shepherdThat 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. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” [Luke 2:7-12 (NLT)]

If we had an Advent wreath in our Florida church, yesterday we would have lit the third candle—the Shepherd’s candle—the candle of joy. While the first Christmas may have brought joy to the world, sometimes we’re hard put to find joy in our homes about now. With less than two weeks until Christmas, we may find ourselves sorely tempted to repeat Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!”

Consider the angel’s pronouncement of joy to a group of disreputable, dirty, and smelly shepherds in a field. I don’t know much about shepherds, but I don’t think they had a lot of joy in their hard lives nor do I think their idea of a good time was visiting a baby sleeping in a feed trough. I imagine they were probably more concerned with making it through the night warm, safe and without losing any sheep than they were with the eventual arrival of the promised Messiah. Nevertheless, it was shepherds who received the good news that a child was born, and not just any child; this child was their Savior, Messiah, and Lord. It hardly seems logical that they were the first ones to hear the angel’s words. Shouldn’t this news have been given to the wealthy, powerful, or religious rather than a group of mangy shepherds in a field?  Then again, everything about the Christmas story is contrary to expectation: a virgin gives birth to a king in a borrowed stable and, instead of a royal crib, the baby lies in a manger. Rather than royal courtiers, the King is surrounded by lowly shepherds and, instead of extravagant robes, He is wrapped in rags. Yet, somehow, while destined to die a criminal’s death, He brought joy to the world.

It’s not always easy to find joy and be thankful in all circumstances. Sometimes, it’s hardest to find joy and give thanks in this season that is filled with proclamations of joy and thanks. We get so wrapped up in doing and getting that we forget the purpose of our celebration. Our expectations become unrealistic and impossible to achieve and we deeply feel the loss of loved ones who no longer sit at our tables. Yet, because of Jesus’ birth, in spite of our circumstances, we can find God’s joy where we least expect it—be it in a field near Bethlehem or while laying flowers in a cemetery, whether at a hospital bedside, in a prison visiting room, at an Al-Anon meeting, or quietly sitting by a spouse who no longer recognizes us. A message of joy was given to the shepherds that first Christmas and that message holds true today.

Thank you God for the Christmas gift of joy that came wrapped up as a baby. Thank you for the ability to find joy in circumstances we’d rather not experience, the capacity to trust you when we doubt, and the strength to step out in faith rather than cower in fear. Thank you for the confidence you’ve given us with the knowledge that the story has a happy ending. Thank you for the joy that comes from knowing we are never alone; you are Immanuel—God with us! Thank you for the joy that comes from our certainty of your love for us. Thank you for the joy with which you’ve filled our lives—a joy that isn’t dependent upon our circumstance or feelings but rather on who our God is!

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
[Isaac Watts, 1719]

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! [Philippians 4:4 (NLT)]

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