Good News of Great Joy!

Stained Glass Nativity

“Good News of Great Joy!”

Luke 2:8-16 (2:10) – December 20, 2020

            Do you need Good News? So many are discouraged. Disconnected. Downhearted. This disconnected year of 2020 makes us all feel isolated and separated, even with the computer and social media. Especially at holiday time.

            The shepherds needed some Good News, too. On those hilltops around Bethlehem, they were not exactly welcome in the general society of the town, either. Focusing on today’s Scripture reading, Dr. Luke tells us about the shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. But, he does not mention anything about the low position they held in society.

            Did you ever think you had something in common with those shepherds? This year of the pandemic, we certainly do. We all experience a real disconnect and isolation in society—and so did the shepherds.

            Throughout the centuries, in many situations, Christians have found themselves set at a distance from society at large. As you are feeling a similar kind of discombobulation, it may be that there is some solidarity in our worldwide disconnection.

            Differences in language can be a real barrier between people, too. It does not matter whether a family comes to a new land or a different area in times of conflict, or famine, or some other upheaval. If you are unfamiliar with the common language spoken in the area in which you are now living, that can be a huge disconnect, too. That is a large reason why ethnic groups of people gather together in towns and cities—for solidarity, social purposes, and for ease in communication.  

            I worked as a chaplain at Swedish Covenant Hospital for a number of years. I can remember how particularly touched an elderly woman was when I spoke to her with the few words of Polish I knew. This woman from Poland had dementia, and there was no one working in the hospital that evening who spoke Polish. I heard about this very sick woman when I went to the nurses’ station. I told them I just knew a very few Polish words. However, a few nurses encouraged me to come to her bedside and say those few words—which I did. It calmed the woman immediately, and the nurse and CNA were so grateful to me.

            Even a few words in a familiar language can bridge that disconnect and barrier, and make a stranger feel more at home, more connected.

            But, the disconnect for the shepherds was even more than that. “By the time of Jesus, shepherding had become a profession most likely to be filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder, by persons who could not find what was regarded as decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits.” [1]

Imagine the difference in class between the shepherds and the bulk of the townspeople of Bethlehem. Certain people live “on the wrong side of the tracks,” or “on the other side of town.” Or, perhaps they come from the hill country, or down by the river.   

            For that matter, can you believe the disconnect between all people on earth and the angels? When the angels came to communicate their Good News to humanity, who were they sent to, first thing? Not the wealthy, in their expensive houses. Not the leaders of the community, or the rabbis or ministers of the houses of worship. No, the angels came to the lowly shepherds in the hill country, who did not even rate a home or a welcome among the “decent folk” in the middle of town.  

            I know this is not quite the same as the shepherds’ loneliness, but have you been feeling the isolation of COVID-19? Not being able to connect, or go out for coffee, or sit down with a friend or relative for a meal? Isn’t this similar to the shepherds’ isolation and loneliness?

            The angels did not observe the class consciousness of society, or the language barriers or color barriers of so much of our world. No! The angels sent from God brought glad tidings of great joy to ALL the people. Not just some select few, not even to most of the earth’s population. No! This Good News came to ALL the people. To all with a spiritual disconnect, too!          

            The angels came to the “fields of the isolated, the disenfranchised and the forgotten, or in our own painful places of spiritual wilderness, because God speaks the good news of Christ’s coming there. God brings great joy to those who need it most there.” [2]

            Whether we are isolated spiritually, or disconnected in real life, God wishes to draw ALL of us in to the Good News of the birth of God’s Son. Regardless of where we come from, or where we are right now, we are welcome.

            Do you hear? Each of us is special—each one of us has the angel of the Lord bringing Good News to us—personally. Glad tidings of great joy, no matter what!

            Wonderful news for Christmas, for sure. Wonderful news, any time we need it!

Alleluia, amen!


[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522

@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!

While by My Sheep

“While by My Sheep”

 

Luke 2-10 angels, shepherds, Rembrandt 1635

Luke 2:15-20 – December 22, 2019

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, with all of its opportunities to acquaint ourselves with our Lord Jesus once more. Whether in church on an Advent Sunday, or experiencing the wonder of preparation with an Advent calendar, we have many opportunities to prepare our hearts for the arrival of Christmas during the Advent season.

But, now is two thousand years after the first Christmas. We have developed a great many rituals and observances surrounding the birth of a Baby in Bethlehem. The liturgical year has been instituted, with the season of Advent celebrated for four weeks before Christmas even happens; Advent being the time of preparation and waiting before the birthday of the King.

