Unexpected Joy

December 9, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert


As we move through these weeks of Advent this year, we are reflecting on the themes in a different order than we usually find them, but sometimes, I like to take things out of order because it draws our attention to them in a new way.  It wakes us up, which is one of the calls of this season of expectant waiting for the birth of Christ.  Often we don’t hear this Luke story until Christmas and in the midst of the celebrations and busyness after Christmas, we don’t spend quite enough time at the manger, reflecting on what this all meant and how this lowly birth touched the lives of the simple people living nearby.  Today, we hear about those shepherds, lying in the fields who are brought the wonderful, joyous news and then are awakened by an angel who tells them, “don’t be afraid” because we might imagine how frightening it would have felt to be awakened by angels in the sky calling to them in their sleep.  Let us pray, O God of Peace and Joy, open our hearts this season to the simple joys of our daily lives, the quiet moments when we you offer us unexpected hope and joy in the midst of our busy lives.  Inspire within us the desire to spread your joy to those who are seeking reasons for hope this day. Amen.

About seven years ago, I served as a Chaplain resident at Maine Medical Center.  I will admit to you that it was very hard work.  We each were assigned certain floors to visit and we would rotate through the floors, stopping in to see those who might welcome a visit.  Some of the situations were very hopeless and so, we would sit with someone during a difficult time.  I also visited newborns in the NICU and would visit with their parents as they sat vigil next to the incubators with the great hope that this little life would continue to thrive and grow and eventually be released from the hospital and that they would have the joy of taking their newborn home.  Then sometimes, the experiences were a mixture of both sorrow and joy, all rolled into one.  One of the wings I visited often was the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, and I would meet often with parents whose children were very sick and some I came to know well as children returned for repeat visits.  I recall one week being present with a family whose 12-year old son was in very bad shape in the ICU.  By Friday, it was thought he would not make it through the weekend and I could feel the great heaviness in the hearts of these parents, and of course, I carried that sorrow home with me for the weekend, not knowing what I would find when I returned on Monday morning.  And, so on Monday, I looked through my list of patients and saw the child’s name and found that he had been moved upstairs to the children’s wing.  I made my way up there and when I walked in the door, I found that boy sitting up in bed, alert, awake and talking with a smile on his face.  When the parents saw me, they cried tears of joy at this truly unexpected outcome and together we gave thanks for this miracle in their lives.  That child still had far to go, but there was every hope that he could get well.

Hospital ministry is quite different from pastoral work at a church, because you often don’t get to know the full outcome of the story.  Once the patient is discharged, it is likely you will not meet them again, but I left that room with the full confidence that this family had experienced their own miracle, thanks to God and all of the amazing professionals at the hospital who gave their all to save this young life. Joy, joy!  I had only recently met this family, but my joy rang out with theirs.

In this lovely passage from Luke today, we hear these beautiful words…

“The glory of the Lord shone around them…”  The word Glory is found again and again in the Hebrew scriptures as writers speak about God and it continues into the Gospel depictions of the presence of God. Throughout the scriptures, “glory” often has to do with “shining,” with light. God is light and the light surrounds us. God’s presence and God’s strength is with us in the burning bush, and shown in the star and the angels bringing the Good News to the Shepherds in the fields. And how might they have responded to that shining light? “Glory to God!” Praise is really the best response when we are given that promise that we are not, ever, alone.

Today, we may focus on those shepherds.  In Luke, we have a view to how the shepherds respond to this amazing experience in the fields.  Clearly, they had to have been afraid.  Fear is such an essential part of what it means to be human, and if our nights are dark here at this time of year; imagine how dark it was out there in the fields at that time?   Their lives were probably not too easy. One commentator suggests that these were possibly not only the “lowly” in terms of job importance, but these may have been the lowliest of shepherds… the hired hands, not owners of the land or the sheep… the lowest-wage earners working the night shift and literally “living in the fields.” They knew well the dangers that may befall them sleeping in the fields, and then something dramatic happens out there on this special night that had to have been incredibly upsetting. Fear puts us on alert and we have a strong physical reaction when we feel afraid.  We can feel it in our hearts and our minds and sometimes, it can quite literally paralyze us.

 “When people are frightened, intelligent parts of the brain cease to dominate”, Dr. Bruce Perry explains, quoted in an article published on the Time magazine piece. “When faced with a threat, logical thinking is replaced by overwhelming emotions, thus favoring short-term solutions and sudden reactions.”  When people live in fear, it is nearly impossible to be present to the joy that surrounds us.  We can be on such high alert that we keep looking for more and more reasons to stay on alert and we close ourselves down to the joys of life.

When the angel’s message of Good News comes to these shepherds, it is a sign of God’s presence and strength, not only to the whole world, but to these particular ones out in the fields.  The Angel is telling them that God is with them, this child is God’s presence for them, Good News for all.

This story is one of transformation from fear to joy, from panic to praise. The “glory” (remember, glory often used for “light”) streams upon us. God’s goodness, presence and strength are all around us and IN us.  And the invitation for us is to let that star shine its light from within us out into the world.   We can be those stars shining brightly and share our joy, our hope with a world that so needs it.

Sometimes we get embarrassed by joyful expression.  We need to remind ourselves that despite the sorrow and pain of the world and perhaps of our own lives, God has also given us much to be joyful about.  We cannot live full lives when we shut down some of our happiest emotions and responses. We need people and a church that remember to laugh, to find delight, to seek out beauty and see the world through the lens of wonder. For we believe in a God who is “awesome and a wonder-worker.” Perhaps the “silence” we speak of this week is the need to silence the onslaught of exposure to messages of fear and open ourselves to see and experience the beauty that sustains our joy of life.

In 2016, a fabulous book was published entitled The Book of Joy.  It describes when Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa spent time with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, at his residence in exile in India in 2015.  The two speak of the full range of human emotions, the suffering they have witnessed and what they have learned through their own lived experiences and spiritual journeys.  In the book Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “Our human nature has been distorted… I mean, we are actually quite remarkable creatures. In our religions I am created in the image of God. I am a God carrier. It’s fantastic. I have to be growing in godlikeness, in caring for the other. I know that each time I have acted compassionately, I have experienced a joy in me that I find in nothing else. When we practice a generosity of spirit, we are in many ways practicing all the other pillars of joy. In generosity, there is a wider perspective, in which we see our connection to all others. There is a humility that recognizes our place in the world and acknowledges that at another time we could be the one in need, whether that need is material, emotional, or spiritual. There is a sense of humor and an ability to laugh at ourselves so that we do not take ourselves too seriously. There is an acceptance of life, in which we do not force life to be other than what it is. There is a forgiveness of others and a release of what otherwise might have been. There is a gratitude for all that we have been given. Finally, we see others with a deep compassion and a desire to help those who are in need. And from this comes a generosity that is ‘wise selfish,’ a generosity that recognizes helping others as helping ourselves. As the Dalai Lama put it, ‘In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.’” (The Book of Joy)

And so, we return to those Shepherds out in the fields on a cold night, tending their sheep.  The Angel chose to come to them first, of all to whom they might have brought these words of good news; the Angel comes to these lowly shepherds sleeping in the fields to tell them, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”   Let us be open to this season of waiting, let us be open to the small unexpected joys that grace our lives and let us be open in a new way to this amazing Joy, the Good News, for as the Angel said, I bring good news to you-wonderful, joyous news for all people.”  Open our hearts to this Joy.  Let us not allow the fears of our days, the fear of the world crowd out the joyous moments that God has prepared for us.