We are gathered today in the last embers of the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty, two hundred and two decades (more or less) since the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a year we will struggle both to remember clearly and to forget cleanly. There has been so much death and so much suffering, beyond the death and suffering which is our lot as children of Adam and Eve in any year. There has been so much disruption and frustration, beyond the disruption and frustration we impose on ourselves in any year. If we are healthy, housed, and employed, we may count ourselves blessed even more than we might in any year. If we have kept our household or family together, done useful work, or made a contribution to the greater good, we might well take some comfort in that, beyond the comfort we might take in greater accomplishments in another year.
I have had to tell myself all of this, over and over again. Church kept going, thanks be to God. The preaching of the Gospel continued week in and week out, sermons and devotions and articles for the newspaper and newsletter pouring forth as fast as I could do it and surely that should count for something in the scheme of things. And it does not work. Rome was not yet at the peak of its power when Jesus was born in an insignificant town in a provincial backwater of its empire. And yet by the Year of Our Lord Four Hundred and Seventy-Six, it was in ruins. Despite everyone working hard and doing their best through plague and conflict and war and bad harvests.
It has never ended--plague and conflict and war and bad harvests, mass migration and desecrated environments and chaotic inequality--and we have never been equal to it. Perhaps you have felt this insufficiency in a year of lonely labor. Who among us has handled online school as well as we think we should? Who has seized the ambivalent opportunities of a crisis? Who kept family game night going more than three weeks? And would it have mattered if we had?
Each moment, each encounter is infinitely important. And what is a year but a parade of infinitely important moments, one after another through a decade and a century and a millennium and all the two-thousand and twenty Years of Our Lord from that night in the manger down until this day. It is the same world into which Jesus was born. It is the same sky above us, the same slowly shifting human genome within us, the same relentless timeline around us. We breathe his air. We walk his earth. We die his death.
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” I think a lot about those shepherds every year. What was their life like? Very hard, I imagine, by our standards. There was no retirement plan. There was no real career advancement. No vaccines. They weren’t citizens of any kingdom but God’s. Weather and viruses and the boots of the tramping warriors marched over them without a thought. On the other hand they probably didn’t have annual growth targets to meet. They could safely assume that their rulers, whoever they were, would be pretty bad. They never had to live through, let alone participate in, the most important election of their lifetimes every four years. They lived and died in a world that took no note of them. They were not the heroes of anyone’s story.
And the messenger from God comes to them. They were terrified. Of course they were terrified. On what grounds could they expect anything good from heaven or earth? But the messenger tells them not to fear. A Savior has been born to them this night in the city of David, the Messiah, the Lord. A child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. The sky opens and the whole heavenly host appears to them, the shepherds, proclaiming peace and good will on earth. The earth where they scraped out their little living year by year until they died.
So they go with haste to see their Messiah. They find him, wrapped up and lying in the manger, with his mother and Joseph. It is the most ordinary thing in the world. And yet it is a miracle. They rejoice and praise God.
The shepherds counted for little in the eyes of the world. Their names are not even preserved in the Gospel. But they were enough. They were enough for God to come to. The world was and is wracked with sin and death and violence and injustice. But the world is enough for God to come to, in all its fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains. You and I, for all our inadequacies and failures, all our griefs and sorrows and anger this year and every year, are enough for God to consecrate with his gracious appearance among us.
If you were the only human being ever born into sin and in need of redemption, all of this would have happened just for you. God would have done it all for each and every one of us. God would have sanctified this world with the light of his Incarnation for you. God would have bent down from the heavenly sanctuary to crush hell under his infant foot and call forth the joy of these shepherds for one solitary soul. And those shepherds would have gladly given their praise, and that mother would have borne her child, and that foster father would have protected them both, and that manger would have been filled with the quiet power of God for you because you, right now at the end of the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty, are enough to save.
“Mild he lays his glory by,” the hymn says. “Born that we no more may die. Born to raise each child of earth. Born to give us second birth.” This is the gift of God for you this night: the Messiah, the Lord. Amen.