Our second Advent worship for 2011 continued to explore the folks who found themselves gathered around the manger on that first Christmas. The readings for December 4 focused on the shepherds, and included Luke 2:8-20 and Psalm 34:8-14
So…What do you suppose is the longest-running prime-time game show in the history of US television? Family Feud? Millionaire? Nope. Click on this link and take a trip down memory lane (or discover that snazzy graphics weren’t invented in the 21st century….Sheesh!):
What’s My Line debuted in 1950 and was in production until 1975.
My hunch is that most folks under the age of 40 have not seen or heard of the program, so here’s how it worked: There were 3 celebrity panelists who were asked to question contestants in order to determine what their profession was. These jobs included what you might expect – airline pilot, nurse, housepainter…but also some unusual occupations, such as “breadbox maker”.
“What’s my line?” is a question that I would imagine doesn’t make a lot of sense to many people these days. While it’s proper to say, “Dave, what line of work are you in?”, that seems old, and stiff, and formal. More likely, we say, “Dave, what do you do?” And you might think that’s just a more efficient way of asking the same question using fewer syllables… But I think that it reflects a change in our cultural understanding.
“What line of work are you in?” invites you to tell me about some aspect of yourself. The question recognizes that your occupation is a part of who you are, but not the sum.
“What do you do?” is an attempt to get you to define yourself by your profession. I’m a barber. I’m a janitor. I’m retired. It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s a difference nonetheless. I suggest that the truth is that in America in 2011, more often than not, we allow our occupations to define us. Which is, I might further suggest, at least one reason why there is such misery, grief, and confusion among the unemployed or the underemployed and even the retired. After all, if I AM what I DO, and what I DO is not valued, then I am not valuable. If I am ashamed of what I do or don’t do, then I am ashamed of myself. So I like asking “what is your line of work?” or “tell me a little bit about yourself” much more than I like asking “what do you do?”
Believe it or not, I actually tried to find out whether they’d ever had a shepherd as a contestant on “What’s My Line”, but even with the vast tools of the internet and six minutes of research time, I couldn’t get an answer to that one. But I can guarantee that if this show was running in Jerusalem in 4 BC, shepherds would not have made the guest list.
Most middle-easterners, in biblical times at any rate, thought of shepherds as low-lifes who were rude and dirty. They were men who were believed to be unfit for anything else, and commonly perceived as thieves. Their reputation for untrustworthiness was so engrained in the culture that the law forbade a shepherd from ever testifying in court. Why bother? You can’t ever believe a shepherd…
And yet…and yet, when Mary and Joseph are huddled around the newborn Son of God, the angels appeared to a group of shepherds. Isn’t that crazy? God’s PR campaign for the “Messiah Initiative” begins with a group of men who were legally unable to tell the truth in a court of law… That’s irony.
And when the angels show up, what happens? The shepherds leave their jobs and go running off into the village to check out this God-thing that is going on. Isn’t that just like a shepherd? Seriously! You can’t rely on these jokers for anything. No wonder nobody trusts them – they leave the sheep and go traipsing off after some song and dance from the angels. No sense of commitment, I tell you…
Here’s a question for you. When you think of shepherds and Christmas, where do you picture them? Don’t we always have them hanging around the manger? Last week, we talked about the fact that the Magi would have had to make a journey that lasted months to arrive and worship. The shepherds were close by. Whenever we put up a crèche, where are they? Right there. In fact, they’ve been lollygagging over there under the Christmas tree for more than a week now.
But check out verse 20. What do the shepherds do? They go back to work. They returned, glorifying and praising God… That doesn’t sound like typical shepherd behavior to me. I mean, if they really were as lazy and shiftless as everyone seems to think that they are, then what better excuse to stick around town and have a couple of beers and some wings? “Wow, Larry, how about those angels? God’s Son coming into the world…this round is on me, boys!”
Only that’s not what happens. They go back to work. They are full of praise and glory – they are changed – but they return to their occupation and responsibilities.
I know that not every adult in this room is employed or has a job. But each of us have work to do. For some, there is a profession or an occupation. For others, there is the care for a child, a spouse, or a parent. We pray, we garden, we volunteer, we encourage each other through the written or spoken word… each of us works. It’s a part of the created order – God gave Adam & Eve work to do. Work is a good thing.
Do you ever leave your work? I mean, do you, like the shepherds, ever turn aside and “go with haste” to a place of wonder and amazement? How hard is it for you to set aside the business of your day and find a quiet place?
Some might say, “Oh, I wish! But you know, if I stop working for a day or so, there’s so much to do when I get back it’s just crazy. My boss is a tyrant. My work environment is insane. Trust me, if I let up for a minute, I’m hopelessly behind.”
