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Advent 2019 #3

Joy

Our Advent journey began two weeks ago. In the message that day, we were introduced to Mary and Joseph, a couple planning to be married. That was their hope, along with living a quiet, comfortable life in Nazareth, a small town in northern Israel.

However, God had other plans for Mary and Joseph. His plans included that Mary would conceive in a supernatural way, that happening before she and Joseph were married, that Mary would then give birth to a son, who was to be named Jesus, who would grow up to be the Savior of the world, and that Joseph, who would not be the father of the baby, was to stay with Mary to provide a complete and steady family experience for the one who would become the Savior.

God’s hopes were way different than Mary and Joseph’s hopes. However, both Mary and Joseph agreed to what God hoped for them. They were willing to change what they planned for themselves so they could fit into God’s hopes for them.

Last Sunday, our Advent journey continued. In the message that day, we followed Mary and Joseph as they traveled from Nazareth in northern Israel to Bethlehem in the south. 

The trip was required for Joseph according to a decree issued by the Roman emperor. A decree for all men in the empire to report to their ancestral hometowns to be counted. For Joseph, that was Bethlehem.

Mary did not have to make the trip, but she went with Joseph because social conditions for her were not good in Nazareth. That was because she had become pregnant before she and Joseph were married.

The trip for both Mary and Joseph had to happen so Old Testament prophecy about the Savior would be fulfilled. Prophecy had predicted the Savior would come out of Bethlehem. Jesus being born there, shortly after Mary and Joseph arrived, is a proof Jesus is the Savior.

Today our Advent journey is once again continuing, today’s message based on two things that happened after Jesus’ birth. For the first of those things, Luke 2:8-20.

In the first part of Luke 2, we read about Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem. We also read of Jesus’ birth. In last week’s message the point was made that Mary and Joseph were alone that night with the new-born Jesus. However, it was not long before there were some visitors. The report about them begins with verse 8.

In that region - somewhere near Bethlehem - there were, the night of Jesus’ birth, shepherds out in a field, keeping watch over their flocks of sheep.

Shepherding was at times very boring, especially at night when the sheep were usually sleeping. There may be some sheep that would think they ought to wander off, but generally there was nothing for shepherds to do but watch over the sheep.

At other times, shepherding was dangerous. Those times came when enemies of sheep were in the area. Four-legged enemies that sought easy prey to kill and eat, and two-legged enemies who sought to steal a sheep or two or three, either for food or to start their own flocks.

Both kinds of enemies needed the shepherds to be sleepy or otherwise inattentive. That is what they watched for. It is what forced the shepherds to be alert all the time.

Shepherding, including at night, was tedious, featuring both boredom and tension. That is what all shepherds at the time of Jesus’ birth experienced, including the shepherds written about in Luke 2. Shepherds out in a field near Bethlehem.

It no doubt was just another night, but suddenly, the night changed. It changed when an angel of the Lord appeared to those shepherds.

Having anyone appear near their sheep immediately caught the attention of the shepherds. Who was he? What did he want. The shepherds most certainly went on alert, doing so at once.

But there was more. The one who suddenly appeared was not interested in staying hidden. He did not lurk in whatever dark shadows he could find. Instead, he was surrounded by light. We know the light was the glory of the Lord. We know that because Luke tells us. But what a sight for the shepherds, especially since the light had to be the brightest light the shepherds had ever seen. It had be that bright since it was the glory of the Lord that was shining around the angel.

At first the shepherds were on alert. That soon changed to being afraid. They were filled with fear. The sudden appearance of someone surrounded by a very bright light certainly caused them to fear, fear coming from shock, surprise, and lack of understanding, including that the sudden visitor was making no move toward the sheep, but seemed to have come to the shepherds.

Sensing the fear, the angel began a conversation with the shepherds. He told them to be not afraid.

That was easier for the angel to say than for the shepherds to do, but the angel explained. There was no need to be afraid because, he told them, “For behold, I bring you good news. News of a great joy. Joy for you, but also for all other people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David [that was the nearby town of Bethlehem] a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

The sudden appearance of the angel and the light of the glory of the Lord were shocking and confusing enough, but the angel’s words added to the shock and confusion. “Christ” means the anointed one. The one anointed by God to be the Messiah. The Savior.  “Lord” means ruler. Put together, the angel announced that in Bethlehem, someone who God had already anointed to be the Savior and the Ruler of the world had just been born.

The shepherds were ordinary men. Why would they be privileged to hear such an announcement? And why would the Savior and Ruler of the world be born in Bethlehem rather than the capital city of Jerusalem? Jerusalem was nearby. It was the center of Israel’s culture and spirituality. Surely the anointed Savior would be born there.

But, the angel announced, the Messiah had just been born in Bethlehem. A message God saw fit to give to the shepherds.

