When I was in third grade, there was a kid named Mario.

Most people had a Mario in their class growing up. He was the local bully and he liked to pick on other kids.  He always hung out with these two guys, just like you see in the movies.  I don’t know what their names were, but they were like his goon squad; a Crabbe and Goyle to his Malfoy if you follow the Harry Potter series.  Mario was a punk kid with a skinny frame and long wavy hair, and he liked to punch people.  He’s the kid in class who knew the principle on a first name basis and was routinely sent to the office.  He’d challenge other boys to meet him after school and if you didn’t show up, he’d tell people you chickened out.  As you can imagine, his prowess at beating people up grew, even though I don’t know of anyone he actually fought.  Well, I avoided Mario as much as the next guy.  I wasn’t much into fighting and three-to-one odds are never in anyone’s favor.  But one day, I got “the challenge.”  I didn’t want people to think I was a chicken and I didn’t want to live in fear that Mario would find some other way to beat me up, so I showed up by the drinking fountains outside of C-building like I was instructed but it seemed pretty hopeless.  Me against three guys?  It seemed like my only hope was that Mario wasn’t going to show up.  But sure enough, after school, Mario came walking toward me, his two goons with him as he was picking his teeth.  A couple of people showed up to see what would happen, but no one dared approach me or stand by me for fear of getting beat up also.  It looked like I was going to lose my first fight.  So, there I was, my little fists balled up next to me like I was rarin’ for a gunfight, scared but determined to stand up for my honor.  But before either of us could make a move, my friend Greg came out from behind the door next to the drinking fountain and yelled at Mario, “Back off or you’ll have to fight me, too!”  The three of them just looked up at Greg, turned around, and took off.  See, Greg was about a foot taller than me, and in 3rd grade, a foot is a big deal.  He was stronger than anyone in the class, and everyone knew it, and he was my friend.  We didn’t hang out or anything, but I always helped him with his math. One time he told me, “If you ever need anything, you just let me know.”  And he was as good as his word.  After that incident he said to me, “If anyone gives you trouble again, you tell me and I’ll come beat them up for you.”  I felt pretty safe after that.

The thing is, that day I didn’t know what would happen.

I was pretty scared.  I never had to fight anyone before and really didn’t want to.  But I couldn’t see a way out of it until Greg showed up.  Hope that day came to me from an unexpected place.  But I find that in life that’s how God often works.  He brings us hope from unexpected places.  He brings us hope from unexpected places.  We see this as a common theme in the Bible.  God often uses people least likely to fulfill his promises and because they are so unlikely, we know they must come from God.  No other story could exemplify that more boldly than the story we are all brought together to celebrate tonight – the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.  If you have a Bible and want to follow along of just want to make notes, we’ll be reading from Luke 2:8-20.  Luke 2:8-20.  Of all the different narratives of Jesus’ birth, this one is my favorite.  The actually birth itself is really short in Luke’s story, pretty much just verses 6 and 7.  But the announcement of his birth is not only spectacular, but unlikely.  And I think that in this story we find again that hope comes from unexpected places.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

That has to be the best line ever.

“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord.”  The generations of people in Israel, born and gone who have been waiting for the savior – that time has finally arrived.  The Lord of all the people, the Christ child is born.  But this is not the story the people of Israel probably imagined.  Christ himself was not what they imagined.  The people expected a high and mighty leader who would energize and rally the Hebrew people into taking back their lands and lead them to be a dominant people.  But that isn’t what happened at all.  In fact, pretty much nothing happened as they expected. This was the birth of the most powerful, most holy person in the universe, and yet look at the details of his story.  He was born to a father who was not high in social standing being a carpenter.  His parents were from the tiny town of Nazareth.   And when I say tiny, I mean TINY.  In Adam Hamilton’s book, The Journey, he said that the town was so small that it wasn’t even mentioned among the 63 other villages associated with Galilee in the Hebrew Talmud or the 45 mentioned by the historian Josephus.[1]  In fact, there were likely only 100 to 400 people in his entire town.  100 to 400 people.  That’s it.  You could drive through that town in two seconds on the back of a camel.  In fact, it was such a tiny town that Nathanael who would later become one of Jesus’ 12 disciples insults it when Phillip tells him about Jesus.  He says in John 1:46, “Nazareth!  Can anything good come from there?” but it wouldn’t be long before even he came around and recognized Jesus for who he really is – the Son of God, the Son of the Most High.

And let’s look at the details of our Gospel story today.

Shepherds seeking Jesus and following the light of the star
Shepherds seeking Jesus and following the light of the star

What was so amazing to me is that in this story, the proclamation of the birth of Christ comes first to a group of shepherds.  Because we have grown up with the Christmas story, most of us probably don’t give it a second thought.  We think of cute little boys and girls wearing traditional garb and carrying a little crook, but the idea that the angels would go to a group of shepherds at all, let alone go to them first would have seemed incredulous to 1st century Christians.  Shepherds were considered among the lower-class in Jewish society.  They were located toward the bottom of the socio-economic ladder because they were “typically uneducated, usually poor,… and smelled like dirty sheep.”[2]  They were often looked down upon because of this but also because they would often have their animals graze on other people’s land.  Imagine how upset we get today when the neighbors’ dog or cat roams freely around our yard.  Now multiple that by the number of sheep in a flock and you get the picture.  So why on earth would God reveal himself first to the shepherds?  Why not to King Herod or to the Jewish leaders or to the high priest?  Wouldn’t that have made more sense?  People would have believed right away had the high priest of the temple proclaimed the birth of the savior!

Yet God often brings us hope from unexpected places. 

We might think it would be natural to use Herod or the other Jewish leaders to share the good news, but the high priest would likely have cast doubt about the authenticity of the birth of Christ and we know King Herod reacted to the birth of Christ by seeking to kill him.  No, God went to the shepherds, to Mary, to Joseph, to a tiny town called Nazareth for a reason.  If you look at 1 Cornithians 1:26-31 we hear the words of Paul who sums it up so nicely.  “26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’”  God can bring hope to you in even the worst of circumstances.  It may come from corners you never thought to look in, from people you never thought to seek help from.  But God can bring us relief and comfort from unexpected places.  That doesn’t mean that life will be perfect if you just have enough faith.  That doesn’t mean that things will always go your way, because they won’t.  But it does mean that no matter the circumstance, we can hold onto hope knowing that ultimately, our hope lies in the saving grace of Jesus Christ who promised us a better eternal future.

On the flip side of that, we also need to be receptive to God’s work in our lives.

The shepherds were willing to leave their sheep to find the baby Jesus.  And once there, they were willing to spread the good news about Christ’s birth to anyone who would listen. The Bible tells us that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”  In the same way that God chose the shepherds, God can choose any one of us to be the messenger of hope in someone’s life.  Whether that is from some financial means, by offering a shoulder to cry on, or simply standing up for a friend when they need you the most, God can use any of us to provide hope in someone’s life.  We have a responsibility as the children of God to be responsive when God calls on us to act.  As it says in Matthew 5:14-16, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Do not think of yourselves as less than you are.  God has a history of using people who felt they were unequipped to do mighty and outrageous things in his name.  I think about Gideon and David and Ruth and Esther and Moses and of course the most important of all – Jesus who was born of lowly standing under lowly circumstances to save all of us.  Surely God can use you, too.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Hamilton, p. 15.

[2] Hamilton, p. 113.

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