14 December 2008
I want to talk about joy this morning. I want to talk about our reasons to be joyful--why we can be joyful, why we are able to rejoice. We get to hear this morning one the three or four most exciting events in all of scripture, in all of history. We get to hear how God came to be with us. Yet the account in Luke chapter 2 doesn’t allow us to reduce this to a pretty picture and nice sentiment inside a Hallmark card. It’s no tame thing, but in ways our nativity scenes and Christmas pageants cover up, it’s surprising, strange, mysterious, terrifying.
During our worship together the past two Sundays, Pastor Mark has passed out a booklet by Billy Graham, The Father’s Gift. If you haven’t received a copy, catch me or Pastor Mark after the service, and we’ll track one down for you. Billy Graham comes back over and over in the book to the difference between our stressed-out, hurry-up-and-shop experience of Christmas and what God was doing on the very first Christmas in Bethlehem. I encourage us each to read through it during this next week, whether on our own or together with family or friends, maybe at the dinner table. It’s short, with brief chapters. Maybe do a chapter a night.
In the chapter entitled “The Gift of Joy,” Billy Graham describes the scene we’re going to reflect on this morning. He writes, “Like most people of Palestine, those shepherds outside Bethlehem were poor and insignificant men. They had no reason to expect that this night would be different form any other. But God had other plans. This was the night when God Himself would come to earth. The dull routine of their lives was suddenly and dramatically shattered by the appearance of the angels, and the tidings of Christ’s birth echoed across the skies. What is the message of those Christmas angels? First of all, it is a message of love and peace. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace good will toward men,” sang the angelic multitude. It is a message of joy and hope. “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” The message of the Christmas angels is that God not only exists, but that He is a loving heavenly Father who seeks to restore us to what we were created to be--His children. Because God’s Son, Jesus Christ, has entered this world, we know beyond a shadow of doubt that joy and hope can be ours if we will but receive the gift of Christmas.” (28-29)
Let’s listen to the story for ourselves. I’m going to read a bit more of the text than I’m going to preach through this morning. I want to talk mostly about the experience of the shepherds, but to understand this we need to put it in the context of the whole Christmas story. Plus, you can never hear the Christmas story to often--it’s an amazing story. So if you will open your bibles with me and follow along as I read from Luke chapter 2 verses 1 through 21.
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph also went up form the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels left them and went back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, that the Lord has made known to us.” So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger. When they saw him, they related what they had been told about this child, and all who who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said. But Mary treasured up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean. So the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; everything was just as they had been told.
At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
What does this passage say about joy? If we were paying attention while the passage was read, we should have noticed that fear, terror, and astonishment were mentioned in the passage a lot more than joy. What does this mean? In fact, if we feel confused, we are in good company. Everyone one is astonished at these events, and Mary herself is left searching for the meaning of all of this.
But Luke does not leave us completely in the dark. Let’s look at what Luke has to say about joy and why we can be joyful. The first thing he wants us to notice is whom Jesus’ coming effects. This is not something we often think about when we tell the Christmas story. We think that Jesus’ coming brings joy to everybody. It’s a happy time of year. The mall and the department stores set up christmas trees, string colored lights, pipe in holiday music. Community Christmas concerts are for everybody. we give gifts to just about everybody--shouldn’t God’s joy be for everybody? Maybe.
These may sound like hard words. But listen to what Luke says. In verse 8, Luke introduces the account saying, Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night. What do we think of when when hear the word shepherd? I was telling Cindy a few nights ago that whenever I hear the word shepherd, the first thing that pops into my mind is the feel of hot stage lights and uncomfortable scratchy wool costumes. I can’t even place an exact date on the experience, but when I was pretty young, like so many other kids, I was part of a Christmas play at my Christian grade school. I’m guessing that I was in first grade, maybe only kindergarten. And I got to be one of the sheep. So when I think of shepherds, I think of kids dressed up in bathrobes who I wanted to be because they got shepherd’s crooks as props and sometimes even got speaking parts--things a sheep never gets. I may be alone in the association of shepherds in the bible and kids running around in costumes, but I suspect we’ve all seen our share of Christmas pageants--stick around til 10:30 and you’ll get to see another one.
Christmas programs are great, in all their unexpected and awkward ways--the kids mumbling through the verses of the songs until the chorus, the inevitable toddler who wanders out into the audience to find his mom. But this is not what a shepherd was in Jesus’ day. There was nothing cuddly or cute about the guys living out in the wild hills surrounding Bethlehem. These men were only hanging on to one rung above the absolute bottom of their society. They were their society’s equivalent to migrant workers, paid by the people who owned the sheep to be the toughmen fighting off bandit sheep hustlers and big, hungry animals with big, angry teeth. If you picture the tough-guy cowboys of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood movies, the guys who often straddl both sides of the law, who risk their lives for a paycheck they go and blow on a night on the town with whiskey and women--you’re probably getting a better picture of who these shepherds were. When I was growing, my dad and I like to watch an old Robert Redford film, The Electric Horsemen. It was a story of a washed-up rodeo star and a horse on steroids. Great stuff for a seven year-old to watch. I remember very distinctly a scene in the middle of the movie where Robert Redford is running away from the law, and the the Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings song “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” comes on. First century Jewish mom’s could probably sing the same song--”Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Shepherds”
So why does God send his angels to announce the birth of his Son, the savior of the world to a bunch of crude and smelly shepherds? As strange as this seems, this actually continues a theme Luke has been developing throughout the first chapters of his Gospel. For Luke, Jesus’ coming to save the world is not only about going to heaven when we die. It’s something a lot more concrete, a lot more here-and-now too.
