Christmas B: The Shepherds Returned
Marilynne Robinson’s lyric novel Gilead is a letter turned memoir written by Rev. John Ames, a 76-year-old pastor who lived his entire life and conducted his whole ministry in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. Rev. Ames had been widowed very early on in his life but remarried finally when he was 67 years of age. His new, much younger wife, gave birth to a son a couple of years later.
As Gilead opens in the year 1956, we discover that Rev. Ames was told recently by his doctor that he would soon die of a heart condition for which nothing could be done. Ames’s son is now only seven years old. So Ames decides to write his precious boy a letter, telling him about the father he would likely never much get to know. Contained within the musings of this old pastor are insights into life and faith that will startle you with their freshness. But I mention this novel because of another motif or theme that weaves through the book–a theme that may well fit our Christmas reflections today.
Not surprisingly, Rev. Ames’s impending death has turned his mind toward thoughts about heaven. Yet the more he thinks about heaven, the more fond he grows of life right here on this earth. And the more he comes to value all over again the things of earth, the more thankful he is for the gospel promise that in the longest possible run, heaven and earth will finally be bound up with one another in what will be the renewal of all things.
Allow me to quote a typically lovely passage that illustrates this. Rev. Ames is in his upstairs study, writing to his son, when he observes the following:
I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping into the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.
Perhaps you have never before thought that the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ could be contained in a soap bubble wafting past a window pane. But the passage I just read shows that it can be. The simple dragonfly blue of that fat and wobbly bubble shimmers with the beauty of life, of this life, of this world, of this planet where in the best of circumstances little boys in red shirts can giggle themselves silly over the antics of a cat. When the gospel tells us that “God so loved the world,” this is the world God so loved. And he does not love it the less just because the incarnation of his son Jesus has also opened up a new world for us to anticipate. No, we have to assume that God loves this life, this world all the more precisely because of how his own precious Son died to redeem it.
If you look at even Luke 2 the right way, you’ll see this truth. This morning I want you to notice how utterly typical this story is. Please notice how these verses are filled with commonplace people, places, and events. I want you to notice how gritty and earthy this story is because, in the end, this is how this story hooks up with your life and my life right now yet today. The first hint of all this comes right at the beginning. After all, where does the story start? Do we begin in heaven, up on a cloud? No, we begin with a tax decree.
The Roman Empire was not interested in giving tax breaks to the middle class. They just wanted revenue to deck out Rome in all the splendor the Caesar thought he deserved. Caesar was a remote figure to most of the people living in Palestine. In a day when there were no newspapers and no TV networks, most people had never even seen the Caesar’s face. They had never heard his voice, had no clue whether he was tall or short, trim or pudgy. But Caesar existed, that much they knew, and he could set the whole world to dancing with the stroke of his pen.
And that’s what he does. A tax decree is issued. No doubt even a good person like Joseph gritted his teeth and muttered under his breath about the rotten inconvenience of it. He’d have to close up the carpentry shop for days, losing revenue so as to hoof it back to his boyhood hometown of Bethlehem. He’d actually have to spend money on food and lodging en route to paying more money in taxes. But he goes because that’s the way the world worked. He takes his pregnant fiancé with him because that was also the way the world worked. He couldn’t leave her behind. Maybe he thought about it, but maybe Mary gave him a panicked look, thinking that Joseph might use this road trip as a chance to ditch her. He had tried it before, after all. The only way to reassure her was to take her along, which was surely another inconvenience Joseph was sure he could live without.
So with a heart filled with anything but happiness, Joseph sets out. Bethlehem had just the one motel (a tourist spot it was not), and so Joseph was not even mildly surprised to see the No Vacancy sign out front when they got there. We always assume that the innkeeper himself is the one who put Mary and Joseph up in a barn, but there is no evidence of that. From the looks of it, Joseph just walked into the first barn he saw, stealing in under cover of darkness. Surely nobody would care if they bed down with the donkeys.