And others might respond, “Wow, that’s lucky for you. Nobody even notices me at work. Heck, I could be playing solitaire on my smart phone all day and it wouldn’t make a difference. I am never even tuned in at work.”
And someone else might think, “At least you have somewhere to go. I don’t do a thing. I am just useless.”
Another way of asking the same, or a similar question: why do you do the things you do? What is it that keeps you working at whatever work is in front of you?
Do you keep working because you’ve got bills to pay? And is the work that you do enough to pay for what you need? Are you working for things like food and shelter, or are you working to have newer and shinier toys? Or do you work because that’s the part of your life where people notice you and affirm you…You get so many props for the things that you DO that it slowly blends into the thing that you ARE? Or do you labor because you’d feel guilty if you didn’t. Someone has got to do something around this place, and you’re not going to let people think you’re the slacker?
But whatever your work, do you ever stop? Can you, like the shepherds, hear the angelic call and follow? I had an interesting thought this week as I read through Luke. The shepherds were outside. The angels appeared in the skies. Do you think that the shepherds were the only people who saw the angels? What if there were lots of other people out that night… soldiers… innkeepers… travelers… pastors… What if the roads were full of people who saw something, but were so focused on getting their important work done, or so afraid of what would happen if they left their posts even for a moment, that they could not pay attention to the angels? Scripture doesn’t say anything about that, does it? But isn’t it at least possible that there were some people out and about that night who heard the ruckus and decided that it was too risky, too dreamy, or too unproductive to stop their jobs and wander over to the stable?
The shepherds are a good model for what it means to be human. They are fully engaged in their work, and they notice the Holy when it appears. They are able to set down their work for a season and enter into a time and place of awe and wonder. And then they fully re-engage in their work in ways that bring health and fruit for the community.
And this would be a good time for someone to say, “You’re talking pretty big for someone who only works an hour a week, Dave.” Yeah, I get that. I don’t have a real job. But I know what it’s like to be trapped by your work.
In 1987 I was putting in between 80 and 90 hours a week at work and at school. I dried up inside, and was diagnosed with clinical depression and burn out. I had to leave a job I loved because I wasn’t doing it the way I thought it needed to be done. I moved to a new town, got a new job, and tried to learn a new way of engaging the world around me.
I came to be the pastor here in 1993. Eventually, some of the old behaviors caught up with me. I began to worry, a lot, about my performance as your pastor. I lived in fear that I was letting someone, somewhere, down. And so I started to work more. And harder. And longer. And every now and then, I would disappear for a while.
An elder in the church visited me and said, “Dave, I’m worried about you. You are way too engaged here. You’ve got to slow down a bit.” And I looked at her and I said, “You know, that’s why I go to Africa every now and then. I get so worried about how I am doing or not doing what I’m supposed to do that I just need to get away and be in a different place.”
And she said, “Doesn’t that seem at least a little bit odd to you that you’ve got to physically leave the continent in order to disengage from your professional role? Are you so task-oriented that you can’t bear the thought of being unavailable and staying on Cumberland St.?”
One of the enduring gifts of my sabbatical time is, I hope, an ability to look for ways to be my best person and to do my best work in all sorts of areas with intensity and purpose. To work long and hard at those tasks to which I am called.
And then, to stop for a while. Since the Sabbatical experience I had last year, I’ve read more than I have in a long time. I’ve played, and worshiped, and been a good neighbor. I’ve seen some amazingly wondrous things…in my own backyard. I’ve been able to write more and better material than ever before.
I don’t think that I’m doing any of these things to the detriment of my vocation. Instead, I think that my participating in some of these behaviors is making me a better pastor who is trying to pay at least as much attention to what God thinks of him as to what the guy in the fourth pew from the back on the right hand side thinks of him…or to what the people I don’t even know, but somehow feel the need to impress think of him… I think that I’ve learned something from the shepherds about turning aside and sitting down with the Holy for a while.
This Advent, let me invite you to do the same. If you are doing something because you are driven by some compulsion; if you are consumed by a pressure to DO and to ACCOMPLISH and to PRODUCE – whether it’s for your job or some other need in your life – then let me encourage you to find a way to leave the driven-ness behind and enter into the joy and wonder that waits for each of us in the manger. Like the shepherds, can we leave our work for a while, and then worship, and then return to our tasks, glorifying God?
Earlier this week, I posted on Facebook and I emailed to everyone whose addresses I have a link to an Advent Devotional. It’s called Following The Star, and if you’d like to click on that link, you can experience a well-done exercise that includes music, scripture, and space. That’s a start. Maybe you can take ten minutes today and listen to some good music, read the scripture, and pray. Maybe you can do something else. I hope that in your Advent journey, you will allow God to shape who you ARE, not just what you DO. Amen.