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11.07.10, We Need a Shepherd, Luke 2:8-20

by on November 11, 2010

You know there’s a pseudo-war on Christmas and then there’s the real one. The battle lines of the pseudo-war are familiar: Neighborhood associations banning Nativity scenes; being greeted with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” And the counter cry from the faithful is, “We have to put Christ back in Christmas!”

The real war on Christmas is much more malicious and effective and, I would say, will be lost in the next few weeks unless we do something now. The real war revolves around the tradition of gift-giving (and receiving). Remember with me the nearly universal Christmas experience from last year. Remember agonizing over determining to whom to give presents? How many people in your office building or school? Should you include your mail carrier? What about the trash collector?

Remember trying to find a parking space at the mall, or standing in line at the post office? Remember gagging on the credit card bill in January? Or worse, if you did your shopping early, getting that credit card bill in December?

The real war on Christmas has replaced God’s presence with giving and receiving presents. There is no joy, no peace—what the Bible calls fruits of the Spirit. In other words, it is God’s desire that we receive joy and peace with Christ at Christmas. But we are incapable of doing so because of the real war on Christmas.

If we’re going to experience the peace and joy of Christmas this year, we have an important decision to make now. Consider this: Traditionally we criticize Martha for making the wrong choice—attending to her houseguests instead of joining her sister Mary at Jesus’ feet. But I think by the time Jesus and the disciples arrived at their house, Martha didn’t have a choice to make. What she was doing had to be done. But it could have been done earlier, and if it had been, Martha could have chosen to sit with Mary. Same thing for our Christmas celebration: we have to make choices now while we can, or we’ll end up tired and resentful again this year. And we need someone to shepherd us through this process.

Actually, I think we have to declare a new war on Christmas—Christmas as it has become. We have to replace consumerism and chaos—”Christmas”—with Christ. Why? Because this was God’s desire for Christmas. Everything we do is worship, and what we worship determines the state of our soul. God gave Christ so that we would know how to worship God and thereby be free from our idols. In other words, at Christmas we are called to worship fully.

To worship fully is the first of four tenants of the “Advent Conspiracy.” What does it mean to worship fully? We can take the Shepherds of Luke 2 as one example. In Older Testament passages like Isaiah 40, Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34, and especially Psalm 23, the profession of shepherd was so highly esteemed that God was likened to one. But by the time of the Gospels, shepherds were not well regarded. They were suspected of thievery, weren’t allowed to testify because they were untrustworthy, and viewed suspiciously as loners. On top of that, since they worked away from the city center and around the clock, they couldn’t participate in religious services, so those that could considered them irreligious.

And yet it is to this unlikely sort that the good news of Jesus’ birth is first proclaimed beyond his family. And their response was to worship Christ fully. How did they do it? First, they considered the call more important than themselves. They didn’t argue against the angelic message with, “But we’re only shepherds.” No, they put whatever self-doubts they might have had aside and listened to the message.

Second, they took the message personally. The angelic message was “for all people” but it was also “for you.” Too often we delight in the thought of God loving the world and all people but do not realize and take to heart that “all people” includes “this person.” We don’t take the message personally.

Consider the “sign” the messenger offered the shepherds: a babe lying in a manger. A manger! Shepherds, being animal folk, knew about mangers. God gave them a sign they were familiar with. When the good news of Christ’s birth comes to us, it’s also given in contexts that are familiar to us.

Third, the shepherds acted. They didn’t praise God for the message and go about their business. They didn’t organize a committee to determine the best response. They investigated and explored the message as it applied to them. And in doing so they discovered Christ. And then (fourth) they did what we’re all called to do: they worshiped. They worshiped fully at Christmas.

The last thing Luke tells us about these shepherds is that they told everyone what they had heard and seen. Because they heard the call above themselves, took it personally, and acted, they could worship and they were compelled to share their story even though their testimony would not have been valid legally since they were “just” shepherds.

Simply put, the shepherds were not distracted when the call came. They weren’t distracted by self-doubt. They weren’t distracted by the busy-ness of city dwelling. They weren’t distracted by the trappings of religious ritual. They weren’t distracted by their wealth, power, or their ability to give gifts. They gave themselves, which is the definition of worship. They worshiped fully at Christmas.

So can we; we can be like the shepherds and like Mary. But only if we eliminate distractions now so that when Christ comes at Christmas, we can believe and respond, we can receive and enjoy, we can worship fully at Christmas.

And that’s what the next three weeks are about—how to worship fully by spending less, giving relationally, and loving all people. This is the Advent Conspiracy, and we’re doing it in November because if we are going to win the new war on “Christmas,” we have to fight it during the real war on Christmas. And the real war has already begun.

So resolve to worship Christ alone this season. Let him shepherd your soul to a fuller, more peaceful and joyful worship this Christmas. Make a list of holiday distractions and how you can avoid them this year. And be on the lookout for “angels” bearing the good news to you, even you, you Martha. So you can be a shepherd and a Mary when the time comes.

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