SCRIPTURE – Luke 2:8-20
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. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 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.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” Sermon Series
#2 – Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
We continue our sermon series this morning looking at a few Christmas-related African-American slave spirituals, and listening to what they can teach us, people on the other end of the spectrum, about celebrating Christmas. In a world where we have so much, we can we learn about the meaning of Christmas from those who had so little?
One of the things that makes spirituals so fascinating was the role they played in communication among the slaves. This was a group of people who didn’t have the freedom to talk openly with each other, so they had to come up with creative ways to share information without alerting their masters. The slave owners underestimated the spiritual and intellectual gifts of the slaves, which let the slaves’ imaginations run free even while they were in servitude. Songs that on the surface appeared to be solely about faith in Jesus were actually a type of Morse code, where the words carried double meanings. The slaves tricked their owners into thinking they were harmless and happy, while they were actually planning their escape.
In the “Death and Eternal Life” section of our hymnal, number 644 is the spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus.” “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus, I ain’t got long to stay here.” That song may sound like it’s about going to Heaven, but it was actually used as an announcement, like a conductor calling “All aboard!” for a departing train. When the slaves were in the fields singing “I ain’t got long to stay here,” they were preparing for an escape attempt.
Songs like “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” were signal songs, which communicated that a certain event, like an escape attempt, was about to happen. There were also map songs, which gave specific directions for the escape. The most famous of these is called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Now, if I heard that song, I would have no idea what the drinking gourd was, much less how to follow it. For the slaves, the Drinking Gourd was the Big Dipper constellation, which pointed toward the location of the North Star. This song is a travel itinerary, telling the slaves that when winter arrives it’s time to follow the North Star to freedom.
One of the purposes of our song today, “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was to remind the slaves to follow the star that would lead them to freedom. Listen to the verbs in the song: Rise up, follow, take heed (or listen), and leave. It’s a call to action for the slaves embedded in the biblical story of Christ’s birth. But the song has several other layers of meaning that helped the slaves celebrate the gift of Jesus Christ and, if we allow it, can knock us out of our chaotic routine in order to hear the Christmas story anew.
For the most part, slaves were not allowed to read, especially not the Bible. Plantation owners feared that if the slaves read about how Christ promised salvation from sin, the slaves would also want salvation from slavery. So, instead of passing on tradition by reading the Bible to each other, the slaves told the stories, much like the Israelites orally passed down stories for centuries and centuries as a way of preserving their religious history.
“Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was one of the ways the slaves would pass down the Christmas story. The singer would sing a line of the story, “There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn,” and the rest would respond, “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” Then the next line of the story would be sung, and the crowd would respond. This could go on for awhile as the full story of Christmas was told. That’s how the story of Christ’s birth survived among a group of people without access to the Bible.
But did you notice there’s something a little off about this story? When I was in seminary, my grandfather liked to tease me by testing my biblical knowledge. Every time he saw me he’s said, “Let’s see what you’re learning in that school. How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?” I would play along and respond, “That’s an easy one. He took two of each animal.” And he’d smile and say, “Nope, nope, nope. Moses didn’t take the animals on the ark; Noah did!” And I’d smile and say, “You got me again, Paw Paw!”
We have same kind of mashup taking place in the retelling of the Christmas story in this song. The people who followed the star to Jesus weren’t the shepherds, they were the wise men. It was the wise men who saw the star in the East and followed it to the Christ child. The shepherds were told about Jesus’ birth by the angels and went to Bethlehem to see him. But in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” we get an amalgamation of those two stories.
This was not caused by biblical confusion. There’s a strategic repositioning taking place here that would have been empowering to the listeners and singers of this song. The wise men were thought to be wealthy kings or magicians from far-off lands, bring lavish, expensive gifts to welcome Christ. These were not people to whom the slaves could relate. If the wise men were on one end of the social spectrum, the shepherds would have been on the extreme other end. There were few occupations more demanding or degrading than a shepherd. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, they were considered religious and social outcasts who were looked upon with suspicion.
The slaves could relate to being outcasts, to being looked upon with suspicion. In the shepherds, they found a kindred spirit, another group of people without a home. So, in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” by replacing the kingly travelers with people of no status, the slaves were subtly creating a revolution in status for themselves. This song is sung to them: “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” Through the juxtaposition, the slaves became the wise seekers looking for the gifts Christ had to offer, following the star to the place where salvation and freedom could be found.
Of course, on any journey that leads to the Christ child, things have to be left behind. For the shepherds, it meant leaving their sheep to go to Bethlehem. The Bible is full of these kinds of stories. Abraham is called by God to leave his homeland and start out on a journey to an unknown destination. When Jesus called the disciples, they left behind their homes, their families, their traditions, their land, and followed him. The slaves knew what this was like, except they were forcibly removed from these things and sold into bondage. And they knew that the cost of freedom might be leaving behind parents, children, friends and what little security their situation provided. The slaves also knew something about leaving things behind.
The song called the slaves to take their place in a long line of people who gave up things to follow God. The reality of faith is that there is a cost associated with following Jesus. Christianity constantly calls us to leave that which is familiar, to move to a new place spiritually as we follow Christ. “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” is a rallying cry for the slaves to move faithfully from the familiar to freedom.
There are two commands that are repeated over and over in this song. The first is to “Rise up.” When I picture the slaves at work I see them crouching or stooping or bent over in the fields. This song is a call to rise up, to stand up, to take a stand against their oppression and to actively pursue freedom, not matter the cost.
What would it mean for us to “rise up” this Christmas? Maybe it means to take a stand for what we believe in, over and above what we’re told Christmas is about. Maybe it means to elevate our faith over everything else clamoring to be a priority for us this Christmas. How could you let your faith rise up this Christmas?
The second command is to “follow.” It’s sung five times in the chorus alone. “Follow.” For the slaves, it meant following the North Star to freedom. I’ve said before that we are not called Loiters of Christ or Standers-Still of Christ. We are called Followers of Christ. And that implies movement. It implies taking steps. It implies not being in the same place this year that we were last year. Through the stories of people like Abraham and the disciples, God makes the very clear point that faith is a journey. On this journey we don’t always know where we’ll end up, but we do know that there is a guide waiting to lead us to freedom from all that is keeping us from a full relationship with God.
What does it mean for us to follow? It doesn’t mean you have to pack up your house and move. But it does mean we may have to pack up some negative thoughts or behaviors that separate us from God. Following Christ means walking in his footsteps, even when it means we walk away from comfortable, familiar situations into the great unknown of faith. Walking by faith means answering the call to rise up and follow, even if we can’t see the destination.
Where will our journey take us this Christmas? Are we running to meet Christ? Are we walking? Staggering? Limping? That’s OK, sometimes this journey is not easy. Sometimes we need others to hold our arms and help us walk. It doesn’t matter, as long as we’re moving forward. Because one thing is for sure: just like standing still wouldn’t get the slaves closer to freedom, standing still won’t get us any closer to Christ. Rise up and follow.