Appearing over 150 times in the OT, the fact of joy is surely present. We see it over and again in the Psalms. We hear its echoes as Ruth and Boaz’s child is named in Naomi’s arms. We see its reverberations as the news of a son settles into Abraham and Sarah’s hearts…and Hannah’s heart! We begin to understand its depths as Esther walks the halls of Artaxerxes castle begging for the life of her kinsmen and seeing victory over and over. We see it in new places as Jeremiah pens Lamentations in the ashes of Jerusalem, writing “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies are new every morning!” In the empty places Zechariah walked as a priest, leading the people of Israel through silence from God with nothing but the prophets voices offering them hope of a future we hear joy. At the sound of Mary’s voice John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb. Joy is firmly planted in the Biblical picture leading up to the birth of the real joy giver. That’s where I would like for us to land this today. Next to Jesus the field outside of Bethlehem offers us the greatest picture of joy available.
I’m not sure I can convey the magnitude of this story. Our awe sensors are so numb it would take me launching a space shuttle from the parking lot to capture the awe these shepherds felt on that night. And I’m not even sure that would really get that close. There was so much more than shock value happening here. These guys saw Heaven open up and announce the birth of the Messiah. Maybe the birth of your first child comes closer to capturing this kind of awe. The moments that follow salvation begin to capture the shock and awe of this moment.
Just look with me at what takes place. First, the shepherd was one of the gentle giants. He had to be strong and wary enough to protect the flock from the predators but also gentle enough to keep his sheep close to him. A group of shepherds could allow their sheep to mingle at night because the sheep knew the shepherds voice. This is the guy who fought lions and bears and also willingly searched all night for one lost sheep or carried a lame sheep on his shoulders until its leg healed. It was not lost to a shepherd that a sacrificial lamb had been born and was being cared for.
Second, the shepherds were considered unclean. Because they dealt with animals and all that animals do they were not allowed near the Temple without first going through a period of cleansing. So God brought the glory of the Temple to them!
Third, these shepherds were accustomed to mangers. Feeding troughs were common in the sheep herding business. They were nasty, dirty animal plates and the places that surrounded them were equally yucky. The fact that Jesus was born in a holding stall for animals, wrapped in cloths by his mother and laid in a feeding trough was a familiar sight for the shepherds, only not when it involved the King.
Luke says the angel appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them. The glory of God is seen in visions and dreams throughout the OT. The shepherd’s reaction was dead on with the rest of Scripture: FEAR. The angel said “Do not fear.” Any wonder! The next sentence is one Luke uses again and again. “I bring you Good News of great joy that will be for all the people.” The phrase good news of great joy captures my heart and head all at once. The good news is that Jesus is born; God has come down once and for all to redeem His chosen people! This is not just good news, this is great news, and the shepherds grasped it at once. These men who were caring for the Passover lambs understood that this was the Messiah; the One who would make peace between God and man. And in this announcement of the Messiah there was tightly wound the greatest joy man had ever known. Their excitement was uncontainable. After the angel finished the announcement the sky was filled with angels signing praises to God. The joy of the Heavens was visible and felt. This must be what Luke meant when he said all of Heaven rejoices when one sinner repents. God opened the door for real, lasting repentance to take place and the angels could not hide their excitement.
The joy referred to here is giddy, kid-like excitement and at the same time it is a deep, resounding echo. It pounds out the message of God’s redeeming grace. Can you hear it? Joy joy joy joy. Joy joy joy joy. Thump thump thump thump. This is God’s heartbeat being communicated in real time. It’s so much more than a fatherly smile. This joy is exploding out of every corner of the earth and these shepherds get to watch the show.
Joy is palpable. It’s felt. It is something we can get our minds around and at the same time it surprises us by just blowing our minds.
Joy is tangible. We see it every time we embrace a hurting soul. We see it in the small things: the cup of water for the thirsty, the gifts for the empty, the smiles on the faces of the wounded and the laughter in the conversation of the lonely.
Joy is abiding. It dwells in us because of the presence of Christ in us. It runs deep in our veins. It shows up in stories and jokes and tears and prayers. For the believer it is hard to escape the presence of joy.
I suggest that joy is rarely something we can plan. It most often catches us off guard. In the case of the shepherds, they were keeping watch over their sheep just like they had done a thousand times before. In the case of Israel, they were going about their duties and prayers with only a shred of hope left that the Messiah might come on that night. In the case of Mary and Joseph, they were in awe for nine month and still overwhelmed that Gabriel visited them and the Holy Spirit caused Mary to conceive this incredible baby. This entire story reverberates with the Good News of Great Joy!
If you are less than joyful this holiday season I would suggest you adopt the same plan the shepherds acted on. Run to the manger! Don’t run to the castle or the bank or the White House. That is not where Jesus is found. Run to the lowest possible place you can imagine and look for the least expected thing you can find. Look for Jesus in the lowly and worship Him there. The shepherds were so captivated by this baby in the manger that they told everyone they saw about Him. I wonder how many listened to these unclean sheep herders? I can imagine people spent more time shooing them away than dwelling on their message. The best of us would have a hard time convincing anyone the skies opened up and announced the birth of God. These poor guys probably did not have a very attentive audience. But for those who did listen, joy filled their hearts and anticipation of redemption watered their souls.
This Christmas I pray you will choose to embrace the Jesus found in the manger. He went from that low place to leper colonies and demon possessed men who lived in cemeteries. He had no home and ate what friends gave Him. He lived the life of a man on the street and died the death of a criminal on a cross. You could not get lower than Jesus did. Yet the angels said the glory that shone on His behalf was the highest that could be expressed and the joy that was announced on that cool night was one that would bring peace to all on whom His favor rests. The world cannot accidentally stumble into this kind of joy and peace. One has to be invited. You and I enjoy that very special invitation. Now, how will we respond?