Joy at Arm’s Length

“Joy at Arm’s Length”

 Luke 2:1-14 (2:9-10) – December 12, 2021

            Have you felt recently like there are lots of feelings coming your way? It seems like 2021 is a year of deep feelings. Yes, the feelings of fear, anxiety, worry, and grief (over many different kinds of losses!). At the same time, there are occasions of happiness, comfort, and once in a while, excitement! Can you recognize joy in that bundle of feelings?

Let’s look at what Dr. Luke has to say about the shepherds. “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

            As we read this familiar Christmas story, was there much in the shepherds’ daily life and experience to fill them with joy? I do not think they were particularly joy-filled, with their ordinary, workaday life and their low, social status.

Remember the difficult situation the shepherds were in. The shepherds’ position on the social ladder in Palestine was pretty near the bottom. Working as a shepherd was something that vagrants might pick up, or a job for ne’er-do-wells, or others who were very much down on their luck. Similar to the current day, where the angels might come and give a heavenly announcement to homeless people.

            Today, you and I do not need to be down and out like the shepherds to have difficulty finding joy. Goodness knows, there is a lot going on in the world today, much less in each individual life. Look at the extreme weather! Look at the political situation, both local and national! Look at finances all over! Look at health situations! Need I say more? Actually, I do.

            My friend Rev. April Fiet reflects about our focus on joy, too. She says, “I was already struggling with joy because I feel guilty delighting in things when others are suffering. It feels inappropriate. How can I rejoice when someone else is experiencing the pain of a loved one in the hospital and being unable to be with them? How can I feel delight when business owners are forced to close their doors? How can I justify smiling at the sound of the birds in the trees or the scent of fresh baked bread when neighbors are sick, families are separated, and such brokenness exists in the world?” [1]

Oh, my. I can relate to Pastor April’s reflections. Are you and I uncertain about joy? Is it difficult for us to feel joy, even a challenge to think about experiencing joy?

I know what it is like to work a hum-drum, workaday job. Yes, I have had some jobs like that, years ago. I wonder whether the shepherds felt like that, right before the angel chorus broke into this hum-drum, workaday world and appeared to them?

Dr. Luke says that the shepherds were doing their job in the fields by taking care of the sheep. It is what they did every day. “Maybe their job had become a routine. Perhaps they were used to living in the fields, and they had forgotten to notice the green grass or look up at the glittering stars. Suddenly, the angels came to the shepherds to share, “the good news of great joy for all the people.” They said, “Jesus has been born. It is a blessing for you. It is a blessing for everyone!”[2] Imagine, a bunch of extraterrestrial beings lighting up the whole night sky! Imagine, what would that have been like if you had been there?

Years back, many people remember cute Christmas pageants, with children dressed in bathrobes as shepherds, and angels with aluminum papered wings and tinsel halos singing “Gloria!” Yet, the real angels’ joyous announcement was contagious! They surrounded the shepherds with that great joy, for all people! The ultimate birth announcement for all time!

I am sure you remember getting filled with joy just because your friend or relative was so joy-filled. We just celebrated the birth of a grandbaby in this congregation a few days ago, and the grandparents were so joy-filled it surely was contagious for the rest of us! And how much more to have a glorious angel chorus filled with joy, singing their Glorias to God in the highest!

But, sometimes – it can be difficult to be filled with joy, even if angels are telling us to be. Sometimes, uncertain hearts can still lean away from joy, for all kinds of reasons. Some remember birth stories of sadness, either in their own lives, or in the life of someone close to them. And some people are just not feeling particularly holly-jolly, merry and bright at this time of the year. Again, for a whole host of reasons. And, that is okay. God understands and God is right here with us, through it all.

Even if we have the angel chorus turned down low, like on a car radio, we can still hear the good news of great joy. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” We can listen to the joyous chorus – softly: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.”

Yes, the angels brought something extraordinary to the shepherds, and to all of us. Even when we are uncertain to receive it, the angels bring us good tidings of great joy, for all the people! And even when some of us do not have the strength or wherewithal to reach out for joy, a loving, gentle God continues to beckon to us. God’s gift of joy still remains.

