The Shepherd’s Joy
Advent: People to Meet & Places to Go
Sunday, December 15, 2013
About a week and a half ago, Ann Marie and I woke up to breaking glass at 1:45 in the morning. My first reaction was to turn to Ann Marie and ask a ridiculous question. “What was that?” I said. Obviously, she had been dead asleep, too, so I don’t know what I thought that she might know that I did not. My second reaction was to get up and to go investigate.
Because glass seemed to definitely be involved, I first went to the kitchen thinking that maybe some dishes had fallen. Taking a good look and seeing everything in its place, I was convinced that our issue was not in the kitchen. Next I went to the den while silently praying that one of my favorite of all possessions—our flat screen tv—had not fallen off of the wall. Again, with great relief, I discovered that all was well there.
My next move was to head to the dining room to check out the china cabinet. All was as it should be there too. But, as I turned my head and began to look into the living room, which is adjacent to the dining room in our home, it hit me. Where was the Christmas tree? When I had gone to bed a few hours beforehand, it had been standing up quietly and lovely in the corner. Now, though, it was nowhere to be found. As you have likely discerned by now, what I discovered was that the tree had fallen over and that the glass I had heard breaking was the numerous ornaments that had shattered into countless pieces as the tree hit the hard wood floor.
In the end, while annoying and sad to lose some favorite old ornaments, the unexpected timber of our Christmas tree was not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. Sure we lost an hour of sleep and now say a few extra prayers as we pass through the room where the tree is upright once more, but, all in all, it was just one of those things, as they say.
In thinking about our eventful night though, that Christmas tree has become an important example for me as to how Christmas often unfolds for many us. What I mean by that statement is that we all long for a beautiful Christmas. We all long for a beautiful tree, with perfectly placed ornaments and lights twinkling in the night—we all want things at Christmas to be just right. But often times, things are not any more perfect at Christmas than they are any other time of the year. Often times, rather than the perfect Hallmark Christmas, what we get is a burned turkey, relatives that don’t get along and a sweater under the tree that we would have never bought for ourselves in a million years. More times than night, our Christmas looks more like a tree that has fallen over in the living room with broken ornaments and mangled branches than it does the cover of the latest issue of Southern Living.
This morning, I want to suggest to us that life in general often looks this way too. Far from being perfect, pristine, rosy and bright, life is often filled with disappointments, unexpected difficulties and heartaches. This reality, I think, leads all of us to a basic question of life that we have to deal with—does life have to be perfect for us to find joy and meaning? And, this time of year, does Christmas have to unfold in reality just as we envision it in our dreams for us to really experience and be renewed by the season? Or, does our human idea that perfection and happiness go together, prevent us from experiencing the joy of the season and the wonders of everyday life?
These questions, I think, are where the shepherds come in. And, our need to get beyond wanting a perfect world, is where the shepherds can offer us perspective on finding joy in a world that is almost always less than perfect.
Think about it for a moment. The shepherds really lived on the bottom of the totem pole in the New Testament world. They lived tough lives outdoors in the elements with very few creature comforts. They spent most of their time with animals or with each other and thus removed from the rest of their community. In turn, most citizens looked down on them. As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting things I have ever learned about Biblical shepherds is that they were considered to be such questionable characters that they were not allowed to testify as witnesses in court because their truthfulness and honesty was always considered to be questionable.
Even after the shepherds encountered the angel and the baby Jesus, they didn’t sign a book deal, go on a speaking tour or have a reality tv show created around their lives. By and large, the best we can discover is that while their lives were certainly changed by what happened in Bethlehem that night, they still returned after the experience to the difficulties and struggles of their everyday lives.
Yet, in the midst of it all, what the angel said to them that evening was that they were receiving news of “great joy.” The coming of Christ would bring joy into their lives. Even though their circumstances were not going to change, joy now and forevermore would be theirs.
What we see here with the angel’s announcement is a very clear distinction between the ideas of happiness and joy. We often confuse the two terms with each other. Here though the angel placed the idea of joy on a different plane. For us, the idea of happiness is a result of exterior circumstances. That is to say that if all is good and right in our world then we will be happy. In turn, we often place the same limitations on joy. But, what the angel suggested to the shepherds and what is so important for all of us to embrace is that joy is the ability to discover inner contentment, peace and hope that are ours no matter what happens in any given day or any given experience in our daily lives. In turn, the wonder of Christmas is that Christ’s coming into the world wasn’t a way for us to discover happiness but it was a way for all of us through a relationship with this child to experience joy.
I want to suggest to us this morning that not only do normal people struggle to distinguish between happiness and joy but we as Christians wrestle daily with the differences between these two ideas too. By and large, as I talk with and interact with believers every day and as I myself try to lives as follower of Jesus daily too, what we are after is happiness. Our meaning, sense of well-being and outlook on life are almost always dictated by our external world and circumstances. Likewise, when we talk about how we feel about God, our feelings are almost always dictated by what God is or is not doing for us in our external lives. Let me ask you, how often to do you hear people toss around that idea these days that God has blessed them? When they do, that sense of blessing is almost always connected to something happening in their lives in a positive way. God has blessed them because they are doing well financially, everything is good at home or they are healthy—thus we are happy and thus we feel good about God.
Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe that our “blessings” as we call them come from God. But, I do want to caution us that the gospel is not primarily focused on our being happy. The scriptures instead are primarily focused on our finding joy and offering joy to the world.
Joy, again, is the ability to find contentment, peace and hope in God no matter what happens in our lives. Joy is the ability to say that because God loves me, is with me and will guide me, I am at peace. Joy is the ability to sense God’s goodness and God’s mercy even when all we see is badness. Joy is a constant sense of God with us even in the midst of the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of life. Joy is the great gift that the angel offered to the shepherds and it transcended everything else happening around them. Joy is the ability to recognize our blessedness even when there seems to be no tangible exterior evidence to support such a claim.
A wonderful children’s author by the name of Barbara Parker died earlier this year. Barbara was the author of several works for young people but by far her most famous writing is associated with this time of year. Barbara Parker was the author of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
If you have read the book or seen the movie, then you know that The Best Chistmas Pageant Ever is the story of the Herdmans—Imogene, Claude, Ralph, Leroy, Ollie and Gladys. They were the meanest kids in town who came from a poor family. One day, the Herdmans showed up for church one day because they heard they served refreshments.
Well, the result was that the Herdmans not only took over the chidlren’s Sunday School class but when Christmas rolled around, they threatened all of the other children until they received the primary parts in the Christmas play. They became Mary, Joseph, Gabriel and the Wise Men. The result was that it appeared that they were going to ruin the whole production with their behavior, lack of knowledge and their lack of refinement.
What happened instead was that the pageant that year became the best one rather than the worst. It happened not because anything happened on the outside of the Herdman’s rough and tumble lives but rather because something happened on the inside.
The opportunity is ours. We have the chance to renew our joy in these days—a joy knowing God that can never been taken away no matter what happen out there. Amen.