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Tidings of Great Joy

December 21, 2019
Image result for shepherds at christmas

If you read my last couple of blog posts, you know that I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas. I hate the commercialization of Christmas, which starts at Halloween. The genuinely good motive of generosity gets swallowed up in a consumerist frenzy to do more and better than last year, which always ends up in spending more this year than last. Usually a significant portion of the amount spent on the more and better is done with credit cards that will take until next Christmas to be paid off, at immoral rates of interest.

I hate the secularization of it. It really bugs me that it’s considered bad taste to use the C-word in a greeting. “Merry Christmas” has become “Happy Holidays.” People seem either afraid or ashamed to identify exactly which holiday they’re happy about. It seems a shame to me. Yes, I’m an old guy. But I won’t go into a rant.

I love so much about Christmas, though. I love the music. The good music. Bad music is bad music, even if it’s Christmas themed. I’ve got a thing about bad music, but I won’t go into it here. I love that Christmas time is a great excuse for me to listen to Handel’s Messiah. It has never failed to lift my spirit and broaden my soul. Especially the Soulful edition of it that I’ve had for 20 years. And then there’s the other 14 hours of Christmas music I’ve got in my iTunes Christmas Playlist.

I love the lights and the decorations. I love the trees and candles. I love the Salvation Army bell-ringers. I love the productions of the story, usually done with preschoolers in bathrobes on church stages. These are generally riotously funny without being sacrilegious. I even love the Santas I see around. I don’t believe in Santa (which I’m sure you’re glad of), but I love the story of Nicholas and his generosity, which is the taproot of the whole Santa Clause thing. If you’ve never read about it, you should google the legend of the real Santa Clause. He was pretty awesome. Though I have to admit the idea of somebody making a list of all my good and bad deeds, checking it twice, and seeing me when I’m sleeping is a little creepy…

But the thing I most love about Christmas is the Actual Christmas Story. The one in two of the biographies of Jesus that we call The Gospels. Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ humble birth. My favorite part of the story is the part about shepherds and angels. Luke includes it in his account. In chapter 2. When I was a boy, if I couldn’t be Joseph, I wanted to be a shepherd. There was just something about the shepherd thing that appealed to me.

When I became a student of the Bible and the historical context of the Bible, I discovered a few things about shepherds that have fleshed out their role in the story a good bit for me.

First of all, their work in Jewish culture and society was huge. Although the Jewish dinner table didn’t generally include much meat, when there was meat, it was probably mutton. Without shepherds, there wouldn’t have been much mutton. So there’s that.

But more important than the grocery side of shepherding was the fact that Temple worship (and before the Temple, worship at the Tabernacle) called for the sacrifice of lambs as offerings to God. On several significant days on the Jewish calendar each year, the number of lambs offered at the Temple was in the thousands. On normal days, it may have only been in the hundreds. But even on normal days, the demand was significant. Some scholars speculate that the sheep being tended by shepherds on the hills outside of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth would have been raised specifically for use at the Temple.

But there was another thing about shepherds in Jewish culture. Generally, shepherds were… I’m searching for the right word. Socially undesirable. Their social skills were under-cultivated and underused. They lived most of their lives outside, with the sheep they tended. Their personal hygiene was never a priority. If you’ve ever spent much time around sheep, you know why. Shepherds smelled like their sheep. Which is baaaaahd. Sorry. Couldn’t resist it. And after a whole your sense of smell goes blind.

Jews were glad for the work shepherds did, and they gladly purchased sheep from them, directly or indirectly. But they didn’t really want to have to spend much time with them. One can only hold one’s breath for so long.

So shepherds weren’t extremely popular in a social sense. They didn’t get invited to many dinner parties.

And yet, Israel had a soft spot for shepherds. Israel’s favorite king, David, was a shepherd. He was a mighty warrior, a poet, a musician, a magnificent king. But before he ascended to the throne, he had tended his father’s sheep. And that connection gave shepherds a spot in the Jewish social order such that they were at least tolerable. At best, admired from afar. And the farther afar, the better.

