Christmas Eve 2019
Luke 2:1 – 20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
They’d bedded down for the night, tightly wrapped in blankets, a pile of sand beneath the cloth serving as their pillows. Next to them they could hear the gentle breathing of the sheep, fast asleep.
They were shepherds and this was their job. Mind the sheep, day and night, for the farm owners. Meant a lot of traveling. Sheep eat a lot. Six pounds of grass a day. Just for one. A flock? Well, let’s just say that shepherds got their steps in as they constantly were driving their sheep to fresh feeding grounds.
We always picture shepherds as these wonderful, attentive, loving people that put the safety of their sheep above everything else. At least that’s always been my picture. Truth of the matter is, they weren’t so upstanding as I pictured them to be.
You see, while they were out wandering around, moving from place to place looking for enough food to feed the flock, the sheep often gave birth to lamps. No one ever really knew how many were born so who was to know? The shepherd could simply sell off some of those wee fuzzy babes and pocket the money. No one would ever know.
Whether or not they behaved in this way, the reputation of shepherds as thieves and unreliable outsiders followed them wherever they went. They were so unreliable that they couldn’t even be called as witnesses in court cases. You couldn’t believe anything they said anyways, so they were never called, even if they were eye witnesses to a crime.
These unreliable, disrespected, marginalized people were the first ones, in Luke’s Gospel, to receive the birth announcement. It was a dark night. The kind of darkness that meant you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Not a trace of light. They were used to that kind of darkness.
Tonight was different. It was almost like the sun had risen. But only around them. It wasn’t natural and it was terrifying. Where was God when they were huddled together, quaking in their sandals?
She was 6 when her father died. With her mother working three jobs to keep up, she was left to her own devices. That’s when it started. At six she started running wild, as she describes it. She hung out with the older kids and took up drinking and smoking to keep up.
Georgia Berkovich spun downhill from there, moving into other kinds of drugs. Her last suicide attempt happened when she hit rock bottom after well over a decade lost in a drug and alcohol haze. She was 23, was fired from her job and evicted from her apartment. Where would she end up? Living on the streets? Where is God when you hit the bottom of the pit?
Georgia didn’t end up on the streets. Her best friend’s parents offered her a room in their home and her friend convinced her to call a recovering alcoholic who drove her to her first 12-step meeting. It was there where she found hope. There, in a room full of strangers.
Today Georgia is 51 and is the director of public affairs at the Midnight Mission in Los Angeles. Her story is detailed in a CNN article by Paul Vercammen in yesterday’s newsfeed on my phone. Georgia has been sober and clean for 26 years and now she shares the hope that she found with the almost 59,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County.
Because of her past, Georgia has what’s known as street credibility. She can roam through the streets among the trash piles and hopelessness that presses down on the part of town that most people avoid like the plague.
She wanders among them as an equal. Someone who’s been exactly where they are. Georgia identifies with them in a way that accepted. She lets them know that it doesn’t have to be like this. Recover works and she can help them discover how to make a change in their lives.
Georgia brings a ray of sunshine into a very dark part of the world. And it makes a difference. The mission shelters about 375 homeless people inside and in their enclosed outside courtyard each night.
The new story shows a picture of the sign that designates the outside boundary of Skid Row. I suspect that’s more for the outsiders than for those who dwell within its confines. Where to stay away from. The population is labeled as “Too Many”.
Within those boundaries, and outside those boundaries, Georgia walks, connecting with everyone she meets, sharing the brightness of hope. Today, 26 years after getting clean, she says she has a big beautiful life. The people around Skid Row say that she’s “paid it forward thousands of times.” She shares the joy of new life. News of great joy for all the people.
When Georgia hears this, she responds that others helped her to find hope and now she and the mission continue to do the same.
Georgia knew the brightness of God’s presence when she hit rock bottom. Her best friend’s parents opened their hearts and their home to Georgia at a time when it must have seemed that the rest of the world had turned its back on her. Her friend’s friend came alongside her and walked with her as she started the road to recovery and new life.
I don’t know whether Georgia knows the story of the shepherd’s from today’s gospel or not. It’s strikes me that her story, and the story of the shepherd’s are somewhat similar. Both Georgia and the shepherd’s knew what it’s like to be marginalized. Both the shepherd’s and Georgia knew what it was like to experience to have someone come alongside and offer them hope.
The news of Jesus’s birth came first to outsiders, the marginalized shepherd’s. Maybe the last people the powerful would have expected. The shepherd’s certainly did not expect it. They were terrified when God’s glory enveloped them.
The angel met them where they were, in the midst of their terror and offered them peace. “Don’t be afraid,” they uttered. The angel was bringing them good news, not just for them, but for all people. God was with them, right there in the midst of their terror.
Filled with that reality, the shepherds couldn’t wait to get to Bethlehem. They had to see this new baby. The one who would bring hope to the world. The one who would change things. Once they saw Jesus, they couldn’t keep the news to themselves.
It was hard for people to believe. They were amazed. Who would have thought that this kind of news, this important news, would have been delivered to the likes of shepherds? The angel had met the shepherds out in the fields. Not only did they bring light to the darkness, they brought hope and great joy to the entire world.
That’s the truth that we celebrate today. God meets us in the midst of all that terrified us. It’s there, in the darkness that presses down on us from time to time, that we hear the voice of the angel once again. “Don’t be afraid,” words that echo in the light that pierces all of our darknesses. “Don’t be afraid, for God is bringing great joy!”
Not just in the fields so long ago. Tonight. Right here in Fenton. Right now in the midst of all that terrifies us. Tonight we join the shepherds in Behtlehem. We gaze upon this tiny, newborn baby boy. Born to bring change. Born to bring peace. Born to bring love. God’s love.
Don’t be afraid,
My love is stronger,
Stronger than your fear.
Don’t be afraid.
My love is stronger.
And I have promised.
Promised to be always near.