Advent Surprise

(A Written Sermon, Luke 2.8-20)

One thing that stands out in this text is the element of surprise. The shepherds were in the fields shepherding. They were not waiting for angels to show. This is not like Linus’s pumpkin patch where he goes out on purpose to sit and wait for a visit from the Great Pumpkin. These shepherds were here to look after sheep. They were here working in fields they had worked before without supernatural visitors. They are expecting nothing different on this night. But then, surprise… a visitor from heaven. And then, astonishing news. And then a crowd of visitors from heaven. Yes, of the many things that are going on this night and in this text… surprise is certainly one of them.

And then (and we do not want to minimize this) they went looking for Jesus. They could have questioned whether they were getting enough rest. They could have questioned what was in that bottle they had been drinking. They could have questioned whether they should have eaten that second helping of whatever that was. But the shepherds went looking for a Saviour. They went looking for Christ the Lord. They went looking for Jesus.

The text is straightforward about this “when the angels had left them and had gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”

Luke does not record that anyone else went looking. In fact, the gospels seem to go out of their way to suggest that people were just not that interested. It is recorded that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” But we do not know if any of them went to find out for themselves. Surely the star was seen by others, yet we are only told the magi followed it. The scholars in the king’s palace were able to tell exactly where to find the child king, yet do not make an effort to find him. But Luke wants us to know the shepherds went looking for Jesus.

The text says “they hurried off and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby.” The text presents the shepherds as eager explorers, seeking, working their way through fields and wilderness to make sense of what they have heard. They are intent about finding Jesus. The shepherds become ideal characters to talk about during Advent. We are all trying to make sense of this news, the news that Jesus is born to save the world. Advent calls for each of us to be seeking Jesus.

Yet it is so easy to become distracted during Advent. After all, there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. It becomes easier to look for a good deal, to look for free shipping, it becomes easier to look for what to serve or what to wear. The shepherds, these characters in the Advent of Jesus, remind us that what is important is to find Jesus. In fact they hurry, they have an urgency to find out if this news could be true.

The shepherds seem so noble, almost dignified. We have romanticized their part of the story. They are such an important part of the story that we forget, shepherds are people on the fringe. It is possible no one would have noticed if they went missing. Still these are the folks God chose to tell first about this good news.

My friend Layne has brought to my attention a connection with women we find later in the gospel. Women, like shepherds,would not have been first century decision makers, powerless in society. Yet women were the first people God chose to tell about resurrection. It is interesting how intentional God is about telling shepherds in the fields and women at the tomb, he sends angels to make sure that these particular people receive this particular message.

These people may not have had much power, much influence on the surface, certainly not in earthly kingdoms. But in God’s kingdom they receive special invitations. No one would have been bragging about the idea that God spoke to shepherds first about Christmas or to women first about Easter. Yet that is what we discover in the gospel about the way that God works.

We started by noting the element of surprise in the story. There is the surprise that a child was born in a stable and laid in a manger and will be the Savior of the world. And the surprise that this news was delivered to shepherds who were watching flocks in fields at night. And the surprise that comes with the implications this news has for us. Yes, this text reminds us Christmas is full of surprises – because God is full of surprises.

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Enough Gospel to Go Around

Later this month I will have the opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching (and am looking forward to it). Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one emphasis of our conversation.

Luke’s Gospel wants us to be sure to know there is enough gospel to go around. There are no quotas or limits. We do not have to budget gospel or worry that it will run out. In the gospel, Jesus is throwing good news around as if there is an endless supply. One of the questions Luke seems to ask is “How are things different now that Jesus has arrived?” and Luke’s Gospel seems to answer that question with “Let me tell you…”

Early in the Gospel Jesus preaches a sermon. (It is not well received. Perhaps it is good for us to discover here that not all sermons are well received. Perhaps we should evaluate our definition of success). In this sermon Jesus tells us how things are now different. There will be good news and freedom and recovery of sight and favor. The recipients include the poor and prisoners and blind and oppressed. We are supposed to catch on to the notion that there is enough gospel to go around. And this is only the beginning. Luke will give us multiple pictures of what that looks like.

Preaching as Lullaby

It is true that we do not know the songs Mary may have sung to Jesus and his brothers to help them sleep at night. But thanks to Luke we do know at least one song she sang during pregnancy. It is difficult to believe she would have only sung this one time. It was a song about scattering the proud and bringing down rulers. It was a song about lifting the humble and filling the hungry. Should we be surprised if her lullabies may have been a little political as well?

There is much to be made about tone, volume, and affect during communication. But the content of our communication is equally important. We might think of Mary as if she is a meek and mild Madonna who would sing only calming lullabies. Yet the content of her song has the language of a revolution. It may not have played on pop radio, but others likely sang similar songs if not this very same one. No wonder Herod the Great was so nervous. I suspect Luke would expect us to be as revolutionary in our preaching. I don’t know if the powers that be are nervous when we preach, but perhaps they should be.

“Father, Into Your Hands…” – A Sermon Starter

As with other words from Jesus, we are able to talk more intelligently about this text when we are attentive to the episode surrounding the text (context). For example, a natural tension arises in this scene as it appears Jesus has his life taken from him. Jewish leaders have been convincing that this man needs to die. Roman executioners appear to be in charge of his fate. Yet, Jesus is not swayed by this alliance of power. Instead his words suggest ongoing confidence in the Father. On account of this confidence, Jesus gives his life on his own terms.

