Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin the new year with the book of Numbers (the 4th book of the Bible). God ordered Moses to bless the Israelites, telling them that the Lord will bless and keep you, he will let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. Luke’s Gospel continues last week’s reading. Here the shepherds who were told of Jesus came to Bethlehem and paid homage to Jesus. On his eighth day Jesus was circumcised.
Many years ago a radio celebrity named Paul Harvey (famous for his phrase: “And now you know the rest of the story”) would tell a story each Christmas that he called “The Man and His Birds.” He described a man who, alone in his home, began to hear thumps on the side of his home during a blizzard. On investigating, he saw that a flock of birds flew into the blizzard, became disoriented, and flew into the side of this man’s house. This man became distressed over their fate and opened his barn in the hopes that the birds would find safe haven in his barn. But the birds did not recognize his benevolence and instead refused his generosity out of fear of him.
The man recognized their fear, and despite his efforts to entice them with light, or food, or leadership, they did not find safety in the barn. Despite their desperation the birds looked on this man with fear and didn’t recognize that their safety led through him.
Only then did the man understand that his only path to saving the birds from freezing to death was something he could not do: become one of the birds. If only he could fuse his knowledge that the barn could save them with the body of a bird, he could save them. If he became a bird with his knowledge of the barn, then perhaps he could save them. Indeed, only that would save them.
It’s not a stretch to see the parallels with Jesus, whose birth we celebrated last week. Our readings today continue the scene we read about last week.
Last week we saw that angels visited shepherds who watched over their flocks. Today those same shepherds left their flocks and visited the newborn baby.
We read this account over 2,000 years later and we can find it easy to sanitize these events. Countless accounts, paintings, and nativity sets show an angelic scene where Joseph and Mary look lovingly on a cradle with a child who appears much older than a newborn. Nearby well groomed shepherds genuflect or bow to this infant.
But none of this makes any sense in history. Mary and Joseph huddled in a barn. Jesus’ cradle was a feeding trough. And shepherds lived on the fringes of society.
Those of us who don’t spend time with sheep can easily assume they’re cute (and many of us agree they are delicious). In reality they smell bad and are just plain stupid. They are herd animals and tend to stay together for protection but an individual sheep who wanders off is hardly rare. The hard work of the shepherd results from this: keeping the sheep together is a 24 hour job required the shepherds to take turns.
Because of this they were not able to observe the Sabbath and were (literally and figuratively) on the edges of society. And so this angelic scene that we see in nativity sets and Christmas cards is really quite different: A homeless, unwed couple with an illegitimate child are visited by people who were seen by many as outcasts.
And yet, it on this scene that our Redemption story begins. While Joseph and the shepherds faded away pretty quickly after this scene, Mary takes her place as revered among Christians, and this baby grows up to grant all of us the gift of eternal life.
And if I have a bone to pick with Paul Harvey’s parable it’s this: if he were able to take the form of a bird he would also take a place of authority. He would have announced to the rest of the birds that they need to come this way for their own protection.
And yet when God decided to do the same thing for us, Jesus didn’t come with great power and authority. Instead he crashed into our world almost imperceptibly. Why did he do this? Certainly if had come, fully formed, from the sky, into the Roman Senate more people would have believed him.
But if he started at the top I’m not certain those at the bottom would have ever been included. I fear salvation would have been seen through the eyes of exclusion. By beginning his message at the bottom it allowed salvation to seep up instead of seeping down.
Now there is a down side to this. Those at the top (wealth, popularity, social standing, etc.) have in tried many ways to make salvation exclusive to them, and conversely there are those who advocate for the poor who claim the wealthy are excluded from the Kingdom.
But these stories are for all of us. As a people we tend to show more respect to the wealthy, the intelligent, the beautiful while sheepishly admitting that’s really unfair. But when our Savior was born at that time, in that place, surrounded by those people he made a strong statement: nowhere is beyond salvation, and nobody is excluded.