I encourage us all – look for God’s joy in our lives today. And, God-with-us, Emmanuel, will stay at our sides in an uncertain Advent, through the Christmas season, and for the rest of our lives. Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/advent-for-uncertain-hearts-week-3-joy-at-arms-length?fbclid=IwAR27woV9I-D9ZOu6-QnqwTF_Md7hE8MDmhpkjxdJ9JivtCJY-Nqmscm5aG8

[2] Illustrated Ministry – Week 3, Do Not Be Afraid, Advent 2021

Moved into the Neighborhood!

“Moved into the Neighborhood!”

John 1-14 word made flesh, circle

John 1:1-14 – December 24, 2019

A long time ago, in a galaxy close by—even, in this galaxy right here, the Word was first. The Word was present before anything else. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.

All right, I have a confession to make. I saw the new Star Wars movie on Saturday. I love the original Star Wars trilogy. I did not love the prequel trilogy, however I really liked the last trilogy of movies. And, the last of the current trilogy, “The Rise of Skywalker,” was a satisfying end to the story—thus far.

What does Star Wars have to do with Christmas? Especially during the past week, I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of Light and Dark in the Star Wars universe; the two flip sides of the Force, that ultimate dyad of positive and negative energy, where Light is Good and Dark is Evil.  I saw a few differences to what we have highlighted this Advent season here at St. Luke’s Church—the Light and the Dark.

Except, different from the Star Wars universe, this galaxy’s kind of Light and Dark are both positive, both are needed. Both are made by the same ultimate Source, or Force, or heavenly Creator at the beginning of all things.

The beginning of the Gospel of John is modeled after the beginning of Genesis 1—except John goes much deeper, and gets theological right away. John chapter 1 tells us a lot about the Word—the Light—the Life—and then, brings those descriptions down to earth. The cosmic Light—the Word spoken before anything was created—that Word—or Light—or Life comes down to earth and gets up close and personal. How much more personal can you get than becoming flesh, becoming a tiny Baby?

I think everyone here is more familiar with the narrative of Luke 2, where we hear about Joseph, and Mary, and the census, and the awkward situation the young couple was in—being still fiancés, still pledged to each other, and not yet married. But wait, there’s more! We hear about the shepherds, angels and their heavenly birth announcement. The shepherds run to visit the newborn Baby, and afterwards go and tell everyone in that town of Bethlehem: “Alleluia! The Messiah is born!”

Somehow, the narrative told by Luke seems a lot more relatable than the first chapter of John. I mean, who can relate to the eternal Word spoken before anything was created? And, the cosmic Light that is also Life? Isn’t that a mixed metaphor, John? Couldn’t you get your metaphoric descriptions straightened out before you set it down as Gospel truth?

This Scripture reading from John 1 is the reading for Christmas Eve, where John tells us of the Eternal Word, part of the everlasting Trinity, becoming flesh. As Luke would say, Emmanuel, God with us, becoming a Baby born in Bethlehem.

Jesus was the name that Mary and Joseph gave to their Son, and John tells us He is “the Light of all people” coming into the world. After a month of Advent, of waiting and longing and talking about the miraculous birth, Jesus is now here! We have also been talking about how Light and Dark are both positive things, both created by God.

As we reflect on the two narratives, the familiar one in Luke 2 and our reading for tonight, John 1, both readings talk about the Light of the world come to earth. Yet, Jesus is both human and divine. “Those two things coexist in him, just like light and dark. John tells us darkness does not overcome the light. The darkness is there alongside the light as it shines. Darkness helps light stand out, just like the stars shining in the night sky.” [1]

We have already talked about how darkness can be warm and friendly. Just think of baby animals and their mothers. Puppies, kittens, calves, lambs, all kinds of animals resting with their mothers. And, think of human babies. They rest with their mothers in the warm, welcoming darkness of night. Not like the good versus evil, light/dark split of the Star Wars universe, but instead all creation created by God, and all is named good.

We can see how there is a natural bridge connecting John 1 (talking about the Eternal Word/Light/Life), and the narrative of Luke 2, telling about the common, every-day birth of a Baby—yet miraculous, too. Both are integral parts of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

“But note: when God decided to get personally involved, God came to tell us that we are loved, deeply, truly, and forever. God loves all of us, but especially wants those who don’t feel loved or lovable, those who regularly feel like they’re on the outside looking in, those who feel forgotten, and those who wonder what the point of life is, to hear the “good news of great joy” that God loves all of us.” [2]

Is it any wonder that our Scripture reading for this evening tells us, in the wonderful translation by Eugene Peterson, that this Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Prince of Peace, Word become flesh, “moved into the neighborhood.” Jesus became one of us, a human being.

