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

Don’t Worry—Rejoice!

“Don’t Worry—Rejoice!”

Philippians 4:4-7 (4:6) – September 13, 2020

            I love Bobby McFerrin. His way of recording acapella music is absolutely brilliant. No instruments, but just him, as he sings, whistles, and makes other kinds of sounds.

In 1988, a song was released that went straight to the top of the billboard charts. Not only in the United States, but worldwide. That quirky song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” had no instruments, but just Bobby McFerrin singing, whistling and making other sounds with his body.  

            Today’s Scripture reading has almost exactly the same message. The apostle Paul tells his friends from Philippi, “Don’t worry—rejoice!”

            These verses from chapter 4 are where Paul gives his personal remarks and admonitions to a very special community of believers. Stand firm! Be of the same mind! Help each other! Rejoice! Be gentle! Don’t worry! And, pray!

            Of Pal’s words, what particularly strikes me at this time is “Don’t Worry—Rejoice!”  That is a tall order for anyone at any time. But, now? With all that is going on in the United States right now? Not only the COVID pandemic, but also the uncertainty, fear and anxiety with our country’s general condition. Plus, the racial tension, the problems with the weather and the wildfires, and the political uncertainty all add to the general anxiety of many in this country.

            Seriously, where does Paul get off, telling me NOT to worry? He doesn’t know what I am going through! Or, does he?

We have talked about Paul in prison, throughout this sermon series in Philippians. Imagine, awaiting his trial for a serious offence. Shackled at the wrist to a Roman soldier night and day, Paul had absolutely no privacy. What a miserable situation! Or, was it?  

            Let’s look more closely at Paul’s admonition. Or, if you like to think about it in this way, a part of Paul’s home improvement description.

Plus, some of these seem so difficult to accomplish. I can’t do this stuff that Paul tells me to! As Alyce McKenzie comments, “I would read [this admonition] and try to psyche myself up. “Let’s do this! No anxiety! Who needs it? I am a competent adult. I just need to breathe deeper, summon more faith, and I can achieve this anxiety-free life Paul talks about. Let’s do this!” [1]

            But, anxiety and fear continue to rise up and threaten to swallow us alive. Especially with so much uncertainty swirling around so many, few of us find it easy to do what Paul advises. So often, our attitude can be the exact opposite of that rejoicing and trust in God that Paul commands of us.

            Let’s think about the people Paul was writing to, in Philippi. Many of those people were probably unlikely to have comfortable lives. Most were poor, many were slaves or indentured servants. Few would have had any idea of what we know today as peace, joy and security. Yet, Paul encouraged all of them to rejoice in the Lord. [2]

            Let me tell you, Paul was hardly in the prime place to be a quality motivational speaker. From a worldly point of view, that is. Face it, we who live in comparative security, wealth and luxury today are so much more likely to be the most worried and anxious – especially with the sizeable fear and anxiety swirling around us for the past number of months.

            So, how on earth do we do it? How do we rejoice in the Lord always? And again, Paul says, rejoice!

A few years ago, commentator Alyce McKenzie went to a fitness class twice a week taught by an excellent instructor. As she says, “She is both fit and motivating. She is so pleasant that we don’t even hate her when she is making us do the tenth round of squats that are the reason getting up and down from my writing chair today is so painful.

“When we are flagging in energy in the middle of a round of chest presses or push-ups, she’ll call out “C’mon, people! You’ve got this!” I can’t deny that it has an energizing effect. Class members will call out things like “Yeah!” and “Woo-hoo!” I don’t call out anything. I’m busy trying to keep breathing, but I do feel a surge of internal confidence. “I’ve got this! I can do this!”

            Here is camaraderie, teamwork, and togetherness at work. And, the togetherness, the teamwork of the Christian life is what Paul recommends to us in verses 2 and 3. Remember? Be of the same mind! And, help each other!

            All of Paul’s commands dovetail into his urging to pray—with thanksgiving. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”   

            All too often, our prayers are just a ‘shopping list’ we bring to God, without thanksgiving and seasoned with anxiety and fear. We are urged to be grateful, to count our blessings. While the apostle Paul would express himself differently, I think Paul would appreciate the laid back, trusting attitude of Bobby McFerrin and his song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”   

Rejoice! Pray! Stand together in the faith!                                                                        Alleluia, amen.       


[1] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/lets-do-this-alyce-mckenzie-10-06-2014.html

“Let’s Do This!” Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2014.

[2] Hooker, Morna D., “The Letter to the Philippians,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. XI (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 2000), 540-41, 547.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!