Luke has already told us what Jesus has said about the hostile world and what he has said to the undeserving criminal. Now Jesus is giving his very spirit into the hands of the Father. Each of these statements reveal a consistency in the worldview of Jesus. When preaching, we can communicate this by reaching back into the gospel to highlight his tendencies to forgive, to invite the undeserving into the kingdom, and his own dependence on the Father.

Again, we do not want to ignore surrounding events. We want to remember the sun is darkened for three hours, the temple veil is torn in two, the centurion praises God and declares the innocence of Jesus, and a member of the council is waiting for the kingdom of God. Perhaps Luke wants to be sure we recognize that Jesus knew what he was doing when he put total trust in the Father.

The challenge for preaching these texts remains “What will we do with this information?” This short look proposes that in response to the hostile world – Jesus is forgiving. In response to the undeserving sinner – Jesus is welcoming. And in response to the Father – Jesus is self-giving. This at least provides a starting point for preaching these “last words” of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

“Today You Will Be With Me” – A Sermon Starter

The second statement from the cross may prompt us to explore the type of people we find Jesus hanging around with in the Gospel. More specifically, we might be interested in the types of people Jesus invites into the kingdom. There is a substantial list of people who are welcomed by Jesus that may prompt a series of questions. Does everyone receive this invitation the same? Are others always in agreement with those Jesus chooses to invite? What tensions enter the narrative due to Jesus and his care free invitations? Is there any significance of this criminal being with Jesus?

Luke includes multiple people who may appear unlikely to be welcomed into the kingdom. Perhaps it would be valuable to examine any number of them on the way to our text where Jesus speaks with this criminal at this place called skull. These words are spoken in the context of a conversation between three men who are being executed, one of them Jesus. It is of interest that Jesus not only spent his life with such people, but also his death. He dies with them and for them. Jesus is crucified because of conversations like this one. Yet he does not stop, not even now, not even from the cross.

We do not know what else, if anything, these three on the cross may have said to one another. If there was anything else, Luke did not think it necessary to report it. Yet this conversation continues. Every one of us continues to ask for or to receive what we do not deserve. We are either asking Jesus to do things the way we want them done “Save us and yourself” or we are believing he knows what he is doing “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Again, we are not accumulating information for the sake of information. When working toward application, we ask ourselves “what are we to do with this information?” It is not enough to know that Jesus welcomed unlikely people into his kingdom. We are also expected to be inviting as well. But be aware, one has already been crucified for this kind of behavior.

“Father Forgive Them” – A Sermon Starter

Luke shares three different statements from Jesus on the cross. Simply stated, one of them is directed to the Father about the mob or the hostile world. The second is directed toward an unlikely recipient. The final one Jesus directs to the Father about his own self. While it would be easy to make too much of this observation, it is possible that distinguishing the words this way could help during our preaching.

For instance, upon reading the first text, we might explore the way the world operates. What is important to the world? What are the world’s expectations of others? How far is the world willing to go to maintain its control on the way things operate? Questions like these will help us understand the crucifixion from the world’s perspective.

On the other hand, there is another perspective on display in the text. We might explore the way that God operates (in this case, how God operates in the person of Jesus). What is important for Jesus? What expectations does Jesus have for the Father? How far are Jesus and the Father willing to go in order to demonstrate the way they operate? Questions like these help us reframe the crucifixion from God’s perspective.

Keeping questions simple will help preachers to prompt listeners to think without making the sermon a cognitive exercise. The episode surrounding our text reveals information about how the world responds to the ways of God. It also provides us with information of the way God responds to the ways of the world. Our text helps us understand that what the world (and all onlookers) thought was a criminal execution was actually an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate the way God works.

Our application is then related to what we do with this information. While we are reminded of God’s desire to forgive, we are also reminded that as followers of one who is willing to forgive (even from the cross), we are expected to be a people who practice forgiveness.

A Homiletical Move at Christmas

It is obvious that Luke mentions the manger three times in chapter two. “Manger” seems to connect the story even as our attention is pulled along from a narrator to angels to shepherds.

It is also noteworthy to point out that for us; the word “manger” has taken on an unintended definition. Somehow a word intended to mean feeding trough has become a piece of religious furniture that seems more synonymous with a cradle than a feeding trough. Luke’s repeated reference to the place where Jesus was laid suggests that he does not want us to think like that. He may prefer that we see it as a reference to the humble beginnings of the one born in Bethlehem.

In an attempt to connect the repeated use of manger and to communicate these humble beginnings I attempt to echo the conversation with words that are not stated directly but seem to reinforce the tone of the speaker.

Therefore when the narrator first reported the child was laid in a manger, I can hear an echo (seriously, the child was laid in a feeding trough). When the angels announce the child can be found in a manger, I hear (seriously, you will find the child in a feeding trough). The third time the manger appears the shepherds have found the child exactly where they were told they would (seriously, they found him in a feeding trough).

Of course, it is always difficult to know how effective our homiletical moves are but I remain hopeful since on the way out several people while shaking my hand repeated “seriously, in a feeding trough.”