Psalm 23; Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 2:8-20
by Daniel Harrell
Any familiarity with tonight’s Old Testament passage from Isaiah 40 likely comes from having heard it sung as part of Handel’s Messiah. The entire oratorio commences with the tenor strain of verse 1: “Comfort ye—comfort ye my people says your God.” As I kid, I sang a pre-pubescent-broken tenor in our little North Carolina church choir alongside my parents, various cousins and anybody else able to carry a tune without a bucket. In dire need of a tune up in time for Christmas, we turned to a new choir director who was somehow convinced, insanely so, that the best way forward was to have our dinky and discordant ensemble tackle, you guessed it, Handel’s Messiah. The lady was clearly crazy, something she attributed to having great faith. She rode us like a Christmas donkey for a whole year of rehearsals, and remarkably, even miraculously, managed to get us all the way to Bethlehem.
Accompanied by our clunky little electric organ on a cold winter’s night, we cheerily rendered Part I plus the Hallelujah Chorus in front of a packed church gathered mostly to pray for us not to embarrass ourselves. I got tapped for one tiny tenor solo, which I practiced a million times but still sang too fast and nervously off key. Still, by the end, at the last trumpet blast, we felt like Handel himself described having felt upon completing his masterpiece. He said, “I think I did see all heaven open before me, and the great God himself.” Our tiny congregation leapt up in praise for our effort. Not bad for a bunch of bumpkins. So relieved were we as a choir for having finished we never dared sing it again. We worried, I’m sure, that God might not show up so noticeably next time.
Here in Isaiah, God’s people were surely worried about God showing up—whether for good or for ill. Amidst calamitous ruin caused by their own duplicity, their country had been reduced to rubble by a Babylonian onslaught—not unlike what we’ve witnessed of late in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Syria is home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, dating back to biblical times. With disturbing irony, this community depends on the despotic President Bashar al-Assad for protection—a deal with the devil some say. At the same time, Christian relief workers risk their lives to assist persecuted Shiite families targeted for extermination. President Assad arrogantly lauds his recapture of Aleppo as an event on par with the birth of Jesus. A better comparison might be to King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
For the Israelites in Isaiah, a despairing shame casts a deep shadow. They’ve no future as far as they can see. But just then, the music builds and the tenor line resounds, “Comfort my people says your God.” The Lord extends loving arms of renewal, reconciliation, forgiveness and grace. Though spurned and abandoned by his people, God’s steadfast mercy proves relentless. Like the longing father who races to embrace his repentant child, God eagerly makes possible the redemption of his prodigal people.
A heavenly voice commands construction to commence: a highway be paved in the wasteland. Fill in the valleys, level the hills, straighten the curves, smooth out the rocky places, remove every obstacle to glory. The God who flung galaxies and stars into space, who spoke light and life into being, this infinite God of power and might would fling himself to earth to rescue the world. But as a baby. “Unto us a child is born… the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” As one writer put it, in Christ, God “became not just the author of the human drama but an actor in it.”
Despite news too good to be kept to yourself, Isaiah hedged on whether to share it. Protective of God’s honor, he’d been burned by the chosen people’s bad choices. Over and over they’d refused any grace they’d been offered. Commanded to “cry out,” Isaiah doesn’t know what to say. He summarizes the predicament: “All people are grass and their faithfulness fades like flowers.” Breathe on them one word from the Lord and they’ll wilt with dubious indifference. It’s like finally finding the perfect Christmas gift only to have it unwrapped with awkward silence. Why did you even bother?
That’s OK, we insist, it’s the thought that counts. Except that research shows gift recipients like thoughtless present just as much and sometimes more than the ones we obsess to get right. One psychology study showed the only situation where the thought did count was when someone received a bad gift from a friend or a relative. In these cases the receivers thought their loved ones knew them better.
