“That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.”
I learned a simple song as a child, probably in Sunday school: I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart to stay. That may have been the first time I heard that life with God was about depth, that joy is down there, that joy is somehow anchored.
Much of my experience of growing up in church was positive, being fortunate enough to have good Sunday school teachers and others who modelled things with love and clarity. But there was a time when the church hosted a preacher who, as I recall, leaned a little heavy on fear tactics. Much of what I heard frightened me and I learned then to be afraid of a God who would punish me unless I put things right with him as soon, and as frequently, as possible. The preacher likely had good intentions, but to me the message sounded like lot of bad news, with a little bit of good news sprinkled in, just so long as you played your cards right. Thinking about God and doing things like praying began to make me feel anxious.
There’s plenty of news that brings fear. There’s an economic downturn and things don’t look as promising as they did last year. War breaks out in some already impoverished place. The tests come back positive when you were sure you had the disease beat. The divorce drags on and the wound grows wider with every back and forth through the lawyers. The job posting closes and you hear nothing back. Fear creeps in with all the negative “what ifs?” and anxious wonderings. Fear and bad news tend to go together. Fear has a place in the Christmas story also, but it’s not in the place we might expect. Fear is where we often start, what we get used to living in, but the news of Christmas says it’s not where we end up.
St. Luke tells us the Christmas news is “good news of great joy for everyone”. The news of Jesus’ arrival isn’t meant to heap more fear the earth’s inhabitance, but a robust helping of joy. In fact, Luke’s biography of Jesus often records that he was received with joy. It’s a main theme in his telling of events – Jesus turns up and so does joy.
So joy is a common response to Jesus’ arrival in gospels, and we’re told it has something to do with the news he brings. It’s simple news that, somehow, we tend to forget or get wrong. The news is that God loves and hasn’t forgotten the world, turning a blind eye to everything that turns our stomachs. Instead, God is pleased belong with us, to set things right, to do whatever it takes to restore what has fallen into disrepair, even if it means falling into a kind of disrepair himself. We see all this, of course, in and through the life of Jesus, and Jesus is meant to make perfectly clear who God is and how God lovingly relates to his creation. But as one writer points out, however, sometimes we talk about this news as if John 3:16 reads “For God so hated the world that he gave his only son” and not “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son”. That’s a bit of a problem, and perhaps it has something to do with our lack of trust that when we look at Jesus we see what God’s like. So this time of year, when we spend time looking at Jesus, even Jesus’ birth and infancy, we’re afforded the opportunity to remember that God isn’t someone we relate to through fear, but through love. That’s the good news at Christmas. It’s news that puts all other news in perspective. It’s news that says God is present, God is involved and God is committed to the world through unconditional love. And the result of the good news that puts all other news in its place is what St. Luke simply calls joy.
That’s what the Bible says happens when this good news breaks in on us, and when we receive God himself. Receiving God, being open to God, results not in fear or despair or shame, but just the opposite. Christmas reminds us that it’s not as if God is like another bill in the mail, piling on the pressure. It’s not as if God is a disapproving employer with constantly shifting standards, someone we can never seem to get the right side of. It’s not as if God’s a tyrant king, like Herod, who’ll do anything to stay on his throne.
The Christmas news says God is different. When God arrives we needn’t bolt the door, shut off the lights and go into hiding. We can throw open the doors and windows, because his arrival is good news. We respond with joy because the burden is not laid on but lifted, and we find ourselves at home with a person, as the Psalmist says, “overflowing with love and devotion” (Psalm 86). For someone living in fear or despair, Jesus brings confidence and joy, not insecurity and dread.
