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Good News of Great Joy!

Text: Luke 2:8-14

Rev. Garry E. McCaffery

          We have only a few days left before Christmas and there is good news of great joy to share: God is near us!  He is in our midst!  We prepare ourselves to rejoice and celebrate God’s coming to His people through the baby born in Bethlehem.

Last weekend Karen and I were finally able to start decorating the house for Christmas.  Karen had already put out a few decorations but, with my being sick, it had put a damper on some of the holiday spirit.  Yet, now that I’m feeling better, we decided, it’s time to get some things ready.  We wanted to get the tree set up and get out the manger scene and put out the other holiday decorations around the house.  To help us get in the mood to do all of this I turned on Pandora and selected Christmas music.  Nothing gets you in the right spirit to decorate like Christmas music.

          We heard many of the classics, “There’s no place like home, for the holidays…”, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”, “Hark! the Herald Angles Sing,” “Santa Claus is coming to town”, “Happy Holidays”, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, “O Holy Night!”, and “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  With the kids Jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer, It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

          All these songs stirring memories as we pulled out the ornaments, that also stirred memories, as we unwrapped them and prepared to hang them on the tree.  The realization of God’s presence in the act of decorating.  There were ornaments that Karen has made for us over the past few years that have pictures of our lives together.  There were ornaments our children have made and ornaments that were special to us that we received from our parents.  We pulled out an ornament that was made for my dog, Lucky, when she was alive.  It said, “Lucky, #1 dog.”

Then I found ornaments that I made for my mom and dad back when I was in second grade.  Glass ornaments with glitter that simply had the words “mom” and “dad.”  I sighed as I looked at those and thought about Christmases that have gone by that were so very special.  Time that can never be recaptured or reclaimed, but memories I will always have and cherish.  God’s presence was in the midst of those memories.

          Then I looked at some of the decorations Rachel, my daughter, has made over the years.  Seeing them made me long for the days when she was 5, 6, and 7 and her eyes were full of joy and wonder as we’d decorated the house.  Again, years that are gone that cannot be reclaimed, while in the midst of time wherein new memories can be made.

          Advent, Christmas, truly the most wonderful time of the year and, at the same time, one of the most painful times of the year, yet, touched by God’s presence.  Especially this year!  2020 has been so different in a myriad of ways.  Everything started out with such joy and grand hopes for an amazing year filled with wonder and great possibilities.  A year where we, as Abundant Harvest, were going to grow even closer together as one congregation through events and activities and ministry.  In our personal lives we had goals and plans and hopes and trips we were going to take and family gatherings that were going to be amazing.  Then came late February and, what on earth?  A pandemic.  A pandemic that appeared to thwart our plans and destroy every desire we had in our heart.  It changed our Spring, our Summer, our Fall, our Thanksgiving, and now, the way we celebrate Advent and Christmas.  God, what gives?

          Looking at our world and our lives and the events going on around us, caused me to reflect more deeply on our scripture text from Luke.  In some ways the world of 2000 years ago is not much different than now.  Today we have the pandemic that has taken lives, natural disasters that have taken lives, the normal process of aging, diseases, and heartbreak.  We have people that hate each other, people that are angry with the government, with the election, with civil unrest.  We have people who are hurting due to the loss of a loved one, a job, income, separation and divorce.  Also, in the midst of this season we continue to have work, yes, the daily tasks that have to be done no matter what.  Day in and day out, the same work, the same responsibilities.  We deal with sickness, go through, hopefully get well, and then move forward.  Some of us live grieving, some of us live depressed, some of us live struggling to hold on.  This is simply life for us.  Yet, if we allow ourselves to be aware of it, we find God is there.  God is with us every step.

          2000 years ago life was not too much different.  The life-style was more primitive compared to ours, but that which makes us human, our emotions, our psychological makeup, our concerns about life, must have been quite similar.  In the verses preceding our text we find Joseph and Mary going to participate in the census that was decreed by Caesar Augustus.  By this time Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.  We know from Matthew’s gospel that Joseph wrestled with the idea of Mary being with child since they had never been together.  We know God spoke to Joseph in a dream letting him know this was God’s doing and that he should take Mary to be his wife.

