Saturday, December 10, 2022

 “How Great Our Joy” - December 11, 2022

Text: Luke 2:8-14

Bob Parrish heard from the company that clears snow from our parking lot and sidewalks.  Turns out that they have changed their policy this winter.  We will have a set monthly rate for snow removal.  If any snows are above 6” or if there are too many snowfalls in a month, there will be a surcharge, but there is a baseline amount we will be charged – even if it doesn’t snow.

This doesn’t sound quite right, but there are good reasons for this policy.  It is hard to find and keep employees.  When snows are intermittent, it’s hard to have guys just waiting for the phone call that they need to come in and run a snow plow or push a shovel.  A lot of restaurants have had trouble finding enough workers and some have at times gone to take-out only.  Well, that doesn’t work in the snow removal business.  You have to staff the whole thing.

And in fact, two companies in Ames that have provided snow removal in past years are not doing so this year.  Our company will pay at least a minimum amount to employees regardless of how much it snows in order to retain their workforce.

Apparently people are not just lining up, hankering to get out and run a snow blower at 5 in the morning when the wind chill is 22 below - and that is on the good days when you actually have work to do.  

I bring this up because our scripture today has to do with labor - with a very specific occupation: shepherd.  Being a shepherd was not glamorous.  Snow removal has a certain cachet to it – I mean you get to operate power equipment.  But in the big picture of things, it may rank somewhere in the neighborhood of shepherding as far as glamorous occupations.

People didn’t really aspire to be a shepherd, but there weren’t a lot of jobs available in ancient Israel.  Times were hard under Roman occupation.  I mean, they would have been hard anyway, but there were not a lot of options if you were poor and unconnected.

Shepherding was generally a family business.  Shepherds would often be the younger children of the family.  You might remember that David was the youngest child of Jesse and he was a shepherd.  It’s not that it was unimportant work; it was.  Sheep were depended on for meat, for milk, for clothing and more.  It’s not that shepherding wasn’t valued – it was, kind of like snow removal.  If shepherding was not valued, we wouldn’t have Biblical metaphors like “the Lord is my shepherd” and Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

But still, most people were not eager to stay out in the fields with a bunch of sheep – it was hard work and monotonous, and when it wasn’t monotonous it could be dangerous.

During lambing season especially, shepherds would stay with the sheep night and day – sometimes the sheep would free-range during the day and then be gathered into a walled or fenced sheepfold by night to protect from predators.

Shepherding was a perfectly respectable occupation.  But it did not put you at the top of the social ladder.  It did not make you wealthy.  Sheep were often grazed on land the shepherd did not own.  If you were to think about the powerful and wealthy and the good and wise leaders of a society, shepherds would not have been a part of that equation.

Which gets us to the shepherds in our scripture, keeping watch over their flocks by night – watching for wolves or other predators, looking out for sheep that might be lambing.  If shepherd was not a top occupation, then night shift shepherd was certainly not.

So there were shepherds – maybe teenagers watching the family flocks, maybe hired hands who couldn’t find any other work – out with their flocks at night.  When suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared.  An angel of the Lord!  Of course they are terrified.

But the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.  I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.  For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”  And then a whole heavenly choir begins singing, “Glory to God in the highest.  Gloria in excelsis deo.”

Good tidings of great joy.  This may have been the last thing that these night shift shepherds expected.

There are many Christmas carols that focus on the angels and shepherds.  

The first noel the angel did say
was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay.

Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.

Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night
 all seated on the ground
 an angel of the Lord came down
 and glory shown around.

Silent night, holy night,
shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing alleluia

And I could go on and on.

We are looking at the Advent themes of hope and peace and joy and love along with Christmas carols, and there are any number of carols that would have fit this morning as we think about the angels and shepherds.  But I have come to really appreciate the carol “How Great Our Joy.”

It is not unfamiliar, but it is a lot less common than many of our carols.  It is only found in about 15 or 20% of hymnals published today.  The entire carol is a simple message about the interaction of the angels and shepherds and what it means for us.  And musically, it’s kind of fun - I love the echo part.  

It is a quite old German carol, and we are not sure who wrote it, but it is from as early as 1500.  In 1623 the tune was revised and given the echo setting – some think this may have been an update for a Christmas pageant.  (A modern update would be that in the Veggie Tales version, it’s the sheep who do the echo – how brilliant is that?)

As far as a representative line that captures the theme of the carol, for me it would simply be “Joy! Joy! Joy!”  Because just one joy does not capture the intensity of what the angels message and what the birth of Jesus meant for the shepherds, and means for us.  It reminds me of a line in our closing carol today, which is Joy to the World.  “Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy.”

These shepherds, these night shift shepherds, are startled and terrified by the message of the angels, and then they are filled with joy.

A couple of observations on this text: first, it is interesting that the angels appear to shepherds, and night shift shepherds at that.

Last week, we looked at Mary’s song.  God had chosen this young, unmarried girl living in an occupied country to accomplish God’s work.  And now, this great news, news of the birth of a savior, was being announced first to shepherds.  God again and again and again works through unlikely people and seems to just delight in this.  