Think about Zacchaeus, the shady character St. Luke tells us about later on in his story of Jesus. We’re told that everyone in town loathed Zacchaeus because he sold out his people and sided with the occupying enemy. If you’re looking for a quintessential bad guy in Luke’s story, look no further than Zacchaeus. And yet what happens when Jesus turns up in Jericho? He marches right up to Zacchaeus and says, in effect, “Let’s have lunch. Let’s be friends.” Luke tells us that the crowds, to put it mildly, were displeased, and that’s probably understandable. After all, Zacchaeus was the enemy, crooked, a real villain in their eyes. But Jesus, we’re told, doesn’t arrive to punish all the villains and enemies, but make friends out of them (Romans 5). That’s what happens when God arrives. His love fills up the room, even drawing together the people we don’t think he should be drawing together. Probably no one would have been more surprised than Zacchaeus at Jesus’ offer of friendship, which is why we’re told he welcomes Jesus with joy and excitement. Joy is the response to Jesus, because Jesus shows us what God’s like, and in doing so puts to bed all the myths we cling onto about God. Jesus bursts our bubble, and the truth about God and God’s love is able to come through, and with it joy.
As one old carol puts it:
Break forth, O beauteous heav’nly light,
and usher in the morning;
O shepherds, shrink not with affright,
but hear the angel’s warning.
This Child, now weak in infancy,
our confidence and joy shall be;
(Johann Rist, 1607 – 1667)
To put it another way, I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart to stay. Confidence and joy is the result of welcoming God because in God we get certainty about where we stand and who we are. Not a certainty in ourselves, or in our efforts to be a good person. Joy doesn’t come from that, but as a result of waking up to God’s consistency and kindness. And joy isn’t a mere fleeting sense of happiness, but something that runs deeper. That confidence and joy comes from getting knowing God as God really is, which puts everything else in perspective. It puts our faults in perspective – God’s love can handle all that, God’s light can expel the darkness we harbour. It puts other people’s faults in perspective – God’s love can grow in us so we can see others as God does. It puts life in perspective – because God is an anchor, a stabilizer, a bringer of such consistency and depth to our otherwise shaky lives.
That’s what I didn’t pick up as a young man listening to that preacher who worked the fear angle. But that’s the truth of Christmas, and what we’re learning to rediscover each day as we get to know God as God is, not as we might imagine him. Too many have lived in a shadow of fear or shame when they think of God, and Christmas is the best time of year to disabuse one another of that fallacy. That’s why we feast and give, laugh and hug, pray and sing at Christmas. That’s why we’re moved to quiet, warm tears at a song or a moment of tenderness. Through all these things we let the truth take center stage, and that mysterious joy and quiet confidence begins to bubbles up. Through all these things we can still hear the messengers today: “Don’t be afraid! This is really good news for everyone!”
I recently heard a story about a priest living in London but who had grown up in the country. From time to time he would visit his rural roots to spend time with family and friends. The area was green, filled with farms, pasture and sheep. Across from the house he was staying in was a field full of sheep and an old shepherd he had gotten to know over the years. One day, while chatting with the shepherd in the field, the priest asked the him how and for what exactly he used his crook, or staff. “I’ve heard you use it to yank the sheep around to make them go where you like, or to whack them on the head when they step out of line”, said the priest. “Oh no,” replied the shepherd, “people often think that, but mostly I use it for another purpose. I plunge the staff deep into the ground, as deep as it will go, so that I can lean on it, to help stabilize me. It helps me stay very, very still. It helps me stay still long enough that, eventually, over time, the sheep begin to trust me.”
Perhaps that’s a good picture of God. Not as someone intent of controlling and pulling us around. Not someone always looking for a chance to whack us on the head if we step out of line. But a patient shepherd, who stands very still, and invites us to trust him. I’d wager meeting that kind of a person would bring a measure of joy, of confidence in their character, especially if we’ve expected someone different. That’s why the carol says, “Joy to the World!”, and why it implores, “Let every heart prepare him room”. In doing so we might discover a new depth of confident joy, beyond our circumstances, beyond our ourselves. Confident joy because God has arrived and isn’t going anywhere.
Questions for Discussion
What brings you joy and why?
What is it about the Christmas news that has made such an impact in history? Why has joy become such a central theme of Christian life?
What would you describe as an anchor in your life?