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!
Dec. 19, 2010
I find it a bit ironic that today I’m preaching about going and telling it on a mountain when most of us probably needed mountain-climbing equipment to get out of our driveways this morning. My neighbor told me when she finally got out to her car the other day she felt like planting a flag next yodeling.
We finish up our sermon series today on Christmas-related spirituals by looking at probably the most famous one of all, “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” Like the last spiritual considered, “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” this one is also based on Luke’ story about the shepherds being visited by the angels. We learned a little bit in that last sermon about the shepherds, and why the slaves felt a strong sense of connection with them. The shepherds have been immortalized in our Christmas hymns and nativity scenes. We picture them with their flowing robes and their shepherd’s crook, taking their place alongside the animals and Mary and Joseph at the manger, as if they actually belonged at the bedside of a baby king. But in reality, shepherds were seen as untrustworthy vagabonds and nomads; much like the slaves, they were social and religious outcasts who had no place to call home and who occupied the lowest rungs on the societal ladder. The shepherds, like the slaves, were seen as less than human.
Which makes what happens in today’s passage all the more incredible. Our scripture this morning is God’s version of a birth announcement. Nowhere else in the Christmas story in Matthew or Luke does God announce to anyone that Jesus has been born. This is it. This is God’s one announcement. “The shepherds feared and trembled, when lo, above the earth, rang out the angel chorus that hailed our Savior’s birth.”
Imagine for a second you don’t know this story, and I told you God went to someone to announce the birth of Jesus. To whom do you think God would go? Caesar, the emperor of Rome? You would think so. Why not start at the top, right? What about telling King Herod, who ruled over the region? That makes sense. Maybe God went to the High Priest in Jerusalem, the religious elite. All of these people would be logical recipients of God’s birth announcement, wouldn’t they?
The palace doesn’t hear. The Temple doesn’t hear. Jerusalem doesn’t hear. This birth announcement that God gives out goes to a group of shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem – shepherds! These people never came to temple and smelled like a sheep sty, and yet God chose them, above everyone else.
Because the slaves felt a connection with the shepherds, you can begin to see why this story in Luke was so important to them. If God chooses to work through shepherds, then God could work through the slaves, as well. If Christ was born for people as lowly as the shepherds, then Christ’s birth and the meaning behind it was a gift to the slaves, as well. “Down in a lowly manger, the humble Christ was born.” Both the shepherds and the slaves knew something about being lowly and humble. And yet, through Christ, “God sent us salvation, that blessed Christmas morn.” That’s part of the reason “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is such an energetic tune. This is a song of celebration!
But there’s more going on here than just celebrating Christ’s birth. Such a magnificent event, such a world-changing happening, requires more than just a celebration. The shepherds heeded the angel’s words and went to Bethlehem to see the baby born in the stable. And Luke tells us that afterwards, “when they had seen him, they spread the word what had been told them about this child.” They became living birth announcements. Any of us who have children can relate to this excitement. Mike and Heather McColl are enjoying the blessings of sharing the birth announcement of Hannah Grace. After my two daughters were born I was just itching for a reason to tell everyone the good news. At the grocery the clerk would say, “Do you have a Kroger card?” And I’d say, “I do have a Kroger card…and a new baby!”
Because of the significance of Christ’s birth, the shepherds were as excited as if he were their own. Notice how people responded to this. The Bible says, “And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” I bet they were! This is not the kind of information to which a shepherd is usually privy. The going rate of wool, yes; the number of sweaters you could make one from sheep, maybe; but not good news of great joy about the birth of the Messiah. Why would shepherds know that? Because they had opened their hearts and received the gift and now were obeying the call to proclaim it.
For the slaves, the birth of Christ and each opportunity to celebrate it was a reminder of the gift the received from Christ: the promise of freedom. As they endured their persecution and bondage, the promises of Jesus gave them strength and hope. How else would a human being be able to survive living and working in those conditions? Not only did they survive, but their faith endured because of what the birth of Christ meant to them. When you are enslaved, and Christ promises freedom; when you are in a hopeless situation, and Christ provides hope; when you’re banging your head against a brick wall and Jesus opens a window; how can you do anything but climb the nearest mountain and shout about it? When we think about the blessings Christ has brought to our lives, how can we keep from singing?
There’s an interesting passing of the torch that takes place in this scripture and continues every time this song is sung. It starts when the good news of Christ’s birth is heralded from the angels to the shepherds. At times in the Bible angels break through into our world to deliver a message, like the angel did to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. The Greek word for angel, “angelos,” literally means messenger. These angels were messengers of God.
So the angels in our story bring the message to the shepherds, and then after seeing the baby Jesus, the shepherds begin to spread the word concerning what had been told them about Jesus. They become the messengers. They become the angels. And then the slaves sing about what the shepherds shared, and the slaves become the messengers, the angels. And then we sing this song.
This song is not an invitation: “If you have the time, you may want to consider finding a high place and sharing a little bit about what you’ve heard.” This song is an imperative: “Go! Tell it on the mountain!” There’s a sense of urgency in the words. Christ is being born again this year, and there is a world out there that desperately needs a bit of good news. What was passed onto the shepherds and passed onto the slaves is now being passed onto us: there is a birth taking place that brings with it life-changing promises if we are willing to believe, and we are called to, “Go, Tell It on the Mountain!” so that others may hear the good news.
I love how the song itself helps us make that climb. The last note of the last word of each verse is held a few seconds, as if those who originally sang the song wanted to give us that time of anticipation – that Advent moment – before launching into the chorus. Vocally, we climb the mountain to proclaim the good news. The melody dips down on the word “mountain,” starts its rise with “over the hills” and reaches the peak with “everywhere.” Just as we sing about climbing mountains, the melody invites our voices to start the ascent, making the proclamation from the highest peak about Christ being born. The song models for us what we are called to do as Christians.
So what? What does that look like in our lives? Does that mean setting up your soapbox on the corner of Main Street and reading from the prophet Zephaniah? You can if you want, but I don’t recommend that. Most people don’t respond to God’s word that way. The best way we can proclaim the good news is the way we choose to live our lives as followers of Christ. We live as Christians first because each year the birth of Christ means something to us. Let your life be the proclamation; let your life become the birth announcement, showing everyone that God’s goodness and love and forgiveness has broken through into our world. Christmas only means something in our world if we live like it does.
A visit by angels changed the lives of these shepherds. The celebration of Christ’s birth transformed the slaves’ outlook on their situation. What difference will the coming of Christ make in our lives? If the slaves, who had nothing, were inspired by Christmas to sing this joyous proclamation, what will Christmas inspire us to do this year in Christ’s name? We have been given the good news. It’s now been passed onto us, from the shepherds, from the slaves. We are now called to be messengers. We are called to be angels in human form. We are the living birth announcements of Christ. Say it with words, but better yet, shout it by the way you live and give and love: “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain, the Jesus Christ is born.”