The angel says, “I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”  Sharing these words not with the strong and mighty and powerful and connected, but with shepherds showed that this was indeed good news for all people.  If it’s good news for shepherds, it’s good news for everybody.

The second observation has to do with joy.  The thing about joy is that it can kind of sneak up on you.  Frederick Buechner wrote, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation.  Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.”

The shepherds certainly did not expect a visit from angels that night.  They were surprised by joy.  And God continues to send joy to unexpected places and people and situations.

Joy, of course, can be hard to come by.  There are so many things that can serve to sap our joy.  Financial struggles.  Grief, loss, depression.  Illness.  Broken relationships.  Not being able to find gainful employment.  Or feeling stuck in a job that you really don’t like.  There are worries and anxieties and pressures of life that can sometimes feel overwhelming.

In the midst of those times, joy can just sneak up on us.  We are surprised by it.

Jesus told the story of the prodigal son who had gone to the far country, and whose life was a total mess.  But he came to his senses and finally back to his father who welcomed him home and called for a great celebration.  It was a story of unexpected joy.

There was the woman who had suffered from an illness for twelve long years.  Jesus healed her – she was surprised by joy.  There was Jairus, whose daughter was sick.  And the ten lepers whom Jesus healed.  And Zacchaeus, a tax collector and a crook.  And the Samaritan woman at the well.  

And Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night.  And the woman caught in adultery, who was about to be stoned.  And Peter and Andrew and James and John, who left behind their fishing nets to follow him.  Jesus saved them all, healed them all, challenged them all, loved them all.  Jesus brought life and he brought joy.

Robert Horton told about a dear friend who one Christmas gave him a present which she said came in two parts.  The first part was a sketch of a garden; she said he would have to wait for the second part.

A few days later she died suddenly, and in his grief he forgot about the other part of the gift.  But one morning in the spring he returned from a vacation to find that his garden was a mass of crocuses.  Flowers were everywhere.  His friend had planted them months before--that was the second part of the gift.  They had pushed up through the cold ground and through the melting snow, and suddenly, at the end of a cold, dark winter, there was color and life everywhere.  Unexpected joy.

In Isaiah 35 we read:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

The announcement of good news of great joy is for all people – for shepherds and snowplow drivers and you and me.  Christ came to bring joy – joy, joy, joy! – even in the desert places of our lives.  For that we give thanks and we repeat the sounding joy.  Amen.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

 “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” - December 4, 2022

Text: Luke 1:46-55

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” has to be one of the favorite Christmas carols, ranking somewhere close behind Silent Night in popularity.   Like last week’s carol, “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” it was written by Charles Wesley.  Wesley published the carol in 5 verses in 1739, and three of them are in our hymnal.  

The words have changed a bit over the years.  It originally started out as “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.”  I would have had no idea what he was talking about.  “Welkin,” it turns out, it is a now little-used word for the skies or the heavens.  In the 1750’s, the Methodist evangelist George Whitfield changed that line to what we are familiar with today.  I guess by the 1750s it was already a less familiar word.

And then in 1782, a hymnal was published with the repeat of “Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king” added at the end of each verse.

The carol was originally sung to a different tune but in the 1850s, Wesley’s verses were set to music that came from a cantata by Felix Mendelssohn that celebrated the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg.  Like many of our hymns – well, like many of us, for that matter - it has evolved a bit over the years.

None of that history is what makes this a great carol, though – it is the joy and excitement and wonder of the angels celebrating ‘ birth along with the wonderful music that elicits our praise.  Glory to the newborn king!

There is a phrase in this carol, original to Wesley, that we typically glide right by – but for me, in this season that we think about Christ’s coming and on this Sunday that we think about peace, these words are packed with meaning.  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.  Peace on earth and mercy mild.  

To help us think about this, we turn to our scripture for this morning.  Our scripture is a song – Mary’s song.  It begins with “my soul magnifies the Lord.”  This song is called the Magnificat – from the Latin for “magnify.”    

We like to romanticize Jesus‘ birth and make it a sweet story of a young mother and her child, but that is not exactly the way we read about it in the Bible.  There is a definite edge to it.  Mary is engaged but not yet married when she has this very strange encounter with a messenger from God – an angel – who tells her that she has found favor with God.  She will bear a child, who will be God’s Son, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Amazingly, Mary says to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be with me, according to your word.”  Mary believes, and she says Yes to God.  And right away, this causes her trouble.  

She is pregnant and not yet married, which in that culture is an especially bad combination.  She is worried, frightened, and no doubt overwhelmed.  The angel had told her that her relative Elizabeth, well up in years, was also with child and so Mary leaves home, leaves town, to go stay with this older and wiser relative.  She finds that Elizabeth is indeed pregnant in her old age.  Elizabeth is the only one who could understand, maybe the only one who could believe Mary.  Elizabeth’s words to her are pure grace.  “Blessed are you among women.”  

