First Congregational Church
December 12, 2021
Third Sunday in Advent
“Signs, Signs, and More Signs”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A particular church congregation was holding their usual Christmas pageant; the children from Sunday School playing the parts. Mary and Joseph were in bathrobes . . . the Shepherds were carrying canes borrowed from grandparents, and Angels were under tinsel halos and white sheets. One particular mother was trying to get an angel costume onto her squirming son, as his sister stood by watching. "Boy!" she said. "Talk about miscasting!”
Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy are on their way to school. Lucy asks Linus if he has remembered to bring anything for show-and-tell that day.
"Yes," Linus answers, "I have a couple of things here to show the class." He then unfolds some papers. "These are copies I've been making of some of the Dead Sea scrolls," he says. Holding them up for Charlie Brown and Lucy to inspect, he continues. "This is a duplicate of the scroll of Isaiah, chapters 38-40. The original was made from 17 pieces of sheep skin and was found in a cave by a Bedouin shepherd.”
Pulling out another piece of paper he says, "Here I have made a copy of the earliest known scripture fragment ever found. It's a portion of 1 Samuel 23:9-16. I'll try to explain to the class how these manuscripts have influenced modern scholarship.”
Lucy responds, "Very interesting, Linus," and she turns to Charlie Brown, who has a frustrated expression on his face, and asks, "Are you bringing something for show-and-tell, Charlie Brown?” "Well," says a dejected Charlie Brown, "I had a little red fire engine here but I think I'll just forget it."
This morning’s scripture passage is a little like that little red fire engine. It’s a rather common section in our day and age, in that Linus has made part of it famous in the Charlie Brown Christmas movie. According to the author of Luke, the shepherds get a moment of fame, the angels less so. Even so, regardless of its familiarity, it is an important passage that we probably underestimate.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed,[b] who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[c]
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”[d]
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Thank you, Cooper. In my research for this message, thanks to Lori Wenger of sermons.com, I discovered the great injustice of long forgotten details of the nativity story through the centuries. We don’t know if they were literate, but when the shepherds had the opportunities, they probably went to the Temple to listen to the rabbis. And since neither radio nor tv were a big part of their lives, they probably spent a little time talking about those teachings with each other and other shepherds.
They were probably quite familiar with a passage from the Old Testament book of 2 Chronicles that states, “Don’t you know that the Lord the God of Israel has given the kingship of Israel to David – and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt?” This covenant of salt thing is an entire other layer to the coming of Christ as Savior and Messiah.
Swaddling a baby was a more significant thing back before Jesus’ time. Swaddling indicated a special status, loving protection and affection, and a kind of purity that signaled a very special birth. Whether salt was mixed with olive oil or water, the mixture would be rubbed on a baby before it was swaddled with strips of cloth, 2-3 inches wide from head to foot in such a way that it held the joints straight. And here I have thought for well over 50 years that the strips of cloth spoken of in connection with Jesus were about Mary and Joseph’s economic status - or lack thereof.
Under the Law of Moses, every sacrificial offering was made with salt as a covenant of peace. If salt wasn’t available, camel urine was used because of the salt content in it. The child wasn’t kept long in the wrapping, but it signified that he or she would be raised to be upright before the Lord, never crooked or wayward.
The shepherds would have known that this salt covenant was an everlasting one. They knew that ingesting salt made a legal agreement forever binding. Salt swaddled was code for “God wrapped in flesh,” the sign of the Shepherd King of Israel. As Bethlehem was so small, most folks would have known that both Mary and Joseph were of King David’s ancestry. They just had to figure out where and when this Messiah would be revealed, putting two and two together.
And then there’s the sign of the manger. The back story to the word manger is that in Hebrew, it indicates either a tent or a tabernacle - a holy tent - which is also code for “God with us.” Being so far removed, we tend not to realize that the “manger” had “God with us” written all over it, along with a little leftover hay maybe.
Oh, yeah, then there was that huge sign in the heavens that was called an angel host, singing and praising God when the birth happened, after the one-on-one with the single angel. I tried to find an actual number for host, and the only one I could find was 30,000-50,000 - from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books.
Maybe the host praise was a different sort of praise and song, like that of northern lights. But there was something that happened that caught the attention of the lowly shepherds and would have caused fear in any normal person, regardless of era.
It is quite a message: the odiferous shepherds, loyal and faithful of heart, considered to be on the lowest rungs of society, just above lepers, chosen to be the first human, messenger evangelists - bearers of Good News at a time that was dark with political unrest and uncertainty. Shepherds announcing the birth, women announcing Christ’s resurrection - interesting choices of messsengers. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, probably bathed in the most common element of salt, wrapped in swaddling cloths, laid in a manger, announced by a multitude of heavenly beings.
And just in case all that wasn’t enough, those angels and light - they are connected to God’s holy presence referred to as shekinah - the English transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning dwelling or settling of the divine presence of God. Whether the angelic message was “on earth peace, good will toward people” or “peace toward people of good will,” there is a correlation between sheep and peace found in Hebrews 13:20 - “the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep.”
Maybe we haven’t given the shepherds all their due over the years, nor the signs that God incorporated into the Good News that was sent to us. But we can surely include that layer of richness into our present worship and adoration of God with God’s gift of Emmanuel, God with us, as we pray.
Holy, Holy, Holy God, Lord of Heaven and Earth, we are a rich people simply because we are yours. And then you gave us your Son, with layers of signs and wonders and meaning greater than we often times realize. Thank you for imbuing so much of what know know with your nuances of meaning, importance and intent. Enable us to be even more aware of the signs that point to you, to your love and our blessing in that love. May that love rise up inside us as never before, that it would spill over in ways that are helpful and blessing to your kingdom. For all that you give us, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.