This night is a story about praising God. This is not something I did as a child; praise, divine or otherwise, was never part of my vocabulary. I became a Christian and an Episcopalian all at the same time, in New England where all was prim and proper even in the dark, dusty, leaky, artsy church where I found God. I attended that church once or twice a year for several years before venturing back on a Sunday morning. It was there that I first heard Mary’s “yes” to God with us, the shepherds’ “yes” to God made flesh. Those yeses emboldened my own “yes,” at that church most appropriately named “Emmanuel.”
I’ve led a sheltered life, and am not sure I even knew what a praise song was until thirteen years ago when I was a volunteer chaplain at a weeklong church camp. There I heard the same two or three songs about a hundred and seventy two times, and yet…I think we don’t praise God nearly enough.
Tonight’s story is a story about praising God. The true praise song is the one we sing tonight, the story we know by heart and love to hear, and the story we tell with our lives when we leave this place.
The story begins, as so many do, in those days.
In those days—those days when Quirinius is governor of Syria and Octavius Augustus is emperor of the world—a decree goes out from Emperor Augustus that all the world shall be registered, so they might be taxed, because tax is the only way the emperor hears praise, his love language.
In those days Joseph travels from the town of Nazareth with his beloved, Mary, to the town of his ancestors, a journey just shy of a hundred miles. No sooner do they arrive in the City of David than Mary births their firstborn son, Mary who is to become the mother of a great multitude, the mother of all things, the mother of us all. Mary who knows how to praise God better than anyone, Mary whose very soul praises God and sings about God’s presence and God’s promise to the poor and outcast, the lowly and the hungry. Mary who treasures and ponders power and mercy, Mary whose very life—even with its unfathomable loss—is a story about praising God.
Nearby, who knows where, but somewhere under Bethlehem’s sky, there are shepherds, not Good Shepherds like Jesus or stand-in-for-God poet-shepherds like David, but shepherds real and raw, shepherds who have not yet become who they will become. They are the outdoor-dwellers no one likes, tough guys who don’t fit in anywhere, who smell like the earth, and all that the sheep return to the earth.
Who knows what the Angel of the Lord looked like? Maybe the shepherds see the Angel surrounded by God’s glory, in Hebrew, Shekinah, God’s shimmering, shining, indwelling presence out there in that field, under the stars, under the one star that magically overhung the City of David. Beautiful, surely, so beautiful as to be terrifying. The Angel says to them what his brother or sister angels have said so many times before to so many people: fear not. Do not be afraid, even in these times filled with loneliness, darkness, startlingly bad news, governor-henchmen and hatchet-wielding emperors who care for nothing but their soldiers and their taxes.
Do not be afraid—listen! Look! I am bringing you Good News of great joy for all people. A birth announcement, yes, but not the imperial kind you’re used to. Good News with a capital G and a capital N. Even you, out here in desolation-land (says the Angel to the shepherds). Even you who have been trampled underfoot by boots of oppression, boots of self-loathing, boots of anxiety, boots of poverty, boots of every hunger and every hurt. And if it’s good news for you, it’s good news. The Messiah has been born, the Messiah you heard about in the synagogue, the Messiah who binds up the brokenhearted and proclaims liberty to the captives and release to all kinds of prisoners.
Here it is! Here is the glory you’ve been waiting for, the news we’ve all been waiting for, says the angel. Go see for yourselves. Go, and tell. Do not be afraid to be bearers of Good News in the face of fear and injustice. Do not be afraid to speak the truth.
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 for all God favors!" And, as we like to say in our tradition, “All means all.”
The heavenly host hovers somewhere between earth and eternity singing a praise song that makes the shepherds remember the other praise songs they know, songs of anticipation, hope, freedom, songs about rejoicing in heaven, gladness on earth, rollicking oceans and shepherds’ fields full of joy.
In those days and on that night, as excitement eclipses fear, the shepherds go to see this Good News, this bundle of joy. Warm with courage, they make their way through the fields to the village, humming as they go, a tune they’ve never heard before. Maybe it’s Psalm 96. Maybe it’s “Joy to the World.” Their steps quicken as they get closer, and suddenly they’re there, with Joseph, Mary, and the baby wrapped in bands of cloth, the trappings of humanity which, thirty years later, he’ll shed on Easter morning.
They are quiet at first, and then they begin to talk in their rough, halting way, their words their own praise song. The Angel told us about you, about this, your baby, the Messiah. We’re happy. We’re surprised that we’re even here. We don’t know if they’ll listen to the likes of us, but we want to tell everyone we know. Then, there are others listening wide-eyed and all ears. They murmur to each other: This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is what we’ve longed for.
Mary adds these words to the treasure-chest in her heart. The shepherds are propelled by all they have seen and heard to go out into the world in a new way, new people with newborn hope.
* * *
And what of us? It is easier, perhaps, to imagine the shepherds going out from Bethlehem back into their daily lives as new people, God with them, than to imagine ourselves millennia later, leaving this place with something new to say, someone new to be. And yet our story, too, is about praising God. Our story, too, is about being called to witness God’s becoming flesh and to celebrate God’s presence in our own flesh and in the spaces between us. Our story, too, is about being not afraid, about God with us and within us, this night and always. Our story is about praising God.