There is something about the outdoors that invites us to think about the ‘bigger things’ in life. I love to be outside. I love to run. I love to hike. I love to camp. I love to sleep on the ground, to feel the brisk chill of the early morning, to sweat in the summer sun, to get muddy and dirty, and physically worn out; it all makes me so happy! And the thing I love most about the outdoors is that I feel closer to God when I’m outside. There is something to be said for getting away from the hustle and bustle of daily living, getting somewhere a little quieter, where the air is a little sweeter, the skies are a little clearer, and there are less distractions between us and the Divine.
There was one experience I want to tell you about. There was this group of 6 teenage Confirmation students (Confirmation is the process of joining the church as a teenager) from a church I worked with back in Virginia. Well anyways, this group was one of the highest energy, talkative groups you could ever come across. The pastor, Chuck, is a friend of mine, and he and I shared a common love for the outdoors. So one day Pastor Chuck called me up, and said, ‘Jeff, I have this idea.’ Now, whenever Chuck would tell me he had an idea, I always had to prepare myself. Chuck is filled with ideas, and each one is usually more outrageous than the next! He said, ‘I’m thinking of taking this group of crazy Confirmation students out for a few days on the Appalachian Trail.’
The idea was pretty straightforward. Take this wily group of teens out into the wilderness, wear them out, and then use the outdoors to teach them about the Christian faith.
Now, if you are unfamiliar with the Appalachian Trail, it is one of the oldest and longest wilderness mountain trails in the United States. It covers about 2200 miles, spanning 14 states, from Georgia in the south, all the way to Maine in the north. I know, I know; it’s not the ‘PCT’!
I told Chuck I would like to think about it before committing. It took me about a second to think about it. Over those hot summer days on the trail our group covered many hard miles. We hiked up and down mountains, past venomous snakes, grumpy bears, and even ran into some aggressive yellow jackets. We huddled together through thunderstorms, and shared meals over camp fire. There was some blood, lots of sweat, and plenty of mud and dirt. By the end of the trip our group was exhausted and humbled, and at the same time, uniquely at peace. Yes, the teenagers were still as zany as ever, but we shared in experiences and conversations that may never have happened inside a classroom. We experienced God in the wilderness, and our lives were forever changed because of this experience.
The Bible is filled with similar stories of people experiencing God in the wilderness. Today’s story from Luke, the Christmas story, is no different. Here we have the story of the coming of the King! The Christ Child, the very Son of God, the Messiah! This Jesus will be the one to reveal to the world the very kingdom of God! Jesus the Christ, the King of Glory, is worthy of more riches than we could ever imagine! All the people should bow at his presence, as his kingdom will have no end!
So why, then, did the story of the coming of this king, start with God’s message being shared by angels with a group of lowly, poor, stinky shepherds?
Perhaps this is something for all of us to think about today. God could have acted in ways that many of us like to think is ‘normal’ in this world. God could have introduced Jesus accompanied by riches, an army, and power. He could have been introduced like the pharaohs and emperors of old.
Instead, God chose to reveal God’s very self in the form of an innocent, defenseless child. And God chose to use some of the poorest, lowly, people in the shepherds, to announce Christ’s arrival.
We worship a God who time and time again chooses the unassuming, illogical option to reveal mercy, love, and grace in the world. We worship a God who moves freely in the wilderness to bring about glory to the least expecting. We worship a God who chooses each and every one of us; imperfect, broken, and stinky human beings that we are. God uses each and every one of us to bring the Good News of love and grace to the world!
Tonight, let’s all be shepherds.
Let’s look up to the heavens, and open our eyes to God’s presence being proclaimed by the angels.
Let’s seek out the Christ Child, being born in the simplest of places, lying in a manger, to parents who are people just like you and me.
Let us wonder and ponder these mysteries of the Divine in our hearts.
Let us be the ones to bring this Good News of the birth of our savior, the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, to the world.