December 24, 2014
Were we to hear just the first seven verses of this passage without knowing anything else about Mary or Joseph, it reads like an unlikely news story. Who is this unwed couple, so poor or unorganized that they couldn’t find a room for Mary to have her baby? Who puts a newborn in a feeding trough anyway?
Everything changes with verse 8. The scene changes to some shepherds who were nearby in some fields watching their sheep. Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord was shining around them. The shepherds were frightened? This is the understatement of the century! Imagine you were downtown at a Browns game when suddenly an angel appeared with a heavenly glow shining brighter than the stadium lights! Frightened wouldn’t begin to express how you would be feeling! You’d be ready to bolt out of your seat, sure that the end of the world had come! So of course the first words the angel said were, “Do not be afraid.”
Why shepherds anyway? Were they the only ones up that night, working the graveyard shift? What if an angel appeared today to a group of homeless men huddled overnight under a bridge? No media would be there to document the angel’s words. We would be faced with the choice of believing them or not, no different from how the townspeople likely reacted to the shepherds so long ago. Why would God’s messengers appear to them, the scum of society? Why not us instead?
I have to confess, I’m probably just as judgmental as the townspeople may have been on that first Christmas. Last Wednesday Katherine’s boyfriend invited us to attend his graduation ceremony from Tri-C. There were people from all walks of life, and some were really rowdy, whooping and cheering to drown out the announcer giving the names of the graduates. I was frankly really irritated at their behavior. Who were these people, who couldn’t show a little consideration for those who were waiting to hear the name of their graduate? In my judgmental attitude, I thought myself better than them. But they showed more love, more joy. Forgive us when we think we are better than some other person whom God also made.
God chose shepherds that first Christmas night, not the mayor of Bethlehem. God chose regular, ordinary people to hear the songs of angels, not the town rabbi or leading businessmen. God isn’t as interested in respectability as God is seeking those who have the potential and desire to be transformed by faith. God looks at the condition of our hearts, not the size of our bank account or status in society.
The angel described exactly how the baby would be found – wrapped in strips of cloths and lying in a feeding trough. This was an unusual place for a baby, even back then, so the shepherds weren’t likely to get mixed up with some other baby born that night. Then there was a large group of angels joining the first angel, all of them praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”
After all this, the shepherds would have had to be deaf, dumb and completely without a soul not to decide immediately to go to Bethlehem to see that baby. So they did, and they found Mary, Joseph and the baby. Actually, the Bible tells us they hurried, because they were on a divine mission. Were we to read a bit farther in Luke’s account, they not only saw Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, but they spread the word to anyone who would listen, and everyone was amazed at their words. They returned to the fields where they were watching their sheep, but there was a difference this time. Their hearts were now full; they glorified and praised God for all they had seen and heard, which was just as they had been told.
That first Christmas night was a night of joy. The angels proclaimed joy, and the shepherds came to embrace that joy. All heaven was full of joy, which spilled over to touch those who were ready to receive God’s love. The joy of the angels sparked joy in others.
Don’t we want that joy? Commercials try to manufacture joy this time of year, luring us to believe that receiving the perfect gift will make us happy. We scour the stores, searching for something we hope will bring joy to another, even though the stress of doing too much this time of year weighs us down and prevents our joy. There’s been a lot of flu going around, which adds another layer of stress and discouragement.
There is much that threatens to unravel and rob us of joy this season, but I wish to encourage and guide you to find Christ’s joy. Imagine being lit up inside with a joy as bright as a heavenly light that transforms the night sky into day! Imagine bursting at the seams with joy, like the Grinch whose heart grew many times bigger when he finally understood the meaning of Christmas. Imagine holding on to a joy that fills you with Christ’s peace and gives you grace when you need it most.
We all do and say stupid things at one time or another. We all need to be reassured that even on our worst days, when we ask for forgiveness, God is eager to give it. We all need to be rooted in a strong foundation that holds us fast when troubles are ready to rip us apart. We need the kind of joy that lasts through the worst that life can throw at us. That’s the kind of joy the angels sang about, because that is the joy that Christ was born to bring.
What if the shepherds remained in their fields that night and failed to seek out the Christ child? What if they chose to keep silent and were unmoved by the song of the angels? How could this happen? The joy of the angels had to be contagious, more than the flu or Ebola! How could they help but believe, and then act – to embrace the message of the angels and be moved to speak and share?
Good news demands a response. Look how we share things via Youtube or Facebook, through email or other social media. We want to tell others what someone has shared with us. A friend shared a halftime show with a trainer and her dog who did amazing tricks that I have never seen a dog do before. Of course I had to send it to other members of my family, because our dog is not well trained at all! Another friend shared a flash mob video of an orchestra coming out to play in a crowded museum. In the same way, if your heart has been changed by the love of God in Jesus Christ, let that joy be a part of what you say and do.
The shepherds went back to their lonely work of watching sheep on the hillside, but for them, much had changed them from the inside out. They could not remain quiet about it. I happened to meet a young man this week who said he had been a contestant on the Voice a few years back. He progressed a bit until he was eliminated, but the experience of being a part of that show changed the direction of his life. He decided to pursue a college major of music management while remaining active in his own musical pursuits. He was eager to share how that experience enriched him and gave him a new life direction.
In the same way, the joy of Christ’s coming continues to create a chain reaction. As one person is changed, so he or she cannot help but spread that joy. Our response sets in motion one more chain reaction, which leads to another and another. We continue to spread the Good News of Christ’s coming, and how it has changed our life.
Christmas will be here in a few hours and gone in another day, but the Good News of Jesus our savior sustains us for every day following. If you have a few quiet moments tonight before the confusion and craziness of tomorrow, have a conversation with God about what it means to you that Christ has come. How have you been changed by faith, and who is someone you know who needs what Christ can offer? Is God waiting you to share your joy with someone in desperate need of what God is ready to give?
Spend a moment in prayer. Thank God for the joy you have received by faith, and ask God how you may be a vehicle to share God’s joy with others. Go, glorifying and praising God for the things you have seen and heard, and for the truth of God’s word made known in Jesus Christ our Savior.