What a joyful story this Christmas story is! Angels announcing the birth of the Christ child to a group of shepherds – shepherds, who in 1st century Palestine were treated as untouchables, who were despised and excluded, who were dirty and smelly, but who still are the ones to whom God announces the birth of the child. And it is these shepherds who then run off to... where? Let’s see the text says about that: Well all it says is that Jesus is to be found laying in a manger – that is a feeding trough. And feeding trough are to be found where there are animals; and animals, actually goats to be exact, were usually secured inside of some homes or in the many caves that can be found throughout the hills outside of Bethlehem. Why goats? There was no need to put sheep in there because sheep have nice wool coats that enable them to withstand the bitter cold nights, but goats have no coats so would freeze to death if left outside over night. So, these low-life, despised, dirty shepherds run off and find Jesus and his mother and Joseph in one of these dark and really smelly caves surrounded by goats and the text tells us that then, they worshiped him, they honored him. Despite the location and the circumstances and the fact that these men were thieves and well, all kinds of other things – they were still overcome by the experience enough to pause to worship! It is here, then, where we find the joy of Christmas. Joy is not happiness – there is nothing in this story that is particularly happy – Roman oppression, destructive taxation, enforced travel, only able to find shelter with the goats in a cave and then giving birth in that environment, and finally visited by the dregs of 1st century Palestinian humanity - there is nothing happy in this story.
But it is still a joyful story and we can nevertheless still confidently assert that Christmas is about Joy. The joy that comes with the birth of the Christ child who is God enfleshed, incarnate – Emmanuel – God with us; the joy of receiving the unexpected and amazing gift of God’s unconditional love and grace; the joy of knowing that no matter what, we are loved and accepted and cared for; and the joy of knowing that through the birth of this Christ child in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago God has brought about our salvation and ushered in the new kingdom. Joy to the World the Lord has come, let earth receive her king! But yet at the same time we are still a people who sit in darkness; we still wait for the culmination of God's promise to fully bring about the kingdom; we still wait in Joyful expectation of the light that will not only shine in the darkness but will completely overcome the darkness!
And so, we assert - Christmas calls forth from us a joyful response – Rejoice, rejoice – Immanuel (God with Us) has come to us to ransom, to release those who are captive to the darkness! But still, I suspect that some of us here tonight may feel that this joy that I am talking about is perhaps a nice idea, but in reality it seems to be so illusive and hard to grasp. While many of us undoubtedly feel somewhat happy and excited tonight, at the same time I am certain that there are also many of us who are struggling with mixed feelings; that for some of us our feelings of joy are mixed together with feelings of sadness, loss and even fear and uncertainty. Perhaps we're remembering Christmases past with