The Shepherds and the Angels
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, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,Luke 2:8-14 (NRSV)
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Just over a week ago as I was sermon-writing and preparing for the lighting of our candle of peace, I thought to myself, “I can’t wait until next week when we light the candle of Joy!” It’s not that peace is a bad thing—actually, peace is sacred and beautiful. But joy is just so much more fun! We talk about being “filled with peace,” but we “overflow with joy!” And here in Oldtown, we add to the celebration with the ringing of our bells on Joy Sunday. How can you feel anything but happy on a Sunday like this?
Well, as we all know, God sometimes has an odd sense of humor, and we often learn lessons in ways that we never expect. One thing that I didn’t know, as I was writing that sermon about peace and longing for the next week when I could stand here and be excited talking about joy, is that I would lose my father-in-law the very day we lit the candle of peace. And I have to say, after that, the thought of standing here and preaching about joy seemed a little more ominous.
But friends, sometimes I think that’s the part we have trouble understanding. Sometimes we look at joy and think of all the things that make us happy. After all, Christmas joy comes in shiny wrapping paper with fancy decorations, Christmas gifts and lights, and “holly jolly” attitudes, right? Well, sometimes it does, but sometimes Christmas joy is a little tiny light that shines inside of you, reminding you that a baby was born in the midst of our hurt and broken world. And that baby is an amazing light that reminds us, even in our darkest and saddest times, that our hearts are filled with joy. Maybe it’s not the exciting joy of shiny wrapping paper and fancy decorations and Christmas gifts and lights and those “holly jolly” attitudes, but more the joy of knowing that you are always held lovingly in the hands of God, whether you are happy or sad or somewhere in-between.
Friends, each year we get so excited to celebrate Christmas, and we even have four whole weeks of Advent to help us slow down so that we can truly enjoy all that Christmas is about. You know, that joy-filled story that we celebrate each year about a teenage girl, pregnant with a child that is not her husband’s, a child born in a dirty animal stall. The story of a family of refugees who had to flee their homeland so that their child would be safe. The story of one sent into the world in peace who was condemned to death. The story of a light sent to shine in the darkness, a light which the world snuffed out. Yikes! Does that really sound like a story of joy to you?
The truth is, my friends, joy is very similar to hope and peace. Joy comes not from what happens around us, but from what happens within us. It is so easy to get weighed down by all the hurt and problems and struggle in the world, we can spend our lives worrying about what might happen. We can grieve over things that have happened and become overwhelmed by what we can’t control, or we can simply choose joy!
In our scripture reading this morning, we heard about the angels sharing the good news of great joy with the shepherds. But when the shepherds first heard it, they weren’t quite sure how to react. First of all, they were frightened by this heavenly host of angels appearing before them. I’m sure they asked themselves, “Why us?” After all, they were just shepherds working out in the field. They were no one special. But luckily, for the sake of our Christmas story, the shepherds chose joy. They decided to put their worries and their fears and their hurts aside. They decided to trust the angels, and they headed into the town of Bethlehem to see this child that had been born.
(Hey, grown-ups, can I talk to you for just a minute?) One of our biggest hang-ups as adults is that we have been conditioned by the world and by past experiences to be cautious. Sometimes we worry so much about the “what ifs” in life that we don’t allow ourselves to experience the simple joy in what is happening around us. Sometimes we are so hurt by our past that we don’t enjoy the present. And sometimes we are so guarded against showing our true feelings, that we hide our emotions and miss out on amazing moments.
Friends, I know that I have told you this many, many times before, but I want you to know that after nine years of being the pastor here, my favorite thing to do on Sunday mornings is still talking with the children of our church. I love Household Huddle because, in that hour, I get to look at the world through the eyes of a child again, and I get to see the unaltered hope and peace and joy and love that a child sees. Because you know what? Their excitement always far outweighs their complaints. Their joys always dwarf their concerns. And their joys are presented with such excitement!
Last week when we were making the posters for our picture to send to Matthew Dix at boot camp, the children were so excited! They were helping someone! They were making a difference and they were having fun doing it! I couldn’t help but share in their joy, witnessing their excitement and their creativity.
But that was on Sunday morning.
Sunday night, as I was here at the church for the candle-lighting service for grieving families, I got a call that my father-in-law had been rushed to the hospital. Because of the Oldtowners that were here to help, I was able to leave right away to be with my family. And this past week, I was home, taking care of my father-in-law’s arrangements, missing Coffee Connection and Church Committee, and not being as available as I usually am. But all week, long, in the midst of my sadness, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky I am to serve a church that understands that even pastors struggle and grieve sometimes. I thought about all the emails and texts and cards and edible arrangements and flowers that we received from church members and all the people who checked in on us to make sure we were doing okay.
Then I thought about the Christmas story a little more, and I realized that it truly is a story filled with joy. Because, yes, Mary was a teenage girl, pregnant with a child that was not her husband’s. But God was with her, and scripture says that she sang out with joy that God had chosen and exalted her among all women. Yes, the baby was born in a dirty animal stall, but through that humble stable, God showed us that material things are not important—humility and love are. Yes, Mary and Joseph had to flee their homeland so that Jesus would be safe. But God went with them, and God protected them each step of the way. Yes, it is the story of one sent into the world in peace who was condemned to death. But the story doesn’t end there, because death was not the final word! And yes, it is the story of a light sent to shine in the darkness, which the world snuffed out. But the light was never truly extinguished, and it still burns brightly in us today.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, remember to choose joy! Because in every story and in every moment of our lives, we get to choose. Are we going to worry and be afraid? Are we going to be overcome by grief and only see sadness around us? Are we going to hold grudges, and judge others who are not like us? Or are we going to celebrate and look for the joy in each moment? The choice is yours, my friends. This Christmas season, I hope and pray that you chose joy!
My Friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!