The shepherds around the village of Bethlehem did not even know anything special was happening, that first Christmas night. They were simply going about their normal nightly activities with the sheep. When—suddenly, as Luke tells us, the whole night sky was lit up, as bright as noonday.

Do we remember what the social situation of the shepherds was, at the time Jesus was born? I mentioned it last week, in my sermon. I mentioned that shepherds were among the lowest of the low, as far as social class was concerned. Shepherds were on the outskirts of society, the same way they usually lived on the outskirts of a town or village. A shepherd was not highly regarded by common, decent Jews at that time, at all.

This narrative from Luke chapter 2 becomes all that much more valuable, that much more unusual, with the shepherds among the first to hear about the birthday of a newborn King.

We looked at the arrival of the angel of the Lord last week, delivering a heavenly birth announcement to these most unlikely recipients, the lowly shepherds. The shepherds were so astounded by the Good News of the angelic chorus that after the angels left they talked among themselves. After discussing the news, they determined to go check things out. Or, as Luke said, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’”

That is one thing our observance of Advent is supposed to heighten: just like small children, Christians are supposed to get more and more excited about the approach of Christmas. a whole month of Advent is supposed to make us look forward to the birth of the Baby in Bethlehem so much more.

Since we live in the northern hemisphere, the coming of Christmas means winter—cooler temperatures, shorter days and longer nights. This time of year is also known as the Winter Solstice; that is, the time of the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Do you think people were (and are) looking forward to the approach of more sunlight, of longer days and shorter nights? This is also an integral part of the Christmas celebration, a celebration of the return of sunlight and warmth, a harbinger of growth and green and all the things that light and life bring back into the world.

And, here we have the shepherds, stuck in the middle of all of this celebration, all this foretelling and forth-telling of God’s Good News. Isn’t that the message the angels brought to the shepherds? “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Good news, indeed!

Although the shepherds were not aware of the deeper meaning at the time, God’s angelic witness was first delivered to those of low station. These who were outcast, the lowest of the low by society’s standards formed for us a view of God’s redeeming love.

In the same way of His ancestor, the shepherd king David, our shepherd king Jesus would shepherd His people through the lineage of His earthly father Joseph and the Oneness with His heavenly Father. The lowly shepherds who were shunned by society, yet responsible for keeping the safety of temple’s sacrificial sheep in the area surrounding Jerusalem, were thus caused to be the first to see and hear God’s great Good News. [1]

As the shepherds excitedly discussed this angelic birth announcement, they did decide to go into Bethlehem and see this newborn Baby. And, as Luke tells us, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”

Tell me, does anyone here want to get on a street corner and tell others about God’s Good News? That was exactly what the shepherds wanted to do! The people on the outside, on the outskirts of the town of Bethlehem, the outcasts of society were so very excited by the Good News and by the miraculous sights they had seen.

Does that make you want to go and tell? Getting so excited about the miraculous, and yet every-day?  At once, wanting to bow in worship at the manger, and at the same time wanting to jump up and go and tell the blessed truth about Jesus?

Yes, our dear Lord Jesus is creator of al that is dark and all that is light. He is the Light of the world and the Lord of the day, and all that is green and growing. He is the Lord of darkness, too. Lord of all that is scary and fear-filled, yet also Lord of the night and nocturnal creatures, and the warm, welcoming darkness of nurture and strength.

Let us go and tell others about the blessed truth of Christmas, about how Jesus is so much more than just a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger. Our Lord Jesus is also Emmanuel, God with us.

Glory to God in the highest! Christ is born in Bethlehem. Our response? Go and tell!

Alleluia, 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 Week 4 of this 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] http://beambiblebounty.blogspot.com/2015/12/shepherds-joy.html

“Shepherds Joy!” Thomas Beam, 2015.

Bringing Good News!

“Bringing Good News”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Luke 2:9-10 – December 15, 2019

Have you ever spent two hours in a dark movie theater, and come outside into the bright sunlight? When people are in the dark for some time, their eyes adjust and become used to the warm, friendly darkness. And, being in a movie theater can also transport people into a whole new world. Then, when the movie is over and they step into the real world, into sudden bright daylight, the stark difference in dark and light can be a shock to the system, can’t it?

That was a little what it was like for the shepherds, so long ago on the hills at night around Bethlehem. Not too far from Jerusalem, only eight or ten miles down the road. That was a much different time, and much different place. Electric light had never even been heard of! Sure, after night fell and the sun disappeared under the horizon, people had candles and oil lamps. Although, those were expensive. If people did not have much money to spare, they simply went to bed with the sun, and woke the next morning when the sun rose.

