Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Eve A

December 24, 2019

Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon

Elizabeth Winslea

It is a holy place. It is humble, hard work. But it is a holy place - night after night, out under the desert’s stars. The shepherds spend their day moving from one small patch of grazing land to another, trying to find enough growth to round out the scrawny, scruffy beasts they are in charge of. It’s quiet work, it’s humble work.

Most of the time the shepherds are as dirty as their charges, as they live rough out in all of life’s elements. With their unshaven faces, dirty cloaks, uncombed hair - the resemblance to their sheep is uncanny. They smell a lot like them too.

So there is nothing glamorous about the life of a shepherd. Hard work and hard living. Those are the parameters. And every once in a while a sheep is slaughtered or sold and bellies are full for the night. But generally they are as hungry as their charges looking for that next blade of grass. And they are wishing their cloaks were half as thick as their four-legged friends.

Nothing glamorous about the life of a shepherd. Humble and hard work. But holy.

Each night as the sun begins to make its descent behind the western hills, they make camp. They have their favorite spots dotted along the rolls of hills about them, but frankly they are willing to bed down wherever the sheep can nestle in and know a degree of safety.

And with camp set for another night, the fire is lit. Just a small blaze, enough to keep predators at bay, hardly enough to keep warm or cook by. They eat a few meager rations. Tell a few familiar stories. There are always one or two who are best at that. Best at capturing the right lilt of a story, adding details just so to keep the circle enthralled.

But after a time, the stories wind down. And all that is left are the sounds of the sheep. Breathing, rustling, every once in a while letting out a quiet bleat. The fire crackles and spurts in small static as the wind blows through.

And the breathing of the shepherds begins to match that of the sheep. Everyone quiets. Except the one or two who are in charge of staying awake through the night, to keep watch. They will stand to pace about from time to time. Nodding to one another in the shadows of the dark. But mostly keeping their own counsel. Watching as the night sky tips all the way down to the hill just beyond. And in the sheer depth of the dark, they stare out where heaven and earth blend together as one.

It’s humble work. But it’s holy. And then another day begins to rise up from the earth. The eastern sky loses its shining, dark luster. Stars begin to bed themselves. And color returns to earth.

With the heat and promise of a new day’s light, the shepherds rouse themselves and their beasts to begin another day. Wandering the hillsides, searching for food, finding respite at the riverside. Until it is time once again to bed everyone down.

It is humble work. But it is holy.

A holy that is infused with the rhythm set by the stars. A holy that is centered on the land and its gifts of nourishment. A holy that calls out of each shepherd an awareness of the immensity of heaven and earth, bending and turning toward one another, blending until land and sky, mundane and sacred, all are one. That is the gift of shepherding. One lives with the holy always just right there.

The separation between earth and heaven blurs and they live and work with the humble understanding that all creation sings with the song of its Creator. That all of life on earth is incarnate with God’s divine light. They live and work with the understanding that their lives occupy holy space, holy time. It is humble work, hard work, but it is infused with the sacred at every turn. They live within the wisdom that what they “see ‘out there’ is no different from what they feel inside.”[1]

So when arrive heralds of Divine glory, the shepherds sense the moment as a continuation of their own thoughts, their own hearts. The humble sacred that lives in each of them - it bursts out from their own bodies and joins together with all of creation. And the glory and the wonder shine all around. Caught up in a great web of heavenly light, brighter than the clearest night sky.

As the light twists and spins, it begins to take shape and sound. And the shepherds hear music. Music that matches the beat of their own hearts. Sound that feels like the completion of their thoughts. And they have the deepest sense of being seen and known by the Creator at the heart of all life. That song that fills every corner of the night, that song feels like it is written just for them.

The chorus builds, and the light shines in heavenly form and they hear a new story.

One they have never heard around their campfire before. Of babes born, of simple wraps, of stable beds - of the good news about the One who will save them, bring them back to wholeness, show them how to live in unison with the Great Creator.

And just as the song felt like it was pulled from each of their hearts, so too it returned. Imbedded deep in the rhythm of their souls. Becoming immeshed in the very essence of their being - this song, this light from God. This holy message.

And so it is, that months, years, generations after that evening, the shepherds, gathered around their fire, hear tell of the night when heaven and earth were one. When each humble servant of the lambs saw clearly the holy all about them.

And we are assured, as they remind us, assured that the child they heard tell, the song they heard sung, is alive still today. So that in our hard work and humble lives, we too live amidst the holy. The sacred light that was given the form of a child that night - that sacred light that lives on in each of us. Melding heaven and earth.

So that each of us, can live our days assured that there is greater meaning beyond the hard work we face each day.

There is a turning, a blending, a sacredness in all of Creation. And on that one night so long ago, that sacredness took the form of one child, blessed to be a beacon for us. Fully blending heaven and earth in the days that he lived. Showing us what that sacred awareness can bring. Showing us that singing and telling story grounds us to the Great Creator who sang the first story and sings with us still.

Caroling still throughout the night - in wind and sheep, in starlight and campfire, in humble hearts and heavenly bodies - caroling the truth that we are One. We are always One - in the love that was born in a child that night. This night. Every humble night of our holy lives. Amen.

This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on December 24, 2019 at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.


[1]  Quoted in Joy: 100 Poems, ed. Christian Wiman, Yale University Press © 2018, page 158. As first printed in The Luminous Web, Barbara Brown Taylor.