December 10, 2023
The Carols of Christmas: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
This morning I continue our Advent Pulpit Series on the Carols of Christmas. I’d like to begin, not with this morning’s Christmas carol, but with the disturbing words of the prophet Isaiah in our reading from the Old Testament this morning. The prophet wrote, “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.’” He was being asked to make a grand proclamation to the people, and in essence, Isaiah replied, “What’s the point? Who cares?” Doesn’t that sound rather familiar? Don’t you and I feel that way often? “It would be great if someone of great influence could stand up and stand out and make an impassioned plea for peace in our bloodied and broken world. But what’s the point? Who cares?”
We often think so little of not only our own significance, but of the capacity of all of us to make any difference. We see ourselves and many of those around us as broken vessels, people whose best days are past, or who have so many issues and problems that we can’t possibly do anything of real importance. Well, this morning’s message is for poor old Isaiah, and for poor old you, and poor old me.
To begin with, I’d like you to picture a time long ago, and take you back over three centuries to the year 1695. I’d like for you to imagine yourself walking in the front doors of the old wood framed building, men wearing leggings, a waste coat and a three-cornered hat, and women, a big poofy dress with an outer cloak, and small white covering on the head. The building wasn’t heated, so if you were lucky, you had some hot coals in a square metal container that you could put under the pew to offer a little warmth. But the fun really began when the singing started. The only things sung were versified translations of the Psalms. They were contained in a volume called the Sternhold-Hopkins Psalter, published in 1562. If you were really lucky, most everyone would be singing something resembling the same tune. You might find yourself on a chilly morning in Advent singing:
The man is blest that hath not lent
To wicked men his ear,
Nor led his life as sinners do,
Nor sat in scorner’s chair.
He shall be like a tree that is
Planted the rivers nigh,
Which in due season bringeth forth
Its fruit abundantly.1
It was because of this sad state of affairs that, in 1696, Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady decided to write a new version of the Psalms. Their psalter used more contemporary language and more natural meter and rhyme. It was a scandal! According to Kenneth Osbeck, the author Percy Dearmer reports a villager of the time telling a pastor why he no longer participated in singing during the church services. He said, “Well, sir, David speaks so plain that us cannot mistake ‘un; but as for Mr. Tate and Brady, they have taken the Lord away.”2 It makes you wonder what he would have made of some of the hymns we sing today.
Four years later, Tate and Brady went even further out on a limb. They published a supplement to their psalter that contained 16 hymns not based on the Psalms at all, but on (gasp) other passages of scripture! Can you imagine the horror? One of those “new-fangled” hymns in this scandalous supplement was Nahum Tate’s take on Luke 2:8-14 titled, “Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour,” which has come, over the years, to be known by its first line, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.”
So, who was Nahum Tate? He was an Irishman with a gift for poetry. In fact, he became Poet Laureate of England in 1692. But his work turned out to be a mixed bag. His poetry was soundly criticized by Alexander Pope. Much of what he did is now considered irrelevant, or worse. For instance, he rewrote several of Shakespeare’s plays, including King Lear, in which he gave the story a happy ending! In the end, his talent was lost in his debauchery. He died penniless and a drunkard at a poor house in London.
“What has all this to do with the Christmas story?” you might ask. Tate’s story is the very heart and soul of the experience of those shepherds who watched their flocks by night. Nahum Tate, you see, was not a shining example of humanity at its best. He was someone I can identify with, a flawed creature, a man susceptible to his weaknesses, who in many ways squandered his gifts. But it was through his gift that generation after generation of Christians have been able to treasure the Christmas message of a babe born in a barn who is savior of the world. That’s very much like what happened on the outskirts of Bethlehem all those centuries ago. There was no Divine announcement of the gift of the Christ-child to the Roman emperor. There was no lighting up the sky over Athens and proclaiming in booming voice to all the graciously robed scholars and patrons what a glorious thing was happening for their pleasure. There was no press agent to make sure that CNN got the right spin on the story. No, a band of common, smelly, plain-spoken shepherds tending their flocks in an insignificant corner of the world were the chosen vehicles for communicating the greatest message in history to all of humanity.
Somehow, putting divine treasure into earthen vessels seems to be the preferred approach. I find that a great relief. Because, if ever there were an earthen vessel, he’s standing in front of you this morning. I like thinking about that holiest of nights, and the most sacred of truths coming to a bunch of regular guys out in the field with their sheep. I like thinking about the savior of the world being born in a barn to an unwed mother in the midst of the common human tendencies to slam the door on strangers. I like thinking about one of the most treasured Christmas carols of all time being conveyed through a spendthrift drunkard, who didn’t know how to use the talent he had been given.
I like thinking about all these things because then I think, “OK, then maybe even I could be used to do something wonderful, maybe in spite of me.”
The birth of Christ was a very human experience. Its story has been retold by Hollywood with “a cast of thousands and a budget of millions.” But it’s best told by a few children in bathrobes on a Sunday morning.
It’s a common story of weary travelers who, like us, often feel at the end of our rope. But out of our bone weariness, who knows what divine miracle our common moments may be pregnant with?
The birth of Christ is our kind of story. It’s the tale of a door slammed in the face. It’s a narrative about dropping down onto the straw in the cow barn when there are no options left. You and I know what it’s like to get a pink slip right at the time when the family is most in need. We know what it’s like to have a child get into serious trouble just when it seems like we can’t handle one more disappointment. We know what it’s like to squander our gifts, and watch our dreams evaporate. But who knows what glorious thing might be brought about in the midst of our failures?
Isaiah got an answer to his reluctance. He was told to stand up and speak out. And don’t be afraid. Because look what can happen: the Lord “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
The birth of Christ is a story we can relate to. It’s the shepherds who were not engaged in some world changing enterprise. They were doing what they did every night, day in, day out, week after week – sitting out in the field, watching a bunch of sheep. We can relate to that. For most of us, our lives aren’t anything we expect someone to write a book about. Mostly, we just do our thing, day in and day out. We do what we do every day, every week. But who knows what glory might be revealed to us, or through us, even in the midst of our deadening routines?
Just last night I watched an interview on the PBS Newshour with an African-American artist named Nathaniel Mary Quinn. He said that when he was a boy his father took the erasers off of all the pencils. He told the boy, “Make your mistakes into art.” That’s one heck of a father, and one heck of a lesson in life. When I was putting our dog, Charlie, to bed last night I told him that’s what I’ve attempted to do in my life with mixed results. I guess we’re all works in progress.
That’s what I like about Christmas. It’s my story. It’s your story. It’s the story of Emmanuel. That word doesn’t mean “God above us, God beyond us, behind us, or below us,” but “God with us.” And that means we are never left adrift no matter how poorly we do.
The words of our carol today are from the pen of a guy who messed everything up in his life – wonderful words that have lit up the hearts of countless believers over hundreds of years. Let’s sing them together.
1 101 Hymn Stories, Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel, Grand Rapids MI, 1982, pp. 281-282
2 ibid. p. 282