It is there, while with Elizabeth, that Mary sings her song.  It feels like the support and love of Elizabeth helped Mary to burst forth with this song.

Mary’s song is filled with gratitude and great hope.  Mary is confident and she is prophetic.  She speaks boldly as to how things are and how things should be in God’s world.  She speaks both of what God has done for her, and what God is doing in the world.  

To be honest, the word that comes to mind when reading Mary’s song is revolution.  God means to turn this world upside down.  And it all begins with Mary.  To accomplish God’s work, God chooses a poor, unmarried peasant girl in an occupied backwater country.  From the very start, God is doing the unexpected.

Mary looks ahead to the implications of the birth of this child.  “The proud will be scattered.  The powerful will be pulled from their thrones.  The weak and poor will be lifted up.  The hungry will be filled.  The rich oppressors will be sent away empty.”  We tend to overlook this side of Mary.

There were places in Latin America where just a few years ago, the public reading of the Magnificat was forbidden as subversive activity, what with all that business about the mighty being pulled from their thrones and replaced by the weak and poor.  

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he left the Magnificat in Latin.  The German princes who supported and protected Luther in his struggles with Rome took a dim view of the social and political implications of the Magnificat, what with its reversal of social structures.  Luther’s friends and supporters were in high places, so he decided it was best to just leave Mary's song in the Latin.

If we are honest, these words make us a bit uncomfortable too.  On a global scale, in the big picture, we are all wealthy.  We read Mary’s words, about the poor being lifted up and the rich being brought low, and we have to ask -- how exactly is this Good News for us?

Sometimes, before the gospel can be good news, it has to be heard as bad news.  What this may be saying to us is, we have to know how poor we are before we can receive God’s gift of redemption.  We can be too full of ourselves and all of our things to have room for God.

The Bible does not glamorize poverty, and Jesus did not condemn the people of means who gathered around him, people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  There were a group of women who supported Jesus’ ministry out of their resources – some were apparently well-to-do.  But it’s instructive that God seems again and again to work through the poor and lowly and unlikely – fishermen and tax collectors and shepherds and a poor peasant girl like Mary.

Maybe what this is about is that poor people know their need.  Those with wealth and power can sometimes feel like they’ve got it all together, that they don’t need anything or anybody.  Poor people know better.

Mary, the young, poor, unlearned, not-yet-married girl, is open to God.  She is willing to say yes.

Now on this Sunday of Advent that we especially think about peace, this might seem like a strange scripture to look at.  Mary is bold, she is courageous, she speaks a prophetic word, she says that through her child God means to turn the world upside down.  Which is all nice, but does that really sound like peace?

Well, here’s the thing: peace is a lot more than just the absence of physical fighting.  It is the presence of good will.  Mary’s people—the Jewish people—lived under Roman occupation, and Roman soldiers “kept the peace” by keeping everyone else under the constant threat of violence.   The Pax Romana wasn’t really peace at all.  And this was an arrangement that harmed all who lived under it.  The injustice in Mary’s community meant that a deep peace wasn’t possible - for any of them. 

‘Peace on earth and mercy mild” is perhaps more than just an innocuous phrase in a beloved carol.  Because the kind of peace that Christ came to bring is peace that is filled with mercy.  Not the enforced peace of Rome.  Not the peace found in some places today where there is no public dissent because those who challenge the status quo and those who speak up about injustice will be silenced harshly.  That is not true peace.  That is certainly not the peace that Jesus came to bring.  

Jesus came to bring peace with mercy – with understanding and compassion and the desire for goodness and justice for everyone.

Mary’s song, with its soaring gratitude to God and recognition of God’s grace and favor, speaks of God’s work in turning the world upside down.  What we need to understand is that systems of injustice affect everyone.  And everyone benefits from the kind of world Mary sings about.  The proud and powerful who will be relieved of their swelled heads and the constant struggle to keep those they deem unworthy in their place.  The hungry will be filled with good things.  The rich will know what it is like to be in need so that they will have room in their hearts for others and for God.

Because her song is dangerous, we may not think of it in terms of peace.  But this is exactly what she is singing about.  

Peace does not mean being quiet in the face of oppression.  Peace does not mean accepting things as they are.  Peace is not ignoring the world around us while we live blissfully in a bubble.  Peace comes in the midst of the storms of life.  We can know peace in times of trouble as a gift from God, a confidence in God’s care and provision.  And God’s peace is something we join with God in working toward.  

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace.  He offers the peace of God, and this means justice and equity and welcome and goodness and grace for everyone.  It means bringing reconciliation to those who have been estranged from one another, and from God.  “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”  We cannot be reconciled with God unless we know our need.  We come to know God’s mercy and we seek peace with mercy for everyone.

There is so much that Mary does not have.  She is engaged but does not yet have a husband.  She does not have wealth or power or privilege.  She does not have confidence in how her community will receive the news of her pregnancy.  All she has, really, is the belief that the God who chose her will be a part of whatever comes next.  And that, apparently, is enough.  Even amidst the challenges she faced, God gives her peace.  Peace enough to sing.  Amen.