As givers we place a high premium on the unwrapping moment. If immediate delight isn’t displayed, we immediately concede something must be wrong with this relationship? “Why is she so ungrateful? He doesn’t deserve me. Our love is doomed.” On the other hand, recipients are thinking, “What is this?” “Do I need it?” “Can I use it?” “Will I have to dust it?”
Such psychology applies in a lot of places. I was breakfasting with a friend at one of our city’s exclusive uptown coffee shops over the holidays—a incandescently lit spot with antique-looking fixtures, exposed brick walls with tin ceilings, hip music—a precious Brooklyn vibe bordering on the cliché—the kind of pretentiousness I relish. Freezing cold and early morning bleary, I ordered my coffee straight up and strong—a cherry dried Costa Rican Edgar Ureña Imperial Reserve topped off with an elegant chocolate toned espresso shot with notes of sweet papaya. They charged for a cup what I typically pay for a pound, each bean roasted one at a time by hand, I presumed, as it took twenty minutes to brew. Anything less would have been unbearably excruciating.
Imagine my disillusionment when my coffee, while tasty, turned up tepid, not nearly hot enough. As my pretentiousness comes with a few principles, I returned to the counter with my coffee and asked whether my barista might pop it into the microwave? She looked at me with due disgust, pried her precious caffeinated creation from my plebeian grip, declared me unworthy and pointed me down the street to the Super-America.
Isaiah deemed his customers unworthy too. And they were. We are. None deserve a drop of God’s grace. We are withering grass and fading flowers. Our faith fickle and presumptuous. God gives gifts we open with insufficient delight and gratitude, wondering instead: “What is this?” “Do I need it?” “Would you mind popping it in the microwave?” And yet every Christmas the same perfect gift is lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes and given again. “The grass indeed withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will persist forever.”
“So go tell it on the mountain,” the Lord commands Isaiah. “Lift up your voice and say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God! He comes with might, his arm is strong and his reward is with him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather his lambs in his arms and carry them home.” The immediate context is Israel’s triumphant return to Jerusalem from their Babylonian captivity—but captivity can take many shapes, some not of our choosing but others self-imposed. Even our best intentions and virtuous deeds can be tainted with self-interest; our most righteous aspirations invariably skewed.
As the apostle Paul confessed, and we so often confirm, “I decide one way, but then act another. I want to do good, but don’t really do it.” And so God intervenes, but not by rewriting the script. As one columnist put it today, in Christ at Christmas, God “became not just the author of the human drama but an actor in it.” The Lord entered the scene silently, in the darkness of night when few people were looking—to simple shepherds living in fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
An angel of the Lord shone before them with glory, as happened to shepherds before. Abraham, Moses, David—the great patriarch, prophet and king—major Bible heroes were all herding sheep when God’s glory showed up. Abraham was a homeless shepherd without a family, Moses a fugitive shepherd hiding from the authorities. David the runt of his brothers, stuck working an entry level shepherd job. Then as now, being a shepherd wasn’t glamorous or profitable. Some sources say shepherds were shady characters whose dirty work barred them polite society. Nobody wanted to do it. Cute kids wear bathrobes and dishtowels as shepherds in Christmas pageants, but real shepherds are dusty and smelly and struggle to manage their wayward flocks. The title “pastor” means shepherd. That explains a lot too.
The shepherds in Luke’s gospel also had to work Christmas Eve, and most likely their lambs and their pastures were rentals. They drank lousy coffee from Super America and barely scraped together a living. Low class laborers, loners and outliers, maybe not the best singers, these black sheep are you and me, ones to whom angels appear every year and beckon to come open your present, a savior who is Christ our Lord. Shepherds come and see, they delight and praise God, then go and tell to the amazement of all who heard. A no account choir can sing a great hallelujah.
Christ is born to shepherds like us, but also born like a shepherd for us. He gathers us his lambs in his arms and carries us even through the valley of the shadow of death so that we will not be afraid of anything anymore. “What is this?” “Do I need it?” “Can I use it?” Of course. It’s perfect.