With these few factoids about shepherds and their place in Jewish life, I think it’s a little surprising that they, of all people, would be the first to be told about the birth of God’s Son. At the very least, it’s ironic. And so like God to put a twist in the tale. We’ve known the story for so long, and heard it so many times we probably don’t see the irony of it. But if we’d lived in the First Century, I bet we would seen it immediately.

For the shepherds, that night was like every other night they’d tended their sheep on the hillsides near Bethlehem. Chilly, quiet. Quiet nights were the best. A quiet night meant you didn’t have to do combat with a poacher or a wolf or a bear.

I think they would have been sitting around a campfire, doing what guys do when they sit around campfires. Coasting and enjoying the quiet.

Suddenly, an angel appeared. And when the angel appeared, the shepherds didn’t respond with, “Hey, dude. Sup?” The King James Version says, “they were sore afraid.” They were paralyzed with fear. Partly because of how this angel would have shattered the quiet of the night. But also partly because Jews of the First Century were deathly afraid of angels.

Most of us modern people have a very unbiblical sense of angels. We have Raphael’s cute, chubby cherubs in mind. Or if you’re old enough to remember when it was on TV, the Touched By An Angel view.

But ancient Jews believed that if you were visited by an angel, it was because you were going to die. Probably at the hands of the angel. For them, it was way not our angelic picture. Much more like Rambo than Raphael.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said.  

Putting myself in the shepherds’ sandals, being told not to be afraid by the angel wouldn’t have lowered my blood pressure. I’d still have been frozen by my fear.

The angel went on, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

There’s something about the way the King James Version phrases this that feels poetic to me. “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

There’s more to the story, but I’ve already exceeded my word count, so I’ll get to the point, which is in that one sentence from the King James Version. It’s my favorite sentence in the story. “…good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people.”

With all the stuff I’ve cluttered my Christmas with, it’s hard for me to keep the fact that Christmas is all about good tidings of great joy front and center in my heart and mind. It feels more like the message is, “And do your best not to disappoint your friends and family, like you did last year.” (I know, my insecurities are showing…)

But the angel’s message was that the great joy was for all people. That includes me. Insecure me. Anxious and expectation-bound me. It means you, too. You, with all your baggage, with all your fears, with all your shortcomings. You as you are, not as how you should be.

Don’t lose track of this fact. Don’t let the picture of the Actual Christmas get dimmed or obscured by all the trappings of the season. The humble simplicity of a newborn, wrapped in strips of cloth, laying in a feed trough in a stable, whose first breath drawn in was laden with all the smells and germs of barns and animals and what animals do in barns. Born to a teenage mother, who was far from home and family, and a very inexperienced carpenter father. In isolation until the shepherds added their own characteristic essence to the stale stable air.

This is good news for us. Better than just good news, I think. Great, fantastic news because this is how the God of all there is, the One who spoke the cosmos into being, the Eternal Word, entered our world to save us from the penalty of our sin. There simply is no better news.

And one more thing. Have you noticed that people who don’t have 10 seconds for Jesus or God or all that religion stuff are pulled into a prolonged collective moment that is directly tied to the Jesus they don’t have time for? And for many of these people, the gate to their heart is opened, if only just a little, to the actual message of Christmas. Which means, if we’re looking for it, there will be opportunity to speak the love and grace of the Christ of Christmas into people who may be more open right now than at any other time of year.

You don’t have to preach a sermon. You don’t have to “present the Gospel,” You don’t have to leave a Gospel tract on the table when you leave the fast food joint. Unless you feel you should. In that case, do all of the above.

But what if you just started the day each of the few days between now and Christmas with a simple prayer that could go something like this.

“Lord, give me eyes to see the opportunities that You’ll give me today to somehow tell the good tidings of great joy. You know who I’ll be bumping into today, and what their heart is like. Nudge me to speak up about Your goodness and grace.”

It’s worth a try.

From → Marriage, Parenting

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