Our Gospel writer Luke tells us that “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”  I am certain the shepherds had some kind of night vision, especially if there was some moon shining and a clear night. I suspect they had grown comfortable with the darkness, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  

I wonder whether anyone here can remember back to a time when they were outside at night, far, far away from the city lights and civilization? Perhaps, far north in Wisconsin or Michigan? Or, maybe in the mountains of Colorado? Then, you might be familiar with that kind of night vision, being aware of all kinds of things happening around you in the dark.

Except – these shepherds had no understanding whatsoever about bright lights! I mean, like spotlights, flood lights, lighting up the whole sky! Suddenly, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” What on earth – or, outside of the earth – was this sudden appearance of the angel?

Some people in the 21st century probably are so accustomed to the Christmas story that their idea of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night is somehow associated with Christmas cards. But, it was life as usual for these working people. An everyday way of life in Palestine. What’s more, being a shepherd was not a particularly high class job. The lowly vocation of shepherd was on the outskirts of society. A possible comparison today is to think of a person selling “Streetwise,” the paper sold for $2.00 outside of grocery stores, drug stores and coffee shops here around the Chicago area.

And suddenly, the angel of the Lord came to these shepherds—came to people in homeless shelters, people selling “Streetwise,” people down on their luck, people on the edge, on the outs of society. The angel of the Lord came to them with good news. Good news. Lighting up the sky in a way the shepherds had never seen before. We can see God breaking through, in an unexpected way, to an unexpected group of people.

The message of God’s Good News certainly did not come to the people we might expect. Are they influential members of the community? Rich movers and shakers? Leaders of the local synagogues and teachers of the Law of Moses? Those would be the kinds of people who I might expect to have an angel sent to them. But God doesn’t work that way. Again, God does the unexpected, and chooses the most unlikely people to receive a hand-delivered angelic message from the Lord of Hosts, the King of Kings.

One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, is a retired Children’s Ministry educator and writer. It is her confirmed opinion that children and families need “To hear the story read or told in an important way on the ‘night it happened’ – Children like hearing the story of their birth on their birthday and celebrating other big events on ‘the very day it happened.’  So, the story which may have been acted out in a pageant and discussed in church school and read at home, feels more ‘real’ when read [at Christmas time] in the sanctuary.” [1]

Last Friday, I was so pleased to be able to welcome the families of the preschoolers here for their holiday program. The highlight of the program was a visit from Santa. Since there are children from such a variety of faith traditions at the preschool, and since this is a preschool that gets help and funding from the state of Illinois, they need to be careful not to make it all about Jesus. It’s fun to think about Santa, but how do we here in the church deal with the tales and legends about Santa?

As Carolyn Brown reminds us, “If Santa is all there is to Christmas Eve once children learn ‘the truth’ [about Santa], Christmas is just a greedy gift grab.  But, if Christmas Eve has always circled around the story of Jesus told in the sanctuary, the truth about Santa can be fit into that context and the Christmas celebration gets richer.” [2]

We can tell our children, our grandchildren, about the bright light seen by the shepherds. We can tell how the angels came to bring the shepherds the Good News that the Baby born in Bethlehem is indeed Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is the Light of the world, God born into this world as a Baby.

Alleluia, 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 Week 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/12/why-children-need-to-get-to-church-on.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas Eve/Day, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013. Why Children Need to Get To Church on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

[2] Ibid.

@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!

Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

“Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”

Shepherds, Annunciation, Oxford Bodlean Library

Luke 2:8-20 (2:8) – December 23, 2018

Birth announcements are often greeted with great excitement and joy. In the United States, they can be detailed and specific, with details like the time of delivery, the sex and the weight of the baby, and of course, the name of the new child. The new parents are so proud of their new bundle of joy, and the new grandparents often show everyone the latest photos of their new grandchild, sometimes before the baby is one hour old.

Nothing is new about babies being born. As long as humans have been on earth, babies have been born. As the old saying goes, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should continue.” One particular, super-special birth announcement happened one night, two thousand years ago. Not with fancy paper, balloons, or glitter, but with something a lot more special.

We need to back up a bit. We all are familiar with the basic details of the Christmas story. Since the Roman Empire wanted to discover exactly how many people they had living in all the provinces and regions of their vast empire, a law was passed that said every adult male needed to go to their ancestral town to register, or report. So, Joseph, descendent of King David, needed to go to David’s home town, Bethlehem, to report in.

