Well so far this Advent season we have covered first a message of hope, then a message of peace, and now today we come to a message of joy. And each of these messages were delivered by an angel, whether named or unnamed. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments angels have been acting as God’s messengers to humanity, and this week’s story focuses on a very special message delivery. Our reading is about the delivery of this message of joy to the whole world.
Joy. It’s not a word we really use all that much in our world today is it? I mean outside of the products I mentioned in the children’s message like “Almond Joy” or “Joy Dishwashing Soap”, or singing the hymn “Joy To The World”, when was the last time you heard the word joy? And for that matter, when was the last time you heard someone use it to describe their feelings or state of mind? When was the last time you heard some say that they felt joyful or maybe that they were full of joy?
I am guessing it has been quite some time, if ever for some of you. The word joy is one that seems to have fallen by the wayside in our world’s word usage. Now, I am not a linguist or have any other training that might help me to determine how this happened or when it happened, but I have some guesses as to why it may have happened.
I think it might come down to the fact that we have forgotten what joy really is. We are so far removed from the time when this message was delivered that I am not sure we really know what joy means. And the most unfortunate part of that reality is that we are the kind of people that this message was not only delivered to, but maybe even intended more for. That is not to say that the message of Christ’s birth was only intended for some, as it is a worldwide message of joy. But let’s look back at our reading.
The passage says, “There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them…” Now I know many of you are pretty familiar with this story, but I did some double checking to make sure about something.
Did you notice who was absent from the story? Who was not visited by angels, at least as far as we know, and told of this joyful message? The chief priests, the Jewish elders, the religious leaders! None of them. The leaders of the Jewish people, the very people that Jesus was coming to save from their sins, their leaders were not visited by the angels.
No, instead the angels went and told the shepherds, the blue collar workers. The angels went and told the people whose lives would be most impacted by this message of joy. Now that is not to say that Jesus did not affect the lives of the chief priests and Jewish leaders. He quite definitely caused them a great deal of trouble and was going against some of their ways and rules.
But Jesus would have a much greater impact on the lives of the Jewish people, as well as the Gentiles. He would go out and heal the sick. He would make the blind see and the lame walk. He would feed the five thousand. He would teach the people about God and about God’s love and grace. He helped make God accessible to the average person. So in a way, it’s not that surprising that the angels might go to these “common folk” if you will, rather than to the religious leaders.
And if we look back in our Scriptures, we actually find shepherds playing big roles in God’s plans. In the Old Testament, we find that many of the greatest patriarchs of the Jewish people were shepherds. Both Moses and David in particular were called by God to lead His people and leave their jobs of keeping sheep. One might argue that when we take that history along with this particular instance that God seems to show that He had some favor for the innocent employment that is the shepherd.
And why not? Jesus is often referred to as a shepherd and his followers his lambs. We have hymns dedicated to this very concept. Shepherds were protectors. They were leaders. They helped to care for creatures who were not always very bright and were easy prey for predators. I think we could even make the comparison that God has been like a shepherd to humanity throughout time, especially for the Jewish people as they wandered the desert and worked their way towards the Promised Land.
And these shepherds did something amazing. They did not just take this message of joy and go back to their work. They did not just pretend that nothing had happened. They went out and searched for Jesus. And they found him! They shared with Mary and Joseph what the angels had told them. And then they left and went back to their jobs right? They just headed back to the fields and back to what they had been doing before the angels show up right?
No and that is something else that is so amazing! Verse twenty reads, “The shepherds went back, singing praises to God for all they had heard and seen; it had been just as the angel had told them.” So yes, they did go back but they went back praising God. They went back singing about what they had just seen. They were probably causing quite a raucous to be honest and others must have heard them. People probably stopped them along the way, asking them what was going on.
These shepherds, these common people, knew that this message they had just heard was something special. They knew it was not just for them. They knew that a message this amazing, one delivered by angels, was for everyone. This message was one that was meant to be shared. This message was one that would have an impact for all people. It was a message that would shake the very foundations of the world. It was a message of joy.
