When the 16th century reformer Martin Luther said of the Christmas story that he would rather be one of the shepherds than any Pope, he was not only casting aspersions on the papacy. He was making a statement about the way God works in the world, where God shows up and how.
What Luther was saying then and we can say now is that God defies all expectations. God does not show up where expected, in the places necessarily valued by the culture. God does not show up in the political halls of power and empire. God does not show up in the temple or among religious structures. God does not show up on Wall Street and centers of commerce. God does not show up where news crews assume it’s happening. God does not show up in the great centers of learning. God does not show up according to our time tables and schedules. God does not show up by force or coercion. However one might expect it, God shows up in none of these places.
No, in this story God shows up in the most unlikely of places. God shows up among shepherds. And the first thing we must ask ourselves is just where the shepherds were located.
Shepherds were living outside urban areas, far from the centers of power. Within their own agrarian peasant class they were at the bottom of the social ladder, a place often reserved for the very young or very poor. They lived where they worked which was wherever the flock needed to be. They lived in the fields. They were often migrants, shifting with the seasons to different grazing lands, without permanent home. In every respect they lived on the edge of everything.
And why, you might be wondering, do the angels make their appearance there and to them? Why is so much revealed far from the center of presumed power, enterprise, attention and religious virtue?
And what is this carefully crafted message from angels for shepherds in the fields?
What are they expected to hear through their terror, hear and pass on? What they hear is that they should not be afraid. In fact, the message is for them. What they hear is a sacred song luring them from the edge all the way to a baby who barely has a toehold in this world. Why in the world would such a message be entrusted to such as these? Why would Luther rather be one of these shepherds than every priest, pope or king who ever lived?
The answer is disarmingly simple: If the good news of great joy is going to make it to all the people it will have to start at the edge and work toward the center. It never works the other way around. Herod won’t pass it on. Neither will the High Priest. All those who broker such things will inevitably keep and use and hoard them. This is the human inclination to territory, to self-serving control.
Thankfully, God never uses a trickle-down approach. Against all expectations, God employs a different divine economy, a trickle up plan.
The good news of great joy that causes the heavenly host to sing “glory to God in the highest” starts with shepherds at the farthest edge and works toward all the people from there. It is to these unsuspecting and shocked shepherds that the good news is entrusted, not by virtue of any status, power, wealth or learning. They have been entrusted with the precious news because they have nothing to lose; because they are the least inclined to misuse and distort it for their own purposes. They run with empty hands toward Bethlehem, no agenda other than delivering the news.
You can only imagine the difference this makes to the holy family, these peasants who have traveled far for the census. The news is born by those on the edge, shepherds with nothing to defend or claim as their own. They come wanting to see for themselves what has been told them. And so they do.
When someone on the edge, out of nowhere, with no discernible agenda appears, there is epiphany.
So it was for the young mother of the baby and her husband and all the Bethlehem family gathered in the courtyard of the house, because there was no guest room available. They, too, were on the edge of everything, God’s preferred revelation locale.
It was a peasant-to-peasant call they made that night, and everyone – from the shepherds to the family – were stunned by the way the Spirit was working everything out. There was no rule book. No star performers. And yet God was starkly, palpably, purposefully present.
Of course, that dramatic contrast between the edge and the center, the contrast set in the beginning of the story, would stay that way until the end. God just kept showing up at every edge life contained until off the edge the world decided to throw him.
Whenever we wonder why our sense of the Presence of God has grown stale or cold we might consider that we may have grown much too comfortable with the center of life as we know it.
We may need to go to the edge of the known to find what is hidden. We may need to look for God out beyond the expected and familiar and orthodox. We may need to go out with the shepherds, with those who claim nothing for themselves in order that we might receive much.
Angels still sing for those who will listen. But we will never hear them with hearts tuned to the frequency adopted by the world. Rather, we will hear when our hearts are open to the wide open spaces beyond our control, out at the edge where God still chooses to come, baffling all those who continue to predict how and where and when it will happen next.
Run, shepherds, from field to town, from town to room, from room to manger, from edge to edge. Take us with you. It’s time to leave this place and bow down at the simplest, most beautiful altar on the edge of the world.