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.

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