February 22, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE NIGHT SHIFT WORKERS
Luke 1:46-53, 2:8-12
The first in a series of eight.
I’m beginning to think there must be two official groundhogs, one for the east coast and one for the west coast. You’ve heard of Punxsutawney Phil. He came out of his hole back in Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day and immediately the entire eastern United States was in the grip of some of the worst winter weather they have ever experienced. And right about the same time, out here in the west, our winter gloom and cold finally ended and we have been enjoying some unseasonably delightful weather. So I figure we must have our own groundhog.
But Groundhog Day means more than weather. Ever since that Bill Murray movie a few years ago, Groundhog Day has taken on the secondary meaning of getting stuck in an endless time loop and having the same things happen over and over again.
I mention this because what I’m about to say, you’ve heard before: “Luke and Acts were written by the same person. Luke tells the story of Jesus. Acts tells the story of the church.” Does that sound familiar? I said it last fall. I said it more than once when I preached a series on Acts. Today we begin a series on Luke.
It seems a good day to begin a series because today is the first Sunday in Lent. We are preparing for Easter on April 5. Who knows, by then we might be getting our turn at the weather they’re having back east. Lent is traditionally a time to give something up, so I’m going to suggest something you might consider giving up. How about five minutes of your time each day? That’s all it will take for you to read the entire book of Luke before Easter. You were afraid I was going to ask you to give something else up, weren’t you?
Each of the four Gospels that tell the story of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, tell the same story from a particular point of view. The different authors emphasize different things. What Luke emphasizes more than any of the other Gospels is the concern Jesus had for the nobodies. You can find this on every page. Look for it as you read.
There were a lot of nobodies when Jesus walked this earth. There always has been. I would define a nobody as anyone who is looked down upon and considered a lesser human being for whatever reason. Now of course, we all know that in God’s eyes there are no nobodies. Everyone is a somebody. We believe that, but people have always had a hard time living up to that belief. Jesus came to help us live up to that belief, to help us see how much God loves the nobodies, to help those of us who might be considered somebodies to do all in our power to make nobodies feel like somebodies. And Luke, writing the book that bears his name, wants to be certain we don’t miss that.
You may remember from the fall series that both Luke and Acts are dedicated to a man named Theophilus. Theophilus is Greek for “lover of God”. So it could be just a general dedication to anyone who loves God. But in Luke it doesn’t just say “Theophilus”. It says “most excellent Theophilus”, which implies it was a real person. And also that Theophilus was not a nobody. He was a somebody. He was a very important somebody. So I imagine Luke writing this with Theophilus in mind, knowing that Theophilus especially was one who needed to know how important nobodies were to Jesus.
There are some of you here this morning who are feeling like a nobody right now. This book was written for you. And there some of you here this morning who are feeling like a somebody. This book was written for you, too. And there are many of us who go through life with moments when we feel like a nobody and moments when we feel like a somebody. This book was also written for us. It was written for all of us.
Luke tells the Christmas story in its most beautiful and most familiar form. Our scriptures for today tell part of that story. We don’t usually read Christmas scriptures in Lent, but these Christmas scriptures help us see that Luke is the Gospel of the Nobodies.
First, Mary and Joseph were a couple of nobodies. And they lived in a town that was not at all highly regarded. They lived in Nazareth. We have a word for a place like Nazareth. Podunk. Now I’m a little sensitive to ridiculing a town just because not many people live there. My hometown is pretty small. But I am well aware of the stereotype that the bigger your city the more important you are and the smaller your little Podunk wide spot in the road, the more you qualify as a nobody.
Gridley, Kansas is extremely small. It’s not even on the main road. I understand that there are six gravel roads that take off from the main road, any one of which will get you eventually to Gridley. So somebody put up a makeshift sign in front of the first of these gravel roads. The sign said, “Gridley, Next 6 Exits”.
Nazareth was like that. Jesus once was ridiculed because of his hometown. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) The implication is that if you come from a place like Nazareth, you’ve got to be a nobody.
The somebodies lived in Sepphoris. Sepphoris was not quite four miles from Nazareth. It was the big, modern, prosperous city. People in Sepphoris looked down their noses at people from Nazareth. People like Jesus.
Or like Mary. She may have been 12 years old when she became engaged to Joseph. That was typical. Engaged at 12, married at 13. She was a girl, not a woman. It is unlikely that she knew how to read. Her best opportunity to make something of herself would have been as a servant to some rich person in Sepphoris. She was a nobody from a nothing town. And yet God chose her for the most important job there ever could be. She would carry God’s Son in her womb. She would give birth to him. She would care for him. She would stand at the foot of the cross one day as he was crucified.
When the angel told her this, she had to tell someone. She couldn’t keep it to herself. So she told her older cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you among women.” And Mary responded with what has come to be known as the Magnificat.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in
God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden . . . He has scattered the proud in the
imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty
from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he
has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he
has sent empty away. (Luke 1:46-48,51-53)
Did you hear the “somebodies” and the “nobodies” in that passage? God is lifting up the nobodies. God is bringing down the somebodies. So what does God have against somebodies? Here’s the problem: When we think we are a somebody, when we think we are pretty hot stuff, there is nowhere for us to go but down. Proverbs warns of that. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18) That’s what Mary is saying here. She sounds like an Old Testament prophet. The high and the mighty, the proud and the boastful, will all eventually come crashing down.