It’s also something that’s been a long time coming. Luke spends a lot of time in his first two chapters showing how Jesus coming is not something God decides to do out of the blue, completely arbitrarily. Jesus comes to finally fulfill God’s promises he gave his people through the prophets. Both these themes come out in the song Mary sings when she goes to her cousin Elizabeth’s house and finds that God’s word really is coming to pass. I’ve asked Cindy to read it this morning, and as she does, I want you to listen for two things. First, listen for how God is shaking up the present social order, and, second, listen for words and phrases that allude to God’s promises and action in the Jewish people’s history:
And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior, because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant. For from now on all generations will call me blessed, because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name; from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him. He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up fromm the sheer arrogance of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Now, maybe, we can understand the angels words to shepherds a little bit better: Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. And then the rest of the angels chime in proclaiming peace among people with whom he is pleased.
When Jesus comes, the Gospel of Luke shows him to be fulfilling God’s ancient promise to protect the poor, the orphans, the widows, the migrant workers, the prisoners. When Jesus introduces his ministry and his message two chapters latre, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, declaring, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” “Today,” he says, “This scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read.” It’s precisely people like the shepherds and Mary, a poor girl from the working class town of Nazareth, that Jesus came to save. So it makes sense for God to bring the shepherds the good news first, to let them know that a good king is finally coming, one who will be like his ancestor David in whose hometown he’s born. God tells them that there’s more to look forward to than just a paycheck, than just a good time at the bar with their friends. He’s telling them that he is concerned with the lives of people no one else seems to care about, and that he wants to bring peace and wholeness and healing to them. And they can rejoice in this.
So the shepherds leave the sheep to fend for themselves and hunt through the crowded streets of the little village of Bethlehem for the newborn Savior. But what do they see when they find him? He’s lying in a manger, surrounded by smelly animals in a dark shed. They tell everyone about the angel’s message, and everyone is astonished. Is this baby really the messiah, the coming king? This baby whose parents are so poor they can’t payoff an innkeeper to get Mary a decent place to deliver--this baby sparring for space with donkeys and sheep, taking up space in their feed trough--this baby surrounded by straw and manure--is he really going to be the protector of the poor and downtrodden of his people, is he going to overturn political structures? It doesn’t look like a very good start.
The biggest question I have when I read this passage comes when I read verse 20: so the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Why? Why are they so happy? They are returning to the same two-bit jobs, the same smelly sheep, the same cold nights with little more than a cloak to cut the wind, the same knifefights with bandits, the same haggling with their rich employers to get they pay they were promised. Why rejoice when things remain the same? What’s more, these men will probably never hear the good news Jesus will proclaim some thirty years later. Life expectancies weren’t that long back then. Their bones will be drying in some forgotten gully or the wild dogs will have picked them apart piece by piece long before Jesus rises from the dead. Why are they so happy?
I think Luke points to the answer over and over again in this passage and throughout the first couple chapters of his Gospel. Then end of verse 20 reads, everything was just as they had been told. The same idea shows up in verse 21 when Mary names her baby Jesus, the name he was given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. The same idea of prophetic promises coming true shows up in the story about the miraculous birth of Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer. And when Mary finds the angel’s promise that Elizabeth will be pregnant with John to be true just before she praises God in the Magnificat.
The shepherds go away rejoicing and giving thanks to God because God has shown them that he is a promise keeper, and that he is beginning to fulfil it right now. Everything was just as they had been told. God has come to save them, even if they don’t see it right now.
God keeps his promises, that is why we rejoice at Christmas. If Christmas was just about a baby being born in a shed somewhere, if it was just about pictures on Christmas cards and wearing garish sweaters--then we’d have no reason to truly be happy. We’d just as well be getting drunk at the bar with the other shepherds, living it up while we can. But if Christmas is about God coming and changing things, about God caring for us in the parts of our lives we feel like no one cares about--if Christmas is about God keeping his promises to undo the death that we’ve brought on this world, then we have a reason to rejoice, to be happy, to give gifts and sing songs.
But how do we know if we are included in the ones the angel brings the good news to, the one Jesus brings the gospel to. We aren’t shepherds. Most of us aren’t poor by global standards, by Jesus’ first century standards. So how does this relate to us? This is a questions we should take seriously, with many thorny and very personal implications. We would all do well to pray about it, to ask God to show us how we can truly be among the people Jesus said he came to save.
But the broad answer is this: What stands between us and being God’s people is sin. Our sin is what causes poverty, unjust labor practices, wars, divorce. Our sin is what eventually results in death. And Jesus comes to take that away, to remove that barrier standing between us and God. He does this when he takes all the punishment and alienation our sin earns for itself on himself by dying on the cross. The barrier is removed. But we still need to choose to identify with him, to declare ourselves part of the people of God that he has started. Jesus calls this being born all over again, into a new family, into a new people. And we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that most of our sisters and brothers in this new family are going to be poor, like the shepherds. We shouldn’t be surprised to find that in this new family, we have to give away most of what belongs to us to take care of them. We shouldn’t be surprised if we end up with people angry with us for associating with them. We shouldn’t be surprised if we become them ourselves.
In fact, we should rejoice in it. Because this is what God keeping his promises looks like. It looks like crude shepherds, poor girls from Nazareth, migrant workers, homeless men, prostitutes and tax collectors, former criminals--and each of us, here in the middle of God’s big family portrait, smiling and thanking God for the tremendous gift his given us by inviting us into such privileged company, to be a part of his family. This is why we can be joyful.