That is the meaning of Christmas: Jesus has moved into our neighborhood, and become one of us. As the angel said, Jesus is born for you. For me. For each of us. That is the miracle, come to earth. Glory to God in the highest! Amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from the Christmas Day devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.”

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/christmas-eveday-c-keep-it-simple/

“Keep It Simple,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2015.

 

Some Children See Him

“Some Children See Him”

peru-nativity

Luke 2:8-15 – December 24, 2016

So many houses and apartments are decorated for the season at this time of year. Colorful lights and decorations indoors and out, shining Christmas trees, special dishes and fancy tablecloths. Plus, some families have a Nativity scene in a special place, whether under the Christmas tree or placed in an extra special location. Here at St. Luke’s Church, we have the Nativity scene with some other lovely Christmas decorations, in the narthex of our church.

The Christmas narrative from the Gospel of Luke is so familiar. Mary and Joseph enrolling for a census in Joseph’s ancestral town. Since it was the time of the census, the town was crowded to bursting. Mary was greatly pregnant, and while she was in Bethlehem, labor pains started. She and Joseph found shelter in a stable, and put her newborn baby in a feeding trough, a manger.

This evening, we are going to focus on the shepherds abiding in their fields, and the angel alerting them about the birth of this super-special Baby. Starting at verse 10 of Luke 2: “10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord.’” The shepherds quickly go into town and find the Baby, and worship and adore Him.

Yes, the Nativity scene is a familiar way of retelling this story. But—how did Nativity scenes begin? It was in 1223. “According to St. Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis of Assisi got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about ‘the babe of Bethlehem.’ (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say ‘Jesus.’)” [1]

However, that first Nativity was located in Italy, during the 1200’s. The practice of Nativity scenes, pictures and photos has certainly spread from there, all over the world. Do you remember acting in Christmas Nativity scenes? You, or your children? Or grandchildren?

When my children were small, one of the first Christmas decorations I’d take out of the box would be our little Nativity scene. The little statues were all children, and it was intended specifically for the young. I would tell and re-tell the Christmas story again and again. My younger two children would love to play with the figures, spending a good long time with those inexpensive yet meaningful little figures.

My personal Nativity scene, the one my children played with, has white children, every one. I had not thought about this when I bought the set of figures, more than twenty years ago. Even though my children were part of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural school system, we still had an all-white Nativity set.

Let’s hear again the words of the angel to the shepherds, that Christmas night: “the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Not just the people in Italy, where St. Francis was. Not just the people in Europe, or North America. Good news of great joy for all the people.

Think about Edith, our church’s pen pal from Kampala, Uganda. Almost everyone she sees on a regular day happens to be African, and dark-skinned. She has seen lighter-skinned people before, but most everyone she sees and interacts with is darker-skinned. What would a Nativity scene at Edith’s church in Kampala look like? (I don’t know. I can ask her!)

I love to go to a fair trade store in Evanston, a not-for-profit shop that sells goods from all over the world, called 10,000 Villages. This store has lots of different kinds of Christmas decorations, especially different kinds of Nativity scenes. Nativities from Mexico, South America, all over Africa, India, southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

I bought this Ethiopian Nativity puzzle several years ago from a fair trade shop. I love the way the figures almost come alive, with their bright colors. Is this vibrant Nativity a welcome sight for you, or is it a bit distracting? Perhaps we might be encouraged to meditate on something a little different? Perhaps we can use an alternative, ethnic kind of manger scene, or different- culture picture of the Mother and Child, this year? Certainly something to think about.

Remember the words of the angel of the Lord: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” We can praise God! God did not send good news of great joy to just a few people in the world, or even some of the world’s people. God sent good news of great joy to all the people of the world.

The angel has come to all cultures, all ethnicities, all people, everywhere.

That is not only GOOD news, that is GREAT news. Good news of great joy! We can truly praise God with the angel hosts, saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-first-nativity-scene-was-created-in-1223-161485505/

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)