The angel then gave an interesting bit of additional information. He said, “This will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

Huh? That did not make sense. It was confusing enough that they heard the Savior had been born in a small town south of Jerusalem. But wrapped in swaddling cloths? Should not the Savior be wrapped in robes? And lying in a manger? A feeding trough? Was that the best bed that could be found? Surely He deserved a comfortable place to rest.

What strange words the shepherds were told that night. But it then became even stranger.

Suddenly, as quickly as the angel had appeared, this next thing happened. Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly host. A massive group made up of other angels. The Heavenly host also had some news to share. The Heavenly host said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

The shepherds knew what the lone angel had said and what the host said were connected. That God was glorified with the birth of the baby in Bethlehem and that the newborn in Bethlehem had come to bring peace. Peace with God, which sins interrupt. That would mean the newborn truly was - would be - the Savior, saving people from their sins so they could be at peace with God.

What a fantastic experience. Being visited by an angel, seeing the light of the glory of God, then seeing and hearing untold numbers of angels, all pointing to the newborn in Bethlehem as the Savior of the world.

What a fantastic experience. Then, as suddenly as it had all begun, it ended. It was suddenly just another dark, lonely night in a field near Bethlehem.

Or was it? It could have been. The shepherds could have quickly forgotten what they had just seen and heard. Instead, they began discussing what they had seen and heard. 

That led them to a decision. They said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”

I am always intrigued by the wording, “this thing” that has happened. They did not comprehend the situation. But they knew that whatever it was, it was from - they gave credit to - the Lord God for giving them the news about the newborn baby.

The shepherds then did a very important thing. They transformed their conversation into action. They went to Bethlehem. They went “with haste.” That indicates they were anxious to prove what they had heard and seen were real. The shepherds went with haste from the field where they were to and into Bethlehem, where they found the barn where Jesus was. He was lying in a manger, Mary and Joseph watching over the newborn.

When Jesus was found, the shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had heard about the baby. Remember the shepherds were excited. That means they spoke loudly. Isn’t it interesting Mary did not try to shush the shepherds? She let their excitement continue as they proclaimed they had heard the baby would become the Savior and bring peace with God. That those facts were news of a great joy for all people - all who would one day accept the newborn as the Savior.

Luke suggests there may have been other people in the barn that night. He records that “all who heard the shepherds,” which would suggest there were others that night who also used the barn for lodging, wondered at what they said. They tried to make sense of what was said about the baby.

Mary, however, reacted differently. She kept all these things. She thought about them, pondering them in her heart. How it was that what the shepherds had heard about Jesus being the Savior is the same thing she had been told by the angel Gabriel. How what the shepherds had heard was the same as Joseph had heard from an angel. What wonderful confirmation Mary had about the future of her son.

How long the shepherds stayed in the barn is not recorded, but eventually they returned to the fields and their sheep which, by the way, represents another miracle. While the shepherds were gone, nothing bad happened to the sheep. No four-legged enemies had attacked. No two-legged enemies had stolen. None of the sheep had wandered off.

The shepherds returned, but listen to how they returned. They were no longer bored or sleepy. They “glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen,” including having seen the newborn who was destined to be the Savior of the world. The world including the shepherds. What an impact that had to have had on other shepherds in neighboring fields as their quiet night was interrupted by the returning shepherds, noisily and joyfully praising God.

*       *       *       *       *

Joy. That is the theme of today’s service. 

Joy. Not happiness, which is dependent on things around us going well, but joy, which is based on a good relationship with God. A relationship based on obedience to God, even when that includes changing our plans to fit God’s plans, as it was with Mary and Joseph. Even when it includes not understanding why God plans for us what He plans, as it was with Mary and Joseph, and as it was with the shepherds. I mean, leaving their sheep to go see Jesus? That did not make sense. But they obeyed, which made them joyful.

One more example of joy in a moment. Before that, a devotional I found on joy. It comes from something that happened in the early 1800s in an Austrian town that was soon to be under attack by the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte.

One of Napoleon’s generals approached the town with 18,000 soldiers. That was especially frightening because the Austrian town had no means of defense.

The town council was about to decide to surrender, thinking that would be the safest thing to do, but the leader of the town’s church reminded the members of the council it was Sunday. The leader begged the council to allow church services to be held as usual and leave the trouble in God's hands.

The council agreed. Soon the church bells were ringing with the joyful sound bells create. The French soldiers, hearing the church bells ringing, concluded the Austrian army had come to relieve the town. Fearing that, the enemy soldiers quickly broke camp. Before the bells stopped ringing, all the French soldiers fighting for Napoleon had vanished.

The devotional continues by pointing out that the incident in history is often duplicated in individual lives by those who have remained or do remain joyful in the face of enemies such as pain, sickness, poverty, fear, loneliness, and all other trials. In many cases, those enemies have been conquered. At least when there is joy, a close relationship with God can be maintained.

