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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 Savior, 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 favors!’
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.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a guy named Harry who was walking down the street and happened upon his good friend, Tim. Harry waved him over and told him he had the craziest dream the other night. Tim listened as Harry told him that the dream consisted of just one thing: a huge, bright number “5.” It was made of gold and shone like the sun. Tim’s eyebrows went up with curiosity. Harry continued to tell him that the first thing he did that day was to look up the local horse racing track contenders. Tim raised an eyebrow. Harry told him that the number 5 contender in the 5th race was named, “The Fifth Element.” Tim started grinning. Then Harry told him what he did to make sure he got his luck working in his favor. He ate 5 bowls of cereal for breakfast and drank 5 cups of orange juice. He went for a 5 mile jog to feel good. He spent 5 minutes in the shower washing off. He dressed in the 5th shirt he found on the rack. He sat in his car for 5 minutes before beginning to drive, then he drove to the racetrack and parked in the 5th stall in the 5th row. Harry entered through the 5th admissions gate and bought 5 programs. He went to the 5th betting window and bet $555 on the 5th horse in the 5th race. He went and sat in the 5th row of the bleachers making sure there were 5 people sitting on both sides of him. He settled in and waited for the race to start. “Well,” said Tim. “Did your horse win?!?” Harry frowned at Tim and said, “Stupid horse came in 5th.”
You can’t say God’s favor wasn’t working for Harry despite all his preparatory efforts. God’s favor was consistent through and through. Of course, the Fifth Element came in 5th place…consistent! But sheesh, it would have been nice to hear he won. What good is God’s favor if no one benefits from it?!
So we return to the familiar passage from Luke, ch. 2. It’s an important passage to include in the overall Christmas narrative because it adds a necessary element to the narrative: the shepherds. If you heard my message last night, you can recall that God chose to disrupt the lives of the lowly shepherds. They were just going about their business, tending to their sheep in the fields throughout the night, and God came to them through an angel to tell them about the birth of Jesus. They went into Bethlehem and confirmed what the angel had told them. They, in turn, shared what the angel had said about Jesus being the Messiah, the Lord. Traditionally, we consider the shepherds to be the first evangelists, the first ones to tell the world about Jesus. But really they only shared what the angel had told them, not their own personal encounter with Jesus. In all fairness, I believe true evangelism involves sharing a personal witness or encounter with Christ. The shepherds simply hadn’t had that personal witness so to consider them evangelists at all is inaccurate. Nonetheless, tradition holds them to be the first evangelists. Nestled within their encounter with the angel, we heard the angel along with a multitude of angels make an interesting proclamation: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” It’s an interesting proclamation because it implies that God doesn’t bring peace to those He doesn’t favor. Peace and favor go together with God. There is no peace for God’s unfavored which generally holds true. But the angels’ proclamation then makes me reflect on what it means to be in God’s favor. Sure, there is a peace that comes from being in God’s favor but why? How does one receive God’s favor? Are there other qualities of being in God’s favor? Is God’s favor only bestowed in dreams as it was for Harry?
The gift of Jesus reflects being in God’s favor. We are all in God’s favor having all received Jesus Christ. Only those who choose not to receive the gift can be considered God’s unfavored. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t all been offered the gift. God’s favor in and through Christ is for ALL of us! What a great gift of love and mercy! Our God is a generous God, a gracious God! In Psalm 84, we sing, “for the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.” (vs. 11) This is why God’s favor offers peace. In it, He provides the sun to nourish and grow us while at the same time protect us as a shield would. Good things come with God’s favor. Proverbs tell us, “my child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them round your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people.” (3:1-4) God’s favor not only bestows peace but length of days and years of life and abundant welfare, not to mention good repute in the sight of God and of people. God’s favor is truly a good and gracious gift. It always leads to a long and fruitful life. God’s favor was bestowed on many people in scripture including Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Isaiah, and even lowly Mary. Just look at the life and fruit if provided!
God’s favor may be given to all through Jesus but not all receive it. Why? Because not all are willing and/or able to receive God’s favor. In both that Psalm and Proverb, we heard God’s favor being received by those “who walk uprightly” and “keep God’s commandments.” God’s favor can only be received by those who are accustomed to hearing and obeying God. God’s commands enable us to receive his favor, plain and simple. Don’t heed his commands, don’t receive his favor.
Today we celebrate God’s greatest gift to us, his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. He is the greatest gift because he teaches us how to love and serve God and each other. He frees us from our bondage to sin and enables us to live without fear. He does as the prophet Isaiah, foretold, “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” (58:11) Thus it is having Jesus in our lives. What a gift indeed! Truly we have received God’s favor through him! Let us heed God’s commands and walk uprightly so that we might actually receive him. Most importantly, let us give God thanks for such a gift. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.