You know I tried very hard to think of what kind of message I could compare this to in today’s world that might be on par with this one. I tried to think of what thing I could hear that would instill in me and make rise up a feeling of joy so powerful and pure like the shepherds experienced. And I really could not come up with much. The closest thing I could think of was the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world.
And that is an amazing message. One I have often called not the Good News, but rather the Greatest News. But in a way, I am not sure it is even the same in some ways. Because while the Good News is about the completion of the ministry of Jesus Christ and the salvation that has been secured, this message of joy was about the beginning. It was a message of hope. A message of peace. It carried with it limitless anticipation and possibilities.
And in fact, I would argue that this message, if delivered in the same way today, would probably not have garnered the same response as it did then. Can you imagine you and some of your coworkers or friends are sitting out in a field doing some harvesting, or maybe sitting in your office spaces working, or whatever your workplace looks like. And then all of a sudden a choir of angels appears. I am guessing some people would still be scared like the shepherds probably were.
But how many people might grab for their smart phones and start taking pictures? And then posting those pictures online? Granted this message of joy might have gotten spread a bit faster, but would it have been received and accepted? How many people would brush it off as some special effects trick? Or a promo for some new movie or product? We are such a skeptical people these days…
And that is with some good reason. Over time we have uncovered many tricks and conspiracies and histories of falseness and deceit. But I wonder if because of all of that, if this message came to us today in the same way, would we be able to find the joy in it that the shepherds did? Would we be able to put aside our skepticism and see the truth and joy in the message the angels were bringing?
I am not sure we would, but I think there is still hope for us. As I mentioned before, we have the completion of this story already known to us in the Good News of Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. And if we cannot find some sense of joy in that message, then I am not sure we can find joy anywhere.
But we need to reclaim our joy. We need to remember what that message really meant. For Mary, it was the joy of a baby and a family. For the shepherds is was the joy of a savior. A savior for these people who had been waiting so very long, from the times of the prophets of the Old Testament, for the fulfillment of this great promise.
So how can we reclaim that joy? How can we make it real again for us and our world today? How can we experience the joy that was realized that night so long ago? Well what if we looked at what that joy was back then? Can we find joy in our own families? Can’t we find joy in the time we share together, the happy memories we have built up, the love that comes from family, no matter how that family is structured or composed?
Can we find joy like the shepherds did in celebrating the coming of our Savior, the one who will save us from our sins and from ourselves? Can’t we find joy in knowing that despite our own failings and the trappings of this world, we have been promised eternal life and salvation? Can’t we find joy in knowing that God loves us so much that He would send His only Son to save us and all creation?
And just like the shepherds, shouldn’t we share that joy? Shouldn’t we go running through the streets singing and praising God for this wondrous message of joy? Can you even picture that? Just imagine you and all of the people sitting here in this sanctuary going out on Christmas Eve, running around Hemlock or Shields or even Saginaw, singing and praising God.
I think that would be really, really amazing to not just watch, but to participate in. To let the pure joy of this Advent season run through every inch of our bodies and to go out and share it with the world. To do something radical and unexpected. You see I think people expect us as Christians to be in church, singing hymns, and praying, and reading Scripture. They expect us to be calm and maybe even a bit reserved.
But what if instead we shouted out with joy? What if we ran through the streets singing and praising God? I think we might turn some heads. I think we might surprise a lot of people. But I also think we might experience something pretty amazing ourselves. I think we might begin to feel some of that joy that the shepherds felt. I think we might be able to reclaim and relive that moment that the shepherds shared.
Now I know running through the streets is not for everyone. Especially late at night in the middle of winter. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something else radical. And I am not claiming to know exactly what that might be or what it should look like. But in this Advent season of hope, and of peace, and of joy, we can listen to where God is calling us and then act. I hope you are able to find not only hope and peace this Advent season, but also experience the same joy that the shepherds did that fateful night. Amen.