Some years ago my wife and I were stranded in Detroit while returning from a trip. The airline was singularly unhelpful in helping us figure out what to do, so we schlepped our carry-on luggage across the airport parking lot to the rather run-down little motel that clearly relied on our kind of desperate business. My wife will tell you that I do not roll well with the punches in such situations. So when we got into our room, nicely scented with the aroma of stale cigarettes, I discovered first that the light over the sink was burned out, which was maybe just as well since better illumination might have revealed even more of the hair that the maids somehow missed the last ten or twenty times they did to that room whatever it was they meant by the word “cleaning.”
Somehow I imagine that as Joseph settled into that Bethlehem barn, his mood was maybe not a lot brighter than mine was that night in Detroit. About the time he was sure it couldn’t get much worse, Mary said, “Joseph, I think my water broke.” And whether he said it aloud or not, I suspect Joseph’s reaction was, “Of course it did!” Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, a good man. But that good fact probably made matters worse. When you are a righteous and good man, you want to do right by your family. You want the best for them and you want to be the one to provide it. But in that barn that night, Joseph was stuck, his fondest hopes to provide for Mary crumbling to dust in his empty hands.
But the baby was born, and Joseph and Mary figured if they could keep the boy alive through this first night, they might just make it. Meanwhile, not far off, there were shepherds. There was nothing unusual about this detail of the story, either. Saying there were shepherds nearby then is like saying today, “In the city there was a Starbucks nearby.” You can’t swing a dead cat these days without hitting a Starbucks, and so also back then, shepherds were everywhere. But for one brief shining moment, these shepherds were the bull’s-eye of this story’s one element that is not a common feature to life: angels.
But even these heavenly angels end up being as much about the things of this world as anything celestial. They announce the advent of a Messiah, a Savior, which is a very spectacular thing to announce. But has it ever struck you as as wonderfully poignant that the last word the angel speaks is “manger”? The last word on those bright angelic lips was so mundane: “feed trough.” What a wonderful mixing up of the heavenly with the earthy! When it was all said and done, this celestial display of heavenly glory lasts just a few seconds. And when the angels disappear again, not only are the shepherds still standing in their smelly clothes on a common hillside surrounded by sleeping sheep, the place they then go to at the angel’s behest also smells of manure and is filled with sleeping animals. The angels did not transport the shepherds out of this world but sunk them more deeply into it.
The shepherds share their amazing story, of course, and it gave Mary plenty to think about for a long time to come. But at the end of this most famous of all Bible stories, we read a wonderfully quiet line: “The shepherds returned.” They may have been glorifying God and certainly were in some sense changed people, but the fact is they returned to the hillside, to the sheep, to the routines of the life they had always known.
The shepherds returned to their lives, and so will every one of us later on today. We have come here this day to celebrate the advent of hope and life in this world. We have come here to sing the traditional carols with all the gusto we can manage. We have come here because we really do believe that this Jesus was born, that he was and is the only and eternal Son of God, and that when later in his life he died on a terrible cross, somehow or another that death made this whole world turn the corner from darkness back into light.
But none of us here today came from realms of glory. None of us lives a life that anyone would describe as heavenly. We are comfortable and mostly well-off, yes. We have homes that are warm against the winter chill and many of us have homes that are also quite lovely and that are filled with the tokens of our lives: photographs on the walls, an antique china cabinet that had belonged to great-grandma, dog-eared copies of our favorite books lining the shelves in the den. It’s a good life for many of us, but not an easy one and certainly not a singularly glorious one. We’ve got our aches and pains, both physical and emotional. We’ve got bad memories that jostle in our minds along with the good ones. We’ve got private regrets over things we hope no one ever finds out about as well as regrets over public things that others already are aware of and it keeps us from looking folks in the eye for fear we’ll see flickers of our own shame there.
