Honoring the Overlooked/December 3, 2017

Second Baptist Church Lincoln
First Sunday in Advent
Dec. 3, 2017  “The Christmas Touch”

Honor the Overlooked
Luke 2:8-20 (NIV)

8  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
9  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10  But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
11  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.   

With Thanksgiving just a few days behind us, we suddenly move into the Advent Season. It always seems to take me by surprise, even though I know it’s coming; not the surprise of the season, but the surprise of gaining new reflections and insights into the incarnation of the Son of God. Advent is a season of expectation. It builds and builds until suddenly, the celebration of the birth of Christ is upon us. It is not unlike a real pregnancy and birth. That anticipation of “Will it be a boy or a girl?” “Will it be outgoing and hyper, will the baby be more laid back and quiet?” “Who will she look like, mom or dad?”

And so we enter Advent with this anticipation. During this season, we are also reminded of those who are disadvantaged and demoralized. Salvation Army Bell Ringers and public pleas for funding homeless shelters and soup kitchens remind us that the poor and disenfranchised live among us. Homeless, rejected, some broken from addiction – and yet loved by God.

Nearly four years ago, several of us from Second Baptist went to Israel. It was the first time for me and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was excited at experiencing the place where Jesus walked.  We arrived in Tel Aviv and wound our way toward Jerusalem and into Bethlehem where we would spend the night. After getting checked in, I realized that I wasn’t tired, because jet lag had set in. So Stephanie and I went for a walk through the dark streets of Bethlehem on a hillside looking down on the city. I couldn’t help but to break into song “O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” Suddenly, we heard what sounded like gunfire, but then high in the sky bursting into bloom was the familiar sight of fireworks. It was a Palestinian holiday and folks were celebrating. The next morning, as we got on the bus and headed south out of Bethlehem to Herod’s palace, we curved down a hillside, and there grazing in the ditch were sheep, accompanied by a shepherd. No he wasn’t wearing a bathrobe carrying a staff like in the Christmas pageant.  He wore dirty jeans and a sweater, black hair, and dark skin. I was reminded of two things:  First, that this is really cool seeing a shepherd on the hillside by Bethlehem just like in Luke 2, but SECONDLY, how poor and unnoticed these shepherds were today as well as in Jesus’ time. 

That's right. In their day the shepherds were a fellowship of forgettable (if not forgotten) class of people. Maybe you thought of them as blue-collar workers yet respected laborers. No, not really. No blue collars or white collars. They had no status. They were the overlooked of their society in Herod’s time, and perhaps even today. In the culture into which Jesus was born, shepherds had very little chance of ever doing anything different the rest of their lives. No wonder it was unthinkable that God would choose a group of sheepherders to receive the first birth announcement pertaining to his Son's arrival. By instructing the angels to "go tell it on the mountain", God didn’t just randomly select those who would be the first to hear. God knew what he was doing. He was making a statement. “Nobodies” are “somebodies” to God. Of all people to be the receivers of this word. You’d expect a major network news outlet to get the scoop. Anybody but unshaven, uneducated shepherds.

There's a principle here. Have you seen it yet? God intentionally chose the shepherds as those who would initially be entrusted with the message of Jesus' birth. It wasn't a random choice. By having the angels tell them, He was honoring their worth. And we have been called to do the same thing. When we share the good news of why Jesus Christ was born, with those who are affected by prejudice, economic injustice or the consequences of bad choices in their past, we  validate their worth in God's sight.

Paying attention to the overlooked and undervalued of our society is a debt we owe that is long overdue. But let me take this a step further. When we honor the lower class like the "shepherds" in our culture by sharing the news about God's love, we’re doing the will of God. That's what Jesus did. When Jesus grew up and began his itinerant ministry, he followed the model his heavenly Father had set in motion. He hung out with the outcasts. He touched the lepers. He elevated the status of sinners and women and children. And get this. I think this is so cool. When Jesus attempted to draw a picture of his purpose in coming to earth, what did he sketch? An unmistakable image. He called himself a shepherd. "I am the good shepherd," he said. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." I'm speculating here, but I have a hunch that Jesus knew more than a few sheepherders by their first name. No matter their occupation, whoever was lonely out here in this isolated job whose position was without esteem, whoever was socially challenged or society's scourge, those were the ones Jesus reached out to.   

Touching the world with the love of God, Jesus identified with those who had little or no identity. He still does. In Matthew 25 Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. Like it or not, we will be held accountable for the way we responded to the overlooked of society. “When you’ve done it unto the leave of these, you have done it unto me,” Jesus said. He suggests that he is so identified with these marginalized people that when we reach out to them, we reach out to him. The same is true that if we resist the poor and the outcasts, we are also resisting Jesus.

About fifteen years ago, we had planned a worship service by our Worship planning team at First Baptist of Bismarck. We met monthly to plan out each service. We had selected a call to worship that comes from Luke 18 where Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. The Pharisee cried out to God, “I thank you God that I am not like this tax collector, this sinner.” But in that text, the tax collector stood at a distance and didn’t even look to heaven, he was so humbled. He said, “Have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

We wanted this little parable to make sense. So we took one of our deacons who had a beard, and we did some work on him. We found a scraggly gray wig. We found an old coat and made some additional tears in it. Then we took the coat and put it in a plastic bag with some onions overnight so it really stunk.

We dressed him in this and he sat out on the curb by the church on a cold December morning. People came to church and they saw this seemingly homeless man sitting out on that curb. Some asked him if he was ok, others called the police because they were concerned about him freezing to death. 

Eventually, the church service started, the worship leader stood up and began reading the passage about the Pharisee saying, “I thank God I am not like this man, this tax collector, this sinner.” And in the door and down the aisle stumbles our homeless man. People were shocked. What’s going to happen? What are we going to do with this guy? The man stumbles up onto the platform and falls down and cries, “Have Mercy on me God, for I am a sinner.”

And the worship leader said, “Thus ends our reading.” In a few minutes when it was my time to preach, I shared with the congregation some thoughts. I shared in my message that, “The entrance of this stranger made us uncomfortable. He didn’t look like us and think like us. He even smells a little bit. He came from his world and intruded into ours. But isn’t that what Jesus did?  

The truth of it is, the "shepherds" of our world are all around us. They are the homeless. They are AIDS patients. They are convicted felons in prison. They are battered wives and neglected children. They are teenagers without a father in the home. They are foreign exchange students suffering from chronic homesickness. What can we do to make a difference in their lives?  How can we show them we care and we can help? 

Today as we come to the table, we come as broken, sometimes confused, imperfect, children of God. We have not been invited here to this table because of our status, but because like the shepherds, we are common people with a message of hope. This table reminds us that it isn’t because of our status that we have been favored by God, but by his grace alone. We don’t come to this table with pride or arrogance like the royalty of Jesus’ time. Herod did not win the grace of God. Yet lowly shepherds in the field became the messengers of choice. They went to the manger, and they witnessed God’s great gift to humanity. Amen.