I mentioned last week that I plan to do something a little different with my sermons during this season of Advent. I am stepping away from the lectionary readings in order to offer a devotional focus on the Nativity scene. Each Sunday I want to reflect on a person, group, or element of the Nativity as a way to lead us more fully into the Feast of Christ’s Incarnation. I began last week by preaching about the donkey and how its presence at the Nativity signifies that the Incarnation is an event intended for all of creation. And I invited us to ponder how creation sings a song of praise to the One who called it forth. Think about the words of one of our favorite Christmas Carols:
Joy to the world! the Lord is come:
let earth receive her King;
let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the world! the Savior reigns;
let us our songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
repeat the sounding joy.
This morning I want to add to our devotional focus the presence of shepherds and magi.
The story of the shepherds is recorded in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel. The night of Jesus’ birth they are in nearby fields tending to their sheep. An angel of the Lord appears to them and tells them the Good News of the Savior’s birth. The message is followed up with song as a chorus of angels breaks froth in praise (and we’ll explore the role of the angels in more depth next Sunday). The shepherds leave their sheep and rush into town where they find the Nativity scene exactly as it had been described to them. They tell their story to the new parents and to unnamed others who are gathered around. The text says that “everyone was amazed at what the shepherds said to them” but that Mary pondered them in her heart (and we’ll think more about Mary and Joseph in two weeks). The shepherds then leave town and return to their sheep praising God and thanking God for what they had seen.
The story of the magi, or wise men, is recorded in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. We tend to think that there were three of them, but Matthew does not name or number them. They arrive in Jerusalem looking for the newborn king of the Jews, an event they discerned by the appearance of a star. They make public inquirers about where the new king might have been born. As they go about they stir up quite a commotion and word of them finds its way the Roman ruler, Herod. He gathers with Jewish priests and scribes who consult the scriptures and determine that the birth was prophesied to take place in Bethlehem. Herod then sets up a secret meeting with the magi to learn when the star first appeared. The text doesn’t tell us how much time has passed, but various clues suggest that it might have been as much as two years. Herod passes on the information about Bethlehem and requests that the magi return to tell him the location of the new king so that he too can worship him. That, of course, is a ruse. The magi take their leave. The star leads them to a house where the child is with His mother. They present their gifts and at some point have a dream warning them not to return to Herod with specific information about the child’s location.
It does not appear that the shepherds and the magi ever crossed paths. The two groups had little in common. The shepherds were locals, uneducated Jewish laborers who probably knew little of the world beyond their hometown and festival celebrations at the Temple in Jerusalem. The magi most likely came from Persia and appear to have been priests of Zoroastrianism. As such, they would have studied the stars and astrology; what passed for cutting edge science in their day. Everything about their appearance and dress must have seemed exotic; not so with the shepherds who, if they lived today, would most likely wear blue jeans and flannel shirts.
Both groups add great devotional significance to the Nativity. The shepherds represent our work, our labor, our energy, our daily tasks. Angels appear to them as they go about the work of their profession to announce the birth of a Savior. The presence the shepherds at the crèche signifies the dignity of all human labor.
In his Rule for living, St. Benedict has some very specific instructions for the monastery’s cellarer, the keeper of the kitchen. One instruction is to treat all the utensils and goods of the monastery as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. Those of you who serve on the Altar Guild (and your spouses) know the great devotion that goes into the care of our sacred objects. It goes beyond their monetary value (and some are quite expensive), and it goes beyond who the memory of those in whose honor they were given (and those folks are very dear to us). The Guild cares for our sacred things because they are used in the service of God. Elizabeth Gordon spent two days here this week polishing the brass on the pulpit. Roy Waller and Marty Wilson put in dozens of hours working on the new display for the Stations of the Cross. Here is what Benedict suggests: you should treat your mop and bucket with that same level of care because in God’s eyes there is no difference between the labor of cleaning the floor and the labor of crafting a sermon or offering a prayer or consecrating the bread and wine. Everything we do is to be holy; be it balancing an account sheet at the office, listening attentively to one of your students, or preparing a popular hymn to be sung during the Processional.
Our work is sacred and the presence of the shepherds at the Nativity invites us to bring what we do into the presence of the Savior. It is interesting that the angels announced to the shepherds the birth of a ‘Savior’ and to the magi the birth of a ‘king’. How many of us need a savior to deliver us from the drudgery of our work and chores? How many of us yearn to find something sacred in what we do for a living and in the work we do to maintain a household? How many of us need a Savior to redeem our labor?
If the shepherds represent our work, then the magi represent our intellect. They were, in their day, on the leading edge of thought and discovery. They pursued their intellectual development without regard for culture, custom, or convention. Truth, for them, was truth, and they thirsted for it.
Christianity has had a mixed relationship with discovery, sometimes being at the forefront of progress while at other times obstructing it in the harshest ways imaginable. Did you know that the church forced Isaac Newton to recant his thinking on the law of gravity, saying it was heretical and against the teachings of the bible? Gravity!
I have been reading a book co-authored by a seminary professor and by a research scientist called Can You Believe in God and Evolution? Here is some of what the authors say:
“Our belief [is] that the best science and our best thinking about God belong together.”
[We have] “a divine call to study God’s creation through the eyes of the microscope and telescope.”
“The world God has made is complex and magnificent; and science provides the lenses through which we can view the fingerprints and footprints left by God’s history with our beautiful world.”
“We ask for a faith that trusts the truth, knowing that any truth – whether scientific truth or religious truth – must come ultimately from God.”
“We ask for a faith that sees itself as a seed, a seed willing to grow, blossom, and expand – a faith that is willing to deepen and enjoy the searchable as well as the unsearchable riches that God has placed before us.”
In some Christian quarters the thinking goes that everything we need to know about creation is in the bible. All that science does, they say, is twist our thinking and test our faith. They hold that discoveries about say, fossil evidence regarding evolution, are merely tricks designed by God to throw the unworthy off the true and narrow way. Well, the presence of the magi at birth of Jesus says hogwash to that kind of thinking. God has designed our minds, our intellects, our curiosity so that we can know creation and God did this knowing that it would always lead us to the new born King, the Author of creation. Just as the magi used the best intellectual resources at their disposal to find the King, so we too must put our intellect in the service of the King. No gift short of that will do.
So, along with joining in the song of praise sung by creation, this Advent we are invited to bring to the Incarnation the work of our hands and the work of our minds. We are invited to find the holy and sacred in both.