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One of the highlights of 2019 for me was a trip I led this past October to the Holy Land for members and friends of Prince of Peace. We traveled through Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, and we saw lots of incredible biblical sites.
And of course, we visited Bethlehem. And when you visit Bethlehem as a Christian tourist, one of the places you always visit is the shepherd’s fields. The shepherd’s fields just outside of Bethlehem have an ancient and storied past. They’re mentioned in the Book of Ruth, as the place where Ruth meets Boaz. They’re the fields where David was watching his father’s flocks when Samuel comes to anoint him as king. And of course, they’re the place where the shepherds were watching their flocks when the angels announced to them the birth of Jesus just up the road in Bethlehem.
And so you always visit the shepherds fields! But they’re not what you expect. Most of us imagine fields as wide open, flat terrain. Sometimes fields have gently rolling hills. And they’re completely covered with grass and other vegetation which sheep and other animals can gaze in.
But the “fields” in Bethlehem are nothing like that. The “fields” are actually a valley between two low, dry, rocky sets of hills. They’re quite a bit downhill of the town of Bethlehem (which is just the way the people in Bethlehem wanted it, since sheep smell like sheep, and shepherds smell like – well, sheep!) And the sheep have to work quite a bit to find the sparse vegetation poking up out of the rocks.
Along the edges of the valley are caves, in which the shepherds lived and sometimes sheltered the sheep. And when you visit, you get the feeling that you’re down in a ditch. It’s not what you expect.
And this Christmas, that got me to thinking that there are a lot of things in the first Christmas story that aren’t at all what anyone would expect. I don’t think we really appreciate that. For the last 2000 years, especially in the West, Luke’s story of Jesus is so well known and such a staple of our culture that even people who aren’t Christian no longer see anything strange about little towns like Bethlehem, shepherds or angels. We’re used to seeing the Nativity scenes at this time of year. It’s just what you expect.
But that wasn’t the way the first hearers of this story would have experienced it. The first hearers of this story would NOT expect:
- God to do a new thing in a little place like Bethlehem – David did indeed come from that little backwater town; but for 1000 years before Jesus, God had been found in the Temple in Jerusalem just up the road; there were places where you’d expect God to be and where you’d expect God to act. Bethlehem was not that place.
- Shepherds to be the first people to announce the news – of course, we sometimes focus on the shepherds being the first to hear about what God was doing; but they were also the first people to announce it. And Luke’s Gospel says everyone was “amazed” at what the shepherds told them – and that’s a nice way of saying they wondered whether these guys were drunk or trying to pull off a scam, because these were not the nice, respectable or even particularly faithful people you’d expect to hear about God from.
- Angels to appear – of course, this is one of the famous stories in the Bible where angels actually appear to people; and because we read it every year, we all expect angels to appear in the Bible! And sometimes, they do. But it’s VERY rare. And that’s why the stories where they do appear are such a big deal. People may have expected God to speak and act, but a whole host of angels singing about God’s glory to shepherds is NOT what you’d expect.
And this is maybe one of the most important points for us to remember, as we re-read this Christmas story which sounds to us exactly like what we’d expect. Most of us are really comfortable with the story just as you’d expect it to be. In fact, Christmas is one of those times when we want things to be just like you’d expect!
I do, too. I want the candles and the Christmas tree, just like I expect. I want to hear the familiar Christmas carols, just like I expect. I want the special foods that have always been there at Christmas time, just like I expect. You probably do, too.
And those things are OK, but it’s important to remember that the Christmas story is NOT what you should expect. And that means that, not just way back then, but also right now, Jesus is often showing up in our lives in ways, and in places, and through people that you don’t expect.
See, the real message of the Christmas story is not that you need to find a special, far away place on a starry, silent night to experience God’s presence in Jesus. The real message of the Christmas story is that you may end up feeling and experiencing Jesus’ presence in your garage, not just in a stable in far away Bethlehem. The message of the Christmas story is that one of your really non-religious friends may be the person who God works through to show you his guidance and presence. The message of the Christmas story is that something may happen in your life that seems utterly weird, but which in retrospect ends up being the unexpected means by which God pointed you in a new direction.
I cannot stand here tonight and tell you how Jesus will show up in your life in this coming year. For you, and for me, I don’t know all the places, people or events that God might use in your life or in mine.
But I do know that the Christmas story means that God often does things in unexpected ways and through unexpected people. I do know that Jesus promises always to be present in our lives, working in and among us. And I do know that we’re all supposed to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open, because often the way God works is not what you’d expect.