Except, Joseph and Mary find themselves on the road at an awkward time. Not only were there lots of other people traveling to their ancestral towns, but added to that, Mary was greatly pregnant. So pregnant, in fact, that soon after she arrived in Bethlehem she went into labor. Mary delivered a newborn boy, as Dr. Luke tells us in the verses previous to our reading.

There was something quite different about this birth. Several somethings, in fact.

In most birth announcements, one of the main things people want to know is the baby’s name. This newborn baby had a great name: Jesus, Yeshua, or Joshua, meaning “he saves.” We know—because one of the prophecies from the book of Isaiah told us so—that this Baby, this Child is also known as the Prince of Peace. Plus, the newborn baby is also of the house and lineage of King David. Added to which, the birth of this particular Baby was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Impressive bloodline and backstory, indeed.

After all this build-up, many people would expect a grand birth announcement, sent to the very best people. People like nobility, royalty, other V.I.P.s. But who is it who receives this birth announcement? Shepherds. Common, ordinary, lowly shepherds. As Dr. Luke records in his Gospel, “shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” For the shepherds, it was an ordinary night. Nothing special, they were just minding their own business. And, if you have worked on a farm or with farm animals, you might know what herding animals smells like. Not very appealing, to modern minds—or noses.

Shepherds were not considered well-to-do, upright citizens. Quite the opposite! Dr. David Lose tells us “And the shepherds? These were the undesirables of the first century, the folks on the lowest of the low rungs of the socio-economic ladder.” [1] Today, we might look on people like these shepherds as street sweepers, or rag-pickers, people who emptied latrines, menial workers of the lowest variety. One step above indigent, homeless people.

Yet, these demeaned shepherds were the super-special chosen ones, the ones God favored with a super-special, divine birth announcement. Complete with a light display that lit up the whole sky, an angelic spokesperson, and angel chorus, God wanted the shepherds to know first of all. Not the rich people in town, or the president of the synagogue, or the elders on the ruling board. Not the King of Judah in his palace in Jerusalem, or the nobility who lived in fine houses with fancy clothes, or the Pharisees or members of the Sanhedrin. No, God wanted the lowest of the low to find out, first.

Isn’t it strange—or odd—or funny that God wanted these shepherds to be the first to know? Actually, no. Since God could choose absolutely anyone on earth to hear about the divine birth first, God must have had a really good reason for choosing these despised shepherds. And, God wants all people to know of the birth of the newborn King, the Prince of Peace.

“In spite of their poor reputation as a class of people, these shepherds seem to have been godly men, men who were looking for the coming of Israel’s Messiah. All the others of those who were directly informed of the birth of Messiah in Matthew and Luke were described as godly people, and so it would seem to be true of the shepherds as well.” [2]

Believe it or not, these despised shepherds were sometimes compared to God, in the Bible. God being the shepherd, and the people of Israel the sheep. As uncomplimentary as it may be, people are often compared to sheep in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

As I have noticed before, the behavior of sheep and the behavior of human beings do have some similarities. Yet despite all of these negative attributes, the Jewish and Christian holy writings repeatedly talk about people being compared to sheep.

I found this lovely poem by William Blake (1757-1827). A poet and visionary, he was a committed Christian. He also was a creative writer and some called him even mystical.

As long as we are considering the shepherds coming to see the baby Jesus, I also wanted us to reflect upon the sheep—the flocks, shepherded by the workers on those cold, windswept hills around Bethlehem.

 

Meditation on the Lamb

 

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee,

gave thee life, and bid thee feed

by the stream and o’er the mead;

gave thee clothing of delight,

softest clothing, woolly, bright;

gave thee such a tender voice,

making all the vales rejoice?

 

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:

He is called by thy name,

for he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek, and he is mild;

He became a little child.

I a child, and thou a lamb,

we are called by his name.

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

 

Jesus is called a Lamb. We are called sheep. Not very flattering, is it?  The lowest of the low, the shepherds, heard of the birth of the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God. However, it matters nothing to God about our position, or honor, or wealth, or influence.

God does care about our hearts, and how we receive God’s Son.

“In Christ we have the promise that God will not stop until each and all of us have been embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love and have heard the good news [as proclaimed to the shepherds] that “unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.” [3]

Let us joyfully follow the shepherds’ example, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1612

“Something More,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/4-birth-messiah-luke-21-20

Robert L. (Bob)Deffinbaugh graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with his Th.M. in 1971. Bob is a pastor/teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1612

“Something More,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!