I think a lot of us struggle with pride. I know I do. It kind of goes with being a preacher. If you don’t have self-confidence and a healthy ego, you really should be doing something else. I stand up in front of a group like this every week and I am the center of attention. Everyone is looking at me and listening to me and sometimes even laughing at my jokes. I learned a long time ago to watch this real carefully. People will tell you how great you are and pretty soon you will start to believe it. And it’s not a big step from there to believing that the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to you. There is a long list of respected preachers in big churches who reached the pinnacle of prestige and then came crashing down in a spectacular way. It makes me thankful this isn’t a big church. And it makes me thankful that we have a few in this church who do a pretty good job of keeping me humble.
There is an insect called the emerald ash borer that I understand will bore itself through the bark and into the trunk of an ash tree. It can eat away and eat away unnoticed until there is no real substantial wood left. The tree can still be standing tall and from a distance look healthy. But eventually it is so rotten inside that a gust of wind can knock it over.
That’s the way it can be with us. We can become way too impressed with ourselves. We think we’re a pretty big deal. And when we start thinking that way about ourselves there’s a tendency to think of other people as not such a big deal. We can keep that hidden for awhile. We know it’s not socially acceptable to go around acting like a big shot. It’s better to act humble, and we can put on a pretty good act. But eventually something happens to irritate us and then in that unguarded moment the humility act goes away. We react and we treat someone poorly. The way we really feel inside comes out.
Mary was right. God does have a way of bringing down the proud and lifting up the lowly. Which is good news for the lowly. But what about those of us who struggle with pride? The best insecticide I know of that we can use on that emerald ash pride bug that is eating us up from the inside out is to consciously and deliberately do things to lift up the lowly. Not because we are so humble but because we are so prideful and we know we need to get past the act and start living the way we really want to be.
God came to someone who knew she was a nobody and said to her, “Mary, you’re not a nobody. You’re a somebody to me. I have exalted your lowly estate. You will bear my Son.”
But not in Nazareth. She was nine months pregnant and she had to travel 80 miles. There’s no record in the Bible of Mary riding on a donkey. It was a long hard journey, but it was necessary because the Roman emperor had ordered a census so he could raise more money in taxes. He didn’t care if a woman was nine months pregnant. That didn’t matter to him. His decree was that the man of the family had to return to his hometown, which for Joseph was Bethlehem.
They get there after this 8 to 10 day trip on foot and then there is no room for them in the inn. So the birth takes place, to the best of our historical reconstruction, in an underground cave. That’s where the animals were sheltered. If you visit Bethlehem today, you will find the place where Jesus is thought to have been born under a church where the cave may have been. You have to go down the stairs to get there. That’s the birthing room. That’s where the first bed Jesus slept in was an animal’s feeding trough.
Are you getting the point? God humbled himself. God became as low and lowly and unimportant as we can imagine.
I’ve been to that church in Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity. You go outside that church and look around and you see in the distance an odd looking mountain. It’s called the Herodium. It’s man-made. It was made about the time Jesus was born. It is named after King Herod. Herod was a somebody. He was such a somebody, he built a mountain. He actually tore down one mountain so he could build another mountain right next to it. Now why would he want to do that? Because he could. Because he was such a big deal. Herod built a palace for himself on the top of that mountain. I guess he liked the view. And what you can see from the top of the Herodium is the very place where Jesus was born in cave and laid in an animal’s feeding trough. What a contrast! The palace on top of a man-made mountain and the cave that smelled like animals. It calls into question all our assumptions about what true greatness really is.
One more thing. You’re wondering when I’m going to get to the night shift workers. Who did God invite to be the very first ones, other than Mary and Joseph, to hold the baby? I think you know the story. On the night Jesus was born there were shepherds out in the field keeping watch over their flock by night. Shepherds were the lowliest of the low. The only occupation lower than that of a shepherd was that of a night shepherd. The night shift workers. No one wanted that job.
But they were the ones visited by the angels. They were told of the “good news of a great joy that will come to all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in [an animal’s feeding trough].” Lying in a manger.
Why would God extend a special invitation to the birthplace of the Son of God to shepherds of all people? Of all the people God could have invited, night shift shepherds would be about the last ones you would expect. Shepherds were looked down upon. They were considered dishonest. For that reason, they were not allowed to testify in court. They were low class people. No money. Often all they owned were the sheep they were watching. Maybe 12 sheep. That was your net worth. Or maybe you were watching someone else’s sheep. You owned nothing. They owned no land, so they had to use the land of others. How would you like sheep grazing in your back yard? People of that day didn’t like it either. Shepherds were dirty. They lived outdoors with their sheep. They smelled like their sheep. They were disgusting lowlifes no one wanted to be around. And they’re the ones who get the engraved invitations to the first Christmas.
What was God doing? It’s pretty clear, isn’t it? God was saying to the shepherds: “The world says you are nobodies but I say that you are somebodies. And so I’m going to give you the honor that everyone else thinks you don’t deserve.”
Nobodies matter to God. So do somebodies. God exalts the lowly and humbles the proud, because there is no higher or lower in God’s eyes. We are all just people. Loved by God, forgiven by God, redeemed by God. Jesus wanted us to know that. Luke made sure we didn’t miss it.
Dear God, as we sing in that Christmas song, “Jesus came for everyone, everyone alive.” So whenever we are feeling low, rejected, unloved, lift us up. Restore us to our rightful place as your beloved sons and daughters. And whenever we are feeling just a little too big and important, humble us. Restore us to our rightful place as servants who find joy and purpose in helping others. Lead us day by day as we journey through Lent. May we grow, however we most need to grow, to become more like Jesus. In his name we pray, Amen.