isn’t the father. Even before he has angel visit him in a dream with the usual assurance of “do not fear”, Joseph shows us who he is: a just and righteous man who did not want to bring the full force of the religious law against Mary. After the angel’s visit, Joseph “doubles down” on his sense of justice and righteousness and continues to do the right thing. 

Through it all, Matthew doesn’t record any words that Joseph spoke, nor does he speak anywhere else in the Bible. Our Christmas pageants routinely have him pleading with the innkeeper for a place to stay in Bethlehem, but that doesn’t appear in the Bible. All we have in the Bible is the record of Joseph’s actions, which as the saying goes, speak louder than words. The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey, a Presbyterian Missionary to the Middle East and a biblical scholar, writes, “Obviously, Joseph exhibits a definition of ‘justice/righteousness’ that goes beyond the common understanding of any age. The just person is here not one who supports a strict and impartial observance of the law. Rather, the just person is defined as one who has compassion for the weak and the downtrodden.”

To put it bluntly, Mary had virtually no rights in this situation and could have been subjected to very severe punishment by village elders. Joseph does the compassionate, just and loving thing, and the rest is history.

Joseph is often pictured as being a whole lot older than Mary, who was likely a teenager. While it is certain that he was older, it’s not clear that he was decades older, as he is sometimes portrayed in art works, almost as a Father figure not just to Jesus but also to Mary. Our bulletin cover will show what I feel is a more “real life” portrayal of Joseph.

The Real St. Nicholas

This week, our candle will help us remember another disciple, Saint. Nicholas–The Real St. Nicholas, who was born in the third century A.D. and who died on December 6, A.D. 343. Born of wealthy parents, he took seriously Jesus’ command to “sell all you have and give it to the poor”, and he had a passion for the just treatment of all. Over the centuries, Saint Nicholas has morphed/transformed/mutated into jolly old St. Nick or Santa Claus, who bears little resemblance to the pictures of a thinner, gaunt, ascetic Saint Nicholas. In some Christian traditions he is still honored on St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. which has the advantage of keeping his memory alive apart from much of the “Winter Festival” and commercialism that abounds in the more secular celebrations of Christmas. 

A website dedicated to Saint Nicholas tells us, “as a bishop, Nicholas, servant of God, was first and foremost a shepherd of the people, caring for their needs. His active pursuit of justice for his people was demonstrated when he secured grain in time of famine, saved the lives of three men wrongly condemned, and secured lower taxes for the city of Myra. He taught the Gospel simply, so ordinary people understood, and he lived out his faith and devotion to God in helping the poor and all in need” (www.stnicholascenter.org)

Our scripture lesson will be taken from the Letter of James, with its famous passages, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?…….faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Mary: Jesus’ First Disciple

The sermon this week is drawn from Luke 1: 26-38, the angel Gabriel’s visit with Mary, and the sermon is entitled “Mary: Jesus’ First Disciple”. Mary’s faith in saying “Let it be to me according to your word”, and Mary’s faithfulness that took her to the foot of the cross and beyond demonstrate that she had an important role to play in Jesus’ ministry and the work of the early Christian church.

To get to the “real Mary”, we do have to cut through a lot of layers and traditions and some beliefs about Mary to understand who she was in her first century context. Sister Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.N., a Roman Catholic nun and biblical scholar, tells us that “it is reasonable to assume that Mary, with her husband Joseph, practiced the Jewish religion in their home, following Torah, observing Sabbath and the festivals, reciting prayers, lighting candles and going to synagogue. . .[After Jesus’ death and resurrection] Mary was a Jewish Christian–the earliest kind of Christian there was. She was never a Roman Christian, never a Gentile at all. So it does no honor to her memory to bleach her of her Jewishness. We’ve done this ethnically by turning her swarthy Jewish complexion into fair skin and blond hair and blue eyes. But we’ve also done this religiously by turning her deeply rooted Jewish piety into that of a latter-day Catholic”.

The first candle we light in the Advent Wreath will be in honor of Mary, and the light that her faith brought into the world.

Community Christmas Sing-a-long

Friday, December 5, 2014
Burlington Presbyterian Church
7 – 8 pm

Do you love Christmas music? Do find yourself humming along under your breath as you shop? Come sing loud and clear with us on Friday, as we work our way through traditional and religious Christmas songs together. The young and the old are all welcome to come and sing. We’ll be accompanied by a medley of instrumentalists, and our singing will be followed up with cookies and snacks! No religious affiliation is needed – your presence is welcome and wanted.

Mike’s Musings

The great Lutheran preacher Edmund Steimle gives us the following bit of history (and I completely understand how it can happen, having lived in Baltimore, Maryland, where a number of locals spoke of it as Bawlmer, Merrlin):

In England at the beginning of the 15th century, the members of the Roman Catholic Order of the Star of Bethlehem began to take in some patients, and in time their efforts became the Bethlehem Hospital in London—the first lunatic asylum, as they called it back then. Over the years, Bethlehem became shortened and slurred into Bedlam and “Bedlam” became the name for any lunatic asylum and eventually it entered the language as a name for any wild uproar and confusion. From Bethlehem to Bedlam.

As I write this three days before Black Friday, and with however many shopping days until Christmas, I think you know where I’m going with this: are we going to Bethlehem—to the manger and to Jesus—or are we going to Bedlam, that is, are we going crazy? Are we going to use the season of Advent as a time of patient waiting, prayer, reflection, and family time together, or are we going to jump on the express train to Bedlam?

The concern over the nature of our Christmas celebration is not a new one; in the 1700’s, Benjamin Franklin observed: “O how many observe Christ’s birthday, how few his precepts. It’s easier to observe holidays than commandments”.

Even earlier, Puritans in America were shocked and appalled by what the holiday had become. You know H.L. Mencken’s definition of a Puritan, don’t you? A Puritan is someone who is upset that somewhere, somehow, someone else is having a good time. In the 1600’s, Puritan William Prynne thundered from the pulpit, “Into what a stupendous height of more than pagan impiety have we now degenerated. Christmas ought to be a day of mourning more than rejoicing, not a time spent in amorous mixt (sic), voluptuous, unchristian, dare I say pagan dancing, to God and Christ’s dishonour, religion’s scandal, charitie’s shipwrecke and sinne’s advantage”. Puritans struck Christmas from the church calendar, and insisted it ought to be like any other day. They wanted to avoid any appearance of celebrating a “papish” or Catholic, holiday. Puritans treated Christmas like any other day; they saw no word in the Bible that called believers to a special celebration.

To paraphrase a bumper sticker posted in my office window, “Tough Season? We’re Open on Sunday”. During Advent, my sermons will be focusing on participants in the “First Christmas”: “Mary: Jesus’ First Disciple”, “Joseph: Journeyman Carpenter” and “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Shepherds.” I’ll also take a look at a later addition to the festivities: “The Real St. Nicholas”. And on Christmas Eve, we will remember the story of Jesus’ birth through the Tableaux.

I’ll see you in church!

The Peace of the Lord be with you,

Mike