The Miracle of joy
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “A Miraculous Love”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
December 15, 2019
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
We like our miracles big, don’t we? The Red Sea – we want to it to be Charlton Heston big, not some “reed sea” with an ankle-deep puddle to wade through. We want 5000 fed plus women and children, not some little snack for a few insiders. The miraculous love of God is big, its huge, but it often isn’t seen in huge, epic 72 foot tall by 125 foot wide IMAX movie-theater with double Dolby Surround Sound. God’s love is a huge miracle, but maybe doesn’t always show up like a tidal wave or hurricane or earthquake experience. The miracle of joy – in either jumbotron size of little I-phone size - it just seems to show up in the most unexpected places. This morning’s Scripture is one of those.
This morning’s Scripture is that familiar part of the Christmas narrative that tells about the shepherds receiving the angelic visit and announcement of the birth of the Christ. A lone angel stands before them, and “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” They weren’t immediately filled with joy at this sudden appearance. They were terrified! Well, wouldn’t you be? Be honest, imagine having such an incredible experience! But the angel, sensing their terror says, “Do not be afraid; I have good news of great joy for all people! A Savior is born, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” So this certainly sounds like a huge miraculous experience. I am sure if Cecil B. DeMille did this scene like he did the Exodus it would be quite spectacular, quite an amazing scene!
The scene of course is more than a hillside on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Pull the camera back to wide focus and we see that Luke gives us the big picture. He places us in the rule of Caesar Augustus. In other words people were living as subjects of a foreign ruler who had conquered them and kept troops everywhere to be sure they were obedient. Going to be “registered” means that the King had ordered a census, not to simply know the demographics of his conquered people, but in order to tax them even more. Caesar had to maintain the world’s largest army, support his lavish lifestyle, and enhance his power because a people kept impoverished are less able to mount a revolution. This is the decidedly non-joy-filled background Luke gives us to understand the good news the angel brings.
Now look more carefully at how and to whom the angel makes this announcement. If I were doing it I would make it a super spectacular PR event. But God doesn’t announce it on FOX or CNN. The angel doesn’t appear to the Governor, or to the so-called “King” of Israel, Herod. He doesn’t even appear to the High Priest. These were the power people, the ones who have some power, prestige and authority, but only from Caesar. Keeping the status quo for Caesar was the way they kept their jobs. No, the angel does not appear to them, but to a small group of shepherds. Now shepherds were about the lowest of the low on the social spectrum of Israel. Not to cast aspersions, but they were considered as smelly and dirty, they were nomads without any property –even their flocks probably belonged to someone else, they were just caretakers. They were generally as poor as they come. They did not – they could not – practice the religious rules that Judaism called for so they were outcasts religiously as well as socially and economically. But it is these lowly, smelly, socially and religiously unacceptable shepherds that God chooses to announce the good news of the greatest joy for ALL people. What an odd choice!
This of course, is the promise of God to “be with us.” Although Luke doesn’t use Matthew’s dramatic announcement that the baby shall be “called” Emmanuel – Hebrew meaning “God is with us.” But it is clearly what Luke is telling us. And he is telling us God is with us in this baby born to peasants, poor parents, who are subject to the rule of a foreign power, to the oppression of soldiers, and civic and religious leaders whose power comes from being toadies to the Emperor. Not much different from the situation of the poor and the powerless today, honestly, for a lot of people all around the globe.
Now I realize our vision of the whole Christmas story is a lot prettier than these sordid facts and details I have been sharing. I don’t mean to stomp on anyone’s Christmas ornament. But we have pretty much Photo-Shopped the birth of Christ to be a lot more glowing and a lot less smelly. Mary looks perfect in her glowing robe with the blue wrap. Joseph’s hair is well gelled with a perfect curl. The shepherds filthy robes have been dry cleaned and pressed and the animals are well – behaved and do not smell and the angels are adorably beautiful.