This is where we came from, and like the mundane routines of the pastoral life for those anonymous shepherds in Luke 2, we also will return to that life. We will return to work tomorrow, and if there were frustrations and vexations for us last Thursday before we took off for a long weekend, those same things will be waiting for us when we return tomorrow. But, of course, there are good things, too, and those are what keep us going. There are happy moments, precious children and grandchildren, that man or woman who is your spouse and whom you could not love more if you tried. We return to those things, too.
You see, too often we think Christmas is a rather wispy, heavenly affair, a break from the ordinary that is so profound as to eclipse the things of this life, this world. And, of course, the intrusion of those stellar angels smack in the middle of Luke 2 reminds us that there is a heavenly, other-worldly component to all this Christmas stuff. But the burst of the angelic is momentary here. Everything else is so common: taxes, inconveniences, the joy of new life nestled right amidst those things that set your teeth on edge in frustration.
But the hope of the gospel in Luke 2 is contained not in the blazing angelic glory that spreads light and casts shadows for a few moments. The hope of the gospel is in everything else in this story. The gospel is in Joseph’s frustration and in Mary’s fear of her baby getting sick from the night air. The gospel is in the inconvenience of tax bills and in over-booked motels. The gospel emerges from all that is typical of life on this earth because it is the redemption of all that is typical that Jesus came to accomplish.
If Christmas makes us think of heaven for a bit, then the net effect for us should be the same as what his thoughts of heaven did for Rev. John Ames in Gilead: it should make us view this life, this world with renewed fervor and gratitude. It should remind us that where there are hurts in our lives right now, God understands them and came to make them better in the end. It should remind us that where there is beauty and joy in our lives right now, these are not passing things that God is eager to blot out by blinding us with some brilliant light of heavenly glory. Blowing bubbles in the backyard is God’s gift to us now because that kind of delight is a token of all that God wants for us in eternity, too.
If there is for us now laughter, mirth, goodness, and joy, then these are the things of God that Jesus came to redeem. That’s why Jesus was born on this very earth and not on a cloud somewhere far above it all. But if there is also trauma, tragedy, hurts, and sorrows, Jesus’ birth in the midst of so much that was dreadful in his own day reminds us that these things, too, can be and will be addressed by our Savior.
That’s why when you, like the shepherds, return to whatever life you left behind to come here, you can be assured that God is with you in that life, that God sees you and loves you in that life, that God takes great joy in giving you beauty even as he weeps real tears to see you distressed and burdened. The truth is that the real Christian, gospel message of Christmas has less to do with all that we have done here in worship this morning and much, much more to do with God’s presence the whole rest of the year. Christmas isn’t about a heavenly moment that came briefly to this earth but then disappeared again. Christmas is seeing this earthly life through the prism of heaven, helping us to take an even deeper joy in all that is good and to find hope even in the midst of all that is hurtful.
Near the end of Gilead, Rev. Ames shares with his son a truth almost too lyric to put into words. He writes,
There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. ‘He will wipe the tears from all faces.’ It takes nothing from the loveliness of that verse to say that is exactly what will be required.
Sometimes we know we are loftier beings than this old world can contain. And sometimes we know this world is more beautiful than we can take in. There’s more to us and more to the world than we know. It’s enough to make you weep at the beauty and the promise of it all. But the tears don’t have the last word–not so long as we serve a Savior who was greater than the world he entered and yet somehow was contained within this world, too. He who was bigger than all the world was also in the world.
We still live smack in the middle of the mystery of the heavenly getting engulfed by the earthly and the earthly getting engulfed by the heavenly. Christmas tells us that it is all bound up together: soap bubbles and angels, smelly mangers and songs of glory, kitchen sinks and baptism fonts, communion tables laden with bread and wine and dinner tables laden with mac-and-cheese. Because of Jesus it is all a sacrament in its own way. Once you’ve peered down at the little one in the manger, you will never look at this life the same way again. You won’t think less of this life but more of it. And so we also sing “Glory be to God in the highest, and here, right here, on earth, peace. Peace. On earth. ” Amen.
Quotes from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004. Pp. 247, Cloth. $23.00. First quote from page 9, second quote from pp. 245-46.
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