December 1, 2009

Out on the (Holy) Periphery

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … -- Luke 2

Who doesn’t enjoy the Christmastime tale of the sheep-herders abiding in the fields, and who hasn’t dressed up a child in a bathrobe and towel for herding in a pageant full of cardboard sheep? The shepherds of Luke 2 are a holiday staple. Hearing their story again brings a sense that all is right-side-up with the world.
Yet God is turning the world upside down.

It must be so, if we are to believe Luke’s account that it is to shepherds, of all people, that the messengers of heaven make their explosive appearance. “God’s chosen fellow has come!” they sing out. Only, let us observe that this choral anthem is delivered, not from the choir loft of the downtown temple, or from the steps of the royal city hall, or on the stage of the popular amphitheater. The song rings out in the outskirts of town, out in the fields, on the periphery of the world’s typical attention. The first hearers of God’s gospel: third-trick sheep-tenders whose names we are never even told. Not preachers, not priests, not theologians. Shepherds. Sideliners.

It could be that one of the body’s finer attributes is the eye’s peripheral vision—the ability to notice the sidelines, what’s afoot off center. “Who’s that coming up behind me? Is that my turn there? Watch out … here comes a fast ball out of nowhere!” There is a lot happening on the margins of our existence, and, similarly, it is the account of Luke more than any other gospel that summons us to imagine God busily at work in the margins of the world.

Consider Luke’s cast of characters. Father Joe: a first-century Jewish everyman. Mother Mary: an otherwise unknown teenager from the lower ranks of society. She herself gets the joke inherent in God visiting her, of all people (Luke 1:48). Fisherman. Tax collectors. Hemorrhaging women and leprous men. In this tale, old women get pregnant (1:18) and even dependent children are welcomed in to the fellowship of those of follow God’s unlikely messiah (18:16). Luke presents us with a shepherd willing to risk the safety of the centered hoard to secure the protection of one stuck in the margins (15:4). This is God, out on the holy periphery.

So then, insists Luke, Christmas is a time for clearing our tangential vision. Rub your eyes and pay attention all-around, because if God is whimsical enough to dispatch a sky-splitting singing telegram to a band of third-shift animal wrestlers out on the edges of reality, then this God is just as likely to be up to something marvelous and life-altering out along the margins of your life, too.

Some stranger speaks truth. Some coincidence smells of providence. Some impossible dream will not go away. Some forgotten piece of your story jostles for attention. Some summons to serve keeps popping up in the oddest of places. Some hint of resurrection tickles your imagination. Each could be dismissed as the ordinary weirdness of the world; each could be embraced as the movement of God. Meanwhile, all the Bible knows how to do is to demand that you your seatbelts are fastened and your tray tables are locked, because one is never quite sure what improbable, peripheral means God might use to invade and heal the world, and your life in it (1 Corinthians 1:28).

So have the merriest of Christmases. He is born in Bethlehem.

Oh, and watch your flank.
We serve a sneaky God.
(Just ask the shepherds.)