The devotional ends with the statement that “no enemy is quite as strong as faith accompanied with joy.”

Joy is what the shepherds proclaimed when they returned to their sheep. It is what they shared with others they met along the way. And no, life was still not easy for them. Nor was it easy for Mary and Joseph. In fact, Mary and Joseph were going to face ongoing problems in the near future and as Jesus grew. But they and the shepherds all had the joy of knowing God’s plans and following them, thereby having the privilege of being part of God’s plans for salvation.

*       *       *       *       *

A few weeks following Jesus’ birth, two other people experienced the joy of meeting Him. For that, we continue in Luke 2, this time verses 21 through 38.

Verse 21. When Mary’s baby was eight days old, He was circumcised. At that time He was named. The name He was given was Jesus, just as Mary and Joseph had been instructed to do.

Just short of five weeks after that, when Jesus was 40 days old, it was time for Mary to go through her purification, which women back then did following the births of children. It included making a sacrificial offering. At the same visit to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus was presented to God. That, too, was a Jewish custom. It also involved an offering.

Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem for the the purification and presentation. While they were in the Temple that day, they met a man named Simeon, described as a “righteous and devout” man. Simeon had been waiting for the Savior to appear. He had been promised by God he would not die before he saw the Savior.

That day, the Holy Spirit inspired Simeon to be in the Temple, that happening at the very time Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were there. At the instant Simeon saw Jesus, Simeon knew his wait to see the Savior was over. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that Jesus was the one awaited.

Simeon took Jesus into his arms and blessed God. He then with joy announced to all who could hear him that Jesus was the source of salvation. And listen. Not just for the Jewish people. For them Jesus would “bring glory to the people of Israel.” But also for Gentiles. Jesus would be “a light of revelation” to them, also drawing them to God.

Simeon also had some troubling words for Mary. Words of problems ahead. Suffering Jesus would face, which would pierce Mary’s heart. But Simeon also had a bit more joy to express. It was that Jesus would help many in Israel to “rise.” To rise spiritually to a good relationship with God.

As Simeon’s words of joy ended, a woman named Anna appeared. She was an elderly woman who had been a widow most of her life. After her husband had died, Anna had not remarried. Instead, she had devoted her life to spiritual exercises, worshiping, fasting, and praying every day in the Temple.

When Anna was in the Temple that day, she also recognized Jesus, though He was still a baby, as the one who had come to be the Savior. Anna gave thanks to God, doing so with joy. She then told those around her - she told anyone who was also looking for the Savior - that He had arrived. That Jesus was that one. That, too, was told with joy.

Joy. It comes from knowing Jesus is the Savior, from accepting Jesus’ saving power, from thereby being in a good relationship with God.

Joy. What an important part of Christmas. 

Joy we, like the shepherds and Simeon and Anna, have the privilege of sharing with others. To be reminded of our challenge to tell others about the joy of Jesus, today’s closing carol is Go, Tell It On the Mountain. It centers on the shepherds who told everyone they met that night about Jesus. May we be like them and tell others, doing so wherever we are - on mountains, on hills, in valleys, on flat land - anywhere and everywhere.


Go, tell in on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born!


While shepherds kept their watching

O’er silent flocks by night,

Behold throughout the heavens

There shone a holy light.


Go, tell in on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born!


The shepherds kept their watching

When lo! above the earth

Rang out the angel chorus

That hailed our Savior’s birth.


Go, tell in on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born!


Down in a lowly manger

The humble Christ was born,

And brought us God’s salvation

That blessed Christmas morn.


Go, tell in on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born!


I found a poem online when looking up joy

A mighty wind blew night and day

It stole the oak tree's leaves away,

then snapped its boughs

and pulled its bark

until the oak was tired and stark.


But still the oak tree held its ground

while other trees fell all around...

The weary wind gave up and spoke,

"How can you still be standing, Oak?"


The oak tree said, "I know that you

can break each branch of mine in two,

carry every leaf away,

shake my limbs, and make me sway.

But I have roots stretched in the earth,

growing stronger since my birth.

You'll never touch them, for you see,

they are the deepest part of me.


Until today, I wasn't sure

of just how much I could endure.

But now I've found, with thanks to you,

I'm stronger than I ever knew."

Following God’s plans was difficult for Mary and Joseph. It was difficult for the shepherds to leave their sheep the night of Jesus’ birth. I imagine some looked at Simeon and Anna with ridicule for giving such accolades to a baby. 

The strong winds of life touched them all, but each of them chose to be rooted in God, to the extent of following Jesus, who was and is the Savior. Therefore, they each had joy.

Joy can be ours as well. It will be ours just by setting our spiritual roots in God’s Son Jesus. May we express our joy to God and to others. Amen.



 



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