for December, 16, 2017
Texts: Psalm 16:5-11, Luke 2:1-10
A couple of weeks ago I headed into the bedroom. It was probably 10:30. I was beat. I was thinking only of sleep. Karin was already in bed, reading her Bible. I dropped my head on the pillow, closed my eyes and headed off to oblivion.
A couple of minutes pass. I’m almost asleep. But Karin interrupts. “Why do you think God chose the shepherds for the angels to visit?” I tried ignoring her, but it didn’t work. She was wide awake with excitement about the story of angel choirs and shepherds.
Shepherds lived at the bottom of the social pyramid of the time. They were at the bottom of the social ladder. Nobodies. Angels interrupted their night. Gleaming, dazzling angels. Singing Joy to the World. How cool was that? How wonderful?
Karin couldn’t sleep thinking of the wonder of that fantastic encounter. And she wouldn’t let me sleep because the magic of the story was too rich to be enjoyed alone. So she peppered me with hypothetical questions—why did God do that? What did I think the shepherds thought? What kind of faith did the shepherds have? What did I think of the shepherds? Why did God choose these guys to receive this heavenly favor?
I grunted one-syllable answers to her theological ponderings. Trying to give her a hint. Finally, I promised I would check on the shepherds in the morning, but for now, I insisted, I was going to sleep.
The next morning I did check in on the shepherds. In the freshness of dawn I pondered the message of this sweet, beautiful story.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. Luke 2:8-10 NLT (Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com)
After a few more words of explanation, this single angel was joined by a vast choir singing,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom God is pleased.” Luke 2:14
When God steps into our world, it is good news, it is an occasion of joy.
A little later in this same passage in the Gospel of Luke, we read that Mary and Joseph went to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate Jesus when he was six weeks old. While they were there, two old people came up to them. One was Anna, a very old widow.
She had been told about this baby in a vision. She came into the temple and headed straight for the Holy Family. I imagine her taking the baby in her arms and cooing and ahhing over this beautiful baby, checking out his tiny fingers, examining his cheeks and nose and lips, stroking his forehead.
She was in an ecstasy of joy. Finally, reluctantly, she returns the baby to Mary and shuffles out of the temple to spread the news. He has arrived. The Messiah has been born. Our thousand-year-old hopes are turning into concrete reality. It’s happening!
We can see the sparkle in her eyes, we can hear the excitement in her voice.
The Jesus story is a happy story. The Jesus mission is the creation of joy. The story of the birth is tidings of great joy. And this is our foundational story. We are people of the happy story.
One test of the authenticity of our Christianity is the presence of joy. Does our faith make us happy? Does our faith help us make others happy? Righteousness leads to joy.
In the ancient story of Job, Job complained that he had been treated unjustly by God. He suffered disaster and catastrophe that were completely undeserved, in fact, Job protested, they were the opposite of what he deserved. At one point in his complaint, Job lists the marks of his righteousness. One of the definitive marks of his righteousness is this:
I assisted the poor in their need
and the orphans who required help.
I helped those without hope, and they blessed me.
And I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.
What does it mean to be righteous? To create joy in the lives of others, especially the poor and needy. This is the authentic Christian connection of the gift-giving at Christmas time. The point of the gifts to create joy in the lives of others. And naturally when we work joy in the lives of others, it has a reflex effect on us.
Wednesday night I was sitting at the kitchen table doing my year-end giving. I was going through my list of favorite charities, sending fifty dollars here, a hundred there. In the great scheme of things my few dollars will not do much, but it was a great joy to sit at my computer and spread the joy. I imagined my dollars doing a little something to make the world better, to ease the challenges of a widow in Bangladesh or a student in India. I imagined my dollars helping to protect some of my favorite wild places. Giving made me happy.
Terri has helped us as a congregation connect with some special families at Greenwood Elementary School which is located just two and a half miles from where we sit. Most of these families are immigrants, people who have landed here among us fleeing unimaginable danger or crushing poverty. Life where they used to live was so bad that a life of poverty and hard work in Seattle was worth going half the world away from home.
Many of us have given money to help ensure the children of these families have enough to eat during the holidays. Your dollars will create joy among those who receive them. Your giving has already created joy in your own hearts. That’s how we are made. When we water the souls of others our own souls are watered.
Joy to the world. Joy to you. Joy to them. This is the religion of the baby Jesus. This is our religion.
Some years, when my girls are home, they go on a baking spree. The kitchen is turned into a factory of joy. They make batch after batch of cookies and bars and other confections. They discuss the various neighbors they are baking for. The Poiriers, the Popkes, Peggy, Louise, Jim and Connie, MaryAnn and Don. Who is allergic to nuts? Who likes blackberries.
They are not merely making cookies, they are manufacturing joy. Their own joy in giving. The joy of others in receiving. This whole business of giving and receiving takes us to the heart of the Gospel. This is the central meaning of the Christmas story.
God in Christ gave us heaven’s best. In the giving God tasted unfathomable joy.
And we who receive the gift?
We are filled with joy.
Joy to the world. Joy to you and me.
The very essence of Christmas is the manufacture of joy.