Christmas II (New Year’s Day)
Returning to Our Work
15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
• Luke 2:15-21
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Happy New Year!
On the Christian calendar, today is the second Sunday in Christmastide, and so our Gospel reading this morning returns to the scene we left on Christmas. The baby is lying in the manger in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph watching over him. They get some unexpected visitors — shepherds from the countryside, who report that angels appeared to them and told them of the birth of Messiah. The shepherds are amazed at the sight, and as they leave to return to their flocks, they spread the news throughout the little town that Jesus the Messiah is born.
I have always been intrigued by one line in this story. It’s in verse 20: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
The word I find striking is “returned.” The shepherds returned. Returned where? To their flocks. To the fields where their sheep were resting. To their work. To their daily lives. Back to the ordinary workaday world of shepherds. After one of the most heavenly encounters anyone has ever had, the shepherds went back to work.
Isn’t that interesting? You might think that the experience of seeing God in the flesh, the Messiah for whom Israel had been longing, the newborn King, the Savior, the Lord, might have had a different ending.
Perhaps the shepherds could have decided to become religious celebrities. Their story was so powerful that every Christian television and radio station would have wanted them to come and tell it to their audience.
Publishing companies surely would have contacted them to write articles and books about being out there in their fields, watching over their flocks by night, when the angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were sore afraid. They would have readers breathless with awe as they told about the sound of the heavenly chorus singing glory to God. They would recount their exciting journey to Bethlehem and the wonder of seeing the Holy Family.
Perhaps these shepherds could have formed a contemporary Christian music group and made records about their experience. They could have sung dramatic arrangements of what they heard the angels sing, tender ballads of seeing the Christ-child with his mother, and exciting mission songs about spreading the good news far and wide.
Or maybe they might have decided, then and there, to take their lives in a new direction; to give up their ordinary occupations and follow religious callings. It would not have surprised me one bit if this story had ended with them showing up on the door of a monastery and applying to become devoted monks, giving the rest of their lives to contemplate the holy mystery they had seen and praying that the glory they had witnessed would fill the whole world.
Or perhaps, with this powerful message and testimony they now had, they would leave the shepherd’s life behind to become ordained preachers or evangelists. Maybe they felt that they should become missionaries, to leave their homes and travel to distant places to spread the gospel of God’s love in Christ.
This, in fact, happened to me, in fact. When I had a religious awakening as a young person, I felt that the only path that was worth giving my life to was what we called full-time ministry. I was so overwhelmed by what God had done for me that I thought the only way to adequately respond was to devote my life to ordained ministry.
However, they didn’t do that, did they? “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” The shepherds returned. These shepherds kept being shepherds. These shepherds went back to their daily work. They were transformed people because of this experience, that’s for sure, but they apparently realized that the best way for them to show God’s love and good news to the world was by going back and being the best shepherds they could be, by caring for their flocks.
As we face a new year, 2017, I think this is a wonderful message for each and every one of us. One of the reasons I later began to practice my Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition was because of what Luther taught on the subject of vocation. I came to see that all of life’s callings are sacred and that he uses all our work to glorify Christ and bring blessing to the world. Not just pastors. Not just religious professionals.
Back in Luther’s day, there was a great division in the way people thought about work. If you were extraordinarily religious and devout, you became a priest, a monk or a nun. It was seen as a higher calling. Those who pursued religious callings were considered closer to God, more honored by God; they possessed more merit and favor in the eyes of God.
Then Luther came along and blew the whole thing up. He himself was a monk, but he came to understand that all people have callings from God, and that one is not better than another, just different. The farmer, the housewife, the shoemaker, the carpenter, the shopkeeper — all are just as important and acceptable to God as the priest, the monk or the nun. Every person has the opportunity, through living out his/her God-given vocation, to bless the world, to bring God’s love and good news to the world.
God loves this world so much, and he calls all of us to care for it in an endless variety of ways. For this reason, all labor that is done with care and with loving regard for our neighbors is of equal value and, indeed, pleasing to God.
The past couple of years I have come to appreciate a concept that is well known in Judaism. It’s called Tikkun Olam, and it means “to repair the world.” The idea is that this world is broken and torn and dark in many ways, but that God created human beings to repair, mend, and restore his light to the world.
This world runs and functions because of a wondrous web of people who go about their daily work every day. God is mostly hidden, Martin Luther observed, behind all of us and the work we do. We are God’s masks, Luther said, God hides behind us, and in and through us, he accomplishes his will.
God calls all of us — including you! — to fulfill our vocations. As responsible individuals, we are called to maintain personal integrity, love and honor our families, live as good citizens for the common good, and do our daily work with a commitment to craftsmanship and for the purpose of blessing the world. We mask the common grace and goodness of God, who is behind and in and through us keeping this world turning and holding together and functioning with life and strength and skill. He does his work through our hands.
As we go forth into this new year, may we be like these shepherds. Having seen the Christ child, may we return to our daily work glorifying and praising God. May God bless the works of our hands. May he affirm to each of us that our daily work matters, that what we do accomplishes great good in this world, even when we can’t fully understand it. May we do our work well, with integrity and craftsmanship, with honesty and regard for our neighbors, so that we will plant hardy seeds of peace and righteousness that will bring forth a great harvest now and in the new creation.