          We read during the time Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for the census, Mary gave birth.  Where? In the local Bethlehem hospital?  No.  In the Bethlehem Holiday Inn?  No.  In a stable.  Her baby, Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and placed in a manger.

          Think about that for a moment.  Who is Jesus?  Jesus is the Son of God!  Where is the fanfare?  Where is the palace?  Where are all the highly important government officials?  No where to be found.  The Son of God was born to lowly, common, people.  He was born in the midst of common, every day life.  In the midst of a world that was controlled by the Roman Empire, in a territory that was ruled by a ruthless tyrant of a king, in a world of hurt, sorrow, pain and affliction, Jesus is born.

          Now we come to the shepherds.  Where do we find them?  Out in the field.  This is where they live and practice their livelihood.  On this particular night as they worked they were expecting nothing different than normal.  They perhaps had a meal or late night snack tucked away to give them strength as they kept watch over the flock.  Some of the shepherds may have had to run off to bring back a stray.  With the sheep there was always, at least one, that would wonder off from the rest of the fold.  There may have been the usual bleating of the sheep as the shepherds tried to keep them all together.  Every minute ticked by like every night before.  They could see the stars if the night was clear.  They may have been shifting to keep warm as the temperature dropped.

          Moment by moment passing as the shepherds faithfully carried out their work.  It was at that moment, in the midst of their work, in the midst of their daily lives, God broke in!  Again, verse 9, “And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.  Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

          And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

          Can you imagine?  In the midst of the common, the ordinary, the every day; God breaks forth and interrupts the flow!  The shepherds, of course, are terrified!  What are they seeing and experiencing?  What could this be?  The angels do exactly what we find them doing in other parts of scripture when they appear, they tell the shepherds to not be afraid.  Do not be afraid because, “I bring you good tidings of great joy!”  Here is the fanfare and celebration about Jesus!  No announcements to the government or those in power.  The announcement is made to people like you and me.  People who do what we do and work as we work each and every day.  People who need hope and encouragement that they don’t live and struggle on their own.

          The shepherds received this good news and they were given a sign of proof: They will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.

          What did the shepherds do once they heard this good news of great joy?  They went back to work.

          Of course not!  They hurried off to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.  Then they went out and made known their experience to others.  In verse 20 we read, “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.”

          How much we need this good news of great joy!  We are in the midst of a season that is usually filled with countless activities, and shopping, and preparing, and spending, and giving, and receiving, and hoping we haven’t forgotten anything.  And often we do forget unless we are intentional about remembering the reason we celebrate.

          The first Advent feels like it was so long ago, yet we prepare ourselves to celebrate it every year.  We prepare to celebrate the good news of great joy which is: God is near!  We also prepare to celebrate the second Advent, when Christ comes again, which is good news of great joy because Christ reigns eternal!

          God is near!  We see this evidenced all through the gospels in the life of Jesus.  Jesus was close to the hurting and disenfranchised.  Jesus was close to the sick, the grieving, the widow, and the orphan.  Jesus was close to the least, the last, and the lost.  Jesus taught using common, every day examples.  Jesus is God in our midst.  Even after His death and resurrection Jesus is near.  After His ascension He sent the Holy Spirit to remind us that He is near.

          As you think about this past year I’d like you to think about times you experienced the nearness of Christ.  As I mentioned earlier, I was longing to see how we, as Abundant Harvest, would grow closer together as a congregation through events and activities and ministries.  And as I look at this past year, I see how God has taught us to be in ministry in a whole new way due to the pandemic.  We have grown in prayer for each other, in unity as we continue to find ways to reach out and minister to our surrounding area, and to continue to experiment with ways to be in community through on-line worship and connecting with each other using all our means of communication.  In the midst of all of this there has been the good news of great joy!  God is near!

          I hope we are able to see how God is near us in our every day living.  In the midst of our struggles and hurts, in the midst of our joy and celebration, there is good news of great joy!  God is near in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

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