All of that upgrading is understandable. Life is hard enough. We need a little perfect Christmas to distract us from the reality of 2019 going on 2020, of impeachments and wild economic claims versus the realities for 99% of us. We need a little joy in the face of the constant barrage of bad news on every social media and news outlet. Parties and cookies and decorating the tree are exhausting but in a much better way than the nightly news, the bad weather forecasts and the boss telling us not only are there no Christmas bonuses or parties [ thanks to Fred’s behavior last year ], but next year there will be no raises and probably most of you will be laid off after the holidays because your just minimum wage seasonal workers anyway. Ugh. As the song goes, “we need a little Christmas.”
So I don’t want to steal anyone’s joy. I want to magnify it. I think we need a whole lot more than a “little” Christmas. I think we need a big miracle of joy. I want to suggest to you we settle for too little joy. Maybe a nice tree and a good meal with family are enough joy. But maybe we settle because we are afraid to expect more. Maybe joy really is as miraculous as we want it to be and maybe it is even more miraculous than we want it to be. David Lose says it this way:
“Ultimately, Luke’s story …witnesses to the simple yet scary fact that God didn’t come in Jesus to make things a little better, a little more bearable. God came to turn over the tables, to create a whole new system, to resurrect and redeem us rather than merely rehabilitate us.”
In other words God announced the new reality that God intends for all people to the people who needed it most. Those who had nothing. Those shepherds had nothing to lose in the “status quo.” While Herod and Pilate and Caesar and the Temple priests were all in cahoots to keep things working for them, the reality is it wasn’t working for anyone –even them. What Christ’s birth is about is the same thing Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection were and are about. The whole system of human reality needs to be transformed and God intends to do it. The coming of Christ was the first sign of it for us as Christians. Christmas joy must be seen in light of Easter joy – a miracle of resurrection! The resurrection proclaims the fulfillment of the transformation will defeat even death itself. Now we wait, and Advent is about waiting you remember, for the fulfillment of God’s promise of “good news of great joy” to ALL the people.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, you say? You don’t want EVERYTHING to change? You just want a little better paycheck, a little better health, a little less stress, a little touch of joy, not so much “great joy?” I mean, thanks God but I don’t really know what “complete transformation” means! I’m really not sure I want to experience it. After all, I’m not like those shepherds. I can shower daily. I get a regular paycheck. Yes, taxes are a pain, but I don’t mind doing my part to support our common civic needs. No I may not like the way our government is being run, but God you are talking “revolution.” Not sure I’m ready for that. Transformation sounds good in theory but, hey, the details sound a little overwhelming and I don’t mean in a joyful way!
So what is good news of great joy for all the people? The question haunts me. What does joy mean to me? I usually settle for something far less, or look for it in the wrong places. I almost laughed out loud, when I passed a couple in a booth at a restaurant this week and he was holding her hand but what I heard him say was, “I was cheating on the woman I was cheating on my wife with.” Now that might be the ultimate definition of looking for joy in the wrong place.
Most of us aren’t that far off course in trying to create or find some joy. But the angel reminds me that God often seems to have to shout to get my attention. We construct our lives, we work hard to manage everything, but we are often left, even at Christmas, with this sense that somehow it isn’t what we might have hoped for. Sometimes in these times when we are supposed to be the most joyful we feel more regret and disappointment. Many of us lead lives that are difficult and painful. God isn’t looking to just upgrade our experience from no-class or even from “business class” to first-class. God is looking to change the whole definition of reality so that joy is possible, not just wishful thinking.
Truth is most of the stuff I think I want is nice, but it won’t save me or anyone else. Often enough, they don’t even satisfy for long. No. We desperately want what we probably can’t even name. We may call it heaven, just because that is like the word for perfect. But most of our images of what heaven might be like are pretty shallow too. Maybe most of all we want the joy of loving and being loved. Maybe even more than most of all we want to believe we are worthy of love.
That is maybe the best news of all. Jesus came to us, to all of us to say, you and I are loved. It is the simplest message, but the most miraculous joy. That is a true miracle, and true joy. I think I am going to keep looking out for angels. I hear they show up in odd places, to people who aren’t exactly perfect, at unexpected times. Now that’s a pretty spectacular miracle. AMEN.