Our Capacity for Astonishment

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
   and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Every time my phone rings, I answer it with suspicion—unsure if it will be a church member or the veterinary office calling me, or if it will be yet another scam call. Normally, it is easy to tell the two apart. But sometimes, sometimes I’m not sure.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I get a lot of scam calls. Sometimes it is quiet, but other times it feels like my phone won’t stop ringing with different scams. I’ve been warned so many times that the CRA has found suspicious activity on my social insurance number or that Border Services has intercepted a package addressed to me containing illegal items that I wonder what kind of person the scammers think that I am.

But last week I was here at the church when my phone rang. My phone screen claimed that the call was from my mobile provider, so I answered the call. On the other side was a gentleman who wanted to speak with me about my cell service to see if I was happy with it and whether there might be an opportunity for savings with my plan. We talked for a couple of minutes until I could find an excuse to get off the call. When I finally hung up, it was with a troubled feeling, because I couldn’t tell if this was a legitimate call or a scam. I wasn’t sure if I had just dodged a more elaborate scam than the usual robotic voice recording, or if I had just hung up on the good news that I could be paying less on my monthly cell phone bill.

I just couldn’t tell.

And I find myself thinking about the shepherds. In the dark fields they sat, keeping watch over the sheep as they peacefully slept. When, suddenly, an angel appeared to them bearing miraculous and joyful news that the saviour was born that very night. And as the angel finished the proclamation, the sky was filled with countless angels singing praise to God.

So, at once, the shepherds went to see the child of whom the angel spoke. And when they found Mary, Joseph, and the little baby, they shared their astonishing encounter with the angels and what had been spoken concerning the infant. All were astonished at what the shepherds told them, and as they returned to their fields, they did not stop praising God with song.

Or at least, that is how we most often like to imagine the shepherds when we tell their story at Christmas. It is the version of the story that we reserve for children’s pageants and holiday cards. I’m not sure that is quite how it went down.

No, I think that it was more like this, that in the dark places on the edge of society, the shepherds sat with the animals and one another as their only company—unwelcomed, unwanted, unappreciated. To pass the time, they told stories, some of them quite bawdy, and passed around the bottle. When, suddenly, the heavens erupted around them with angels in a cacophony of sound and light, knocking whatever sense of balance that the shepherds still had out from under them. Even more astonishing than the appearance of angels was the message they bore, that the long-awaited messiah was born that very night. When the angels vanished, the shepherds stumbled to their feet and took off as fast as they could through the fields, tripping over rock and sheep and foot alike.

Mary and Joseph were exhausted after the birth of their child. Suddenly, the door erupted with shepherds in a cacophony of noise and the mingled scents of sweat, and animal, and drink. Even more astonishing than the sudden apparition of these unclean—and most likely unwelcomed—guests, was the news they bore. Shouting over one another, they spoke of angels appearing to them in the sky. Then the shepherds told Mary and Joseph that they knew who their child was, that they knew that the one she held in her arms was the Messiah, the Lord.

Mary and Joseph were astonished by what the shepherds spoke, indeed by their very presence. When the shepherds departed, their rowdy shouts and proclamations echoing down the street as they went, the people they encountered on the way were equally astonished and suddenly taken with the need to be going in the opposite direction.

I find myself thinking of the shepherds, and I wonder if I would believe them if I had encountered them myself. Would you believe them if they crossed your path, shouting their miraculous news?

We like to imagine that we would believe. We like to imagine that were we confronted with angelic song, humble shepherds, fluffy lambs, and Mary mild holding baby Jesus in her arms, that we would be filled with astonishment and awe. We like to imagine that we would believe.

But I struggle to believe that it is actually my cell phone company on the line with me when they call. Confronted by the claim that they want to lower my bill, I turn away and hang up in disbelief.

Would any of us believe their message if we encountered the shepherds as they actually were, not fit for Hallmark Cards, but dirty, smelly, loud, and perhaps a bit drunk? It would be like the heavenly host appearing on the sidewalks and dark alleyways of the Downtown East Side to the people huddled there for warmth. When the glorious message is then proclaimed street corners, medians, the stoops under store awnings, would any of us stand a chance to hear their message, or would we scowl and turn away?

And what does it mean that God reveals this astonishing news to the outcasts of our world? What does it mean that God entrusts the proclamation that God’s promise is at last fulfilled to the very people who are least likely to be believed?

It is almost as if God’s message sounds like foolishness to the wise. It is almost as if the message that the angels bring is meant for the shepherds in the field, for the people who needed to hear the Good News the most.

The angels did not appear to the priests in the temple, and they are unlikely to appear to the clergy in the churches. And Jesus was not born the son of a king or governor, and Christ is unlikely to be born the child of a politician. Indeed, it was the religious leaders and the rulers of the land that would see to it that Jesus was put to death, for they had the most to lose by who he was and the message he proclaimed. But that is another story for another day.

The angels appeared the shepherds, some of the lowest members of society. And Jesus was born to a faithful, but perfectly ordinary and unremarkable couple. Because the Good News is proclaimed to those who do not have the privilege to doubt its message, God steps into the world amongst those whose hope is God, and the Messiah brings not battle and military conquest, but healing and wholeness to all who are broken.

My friends, this is a hard Christmas, I know. The latest news of the COVID variant is scary and I know that I am depressed to be in the position we find ourselves in after we have all worked so hard and for so long to be safe and responsible. Perhaps you are too. The reality of another holiday spent apart from family, the scramble to cancel trips and scuttle plans for gatherings with friends and loved ones sits heavily in our hearts.

And all of that is layered on top of everything else that we’ve lost in the last two years. The weddings we’ve been unable to celebrate, the births we’ve missed and only seen from afar, the deaths we’ve been unable to grieve with the ones we love the most. It’s not just the big things either, it’s the little things too—conversations over a cup of coffee, meals shared together, the hug of a friend.

I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way. I see it etched on the faces of the people around me. I hear it in the silence pauses between words spoken. We are hurting. We are broken. We are longing for hope.

So, this Christmas, I want to offer you the only thing I can—that God loves you more than you can possibly imagine and that you are never alone, because God is with you. So open your hearts and loosen the armour of suspicion, for the angels are waiting for you, perhaps just around the next corner, to erupt in an cacophony the astonishing message that unto you this night, the Messiah, the Lord is born. May our shouts of joy and praise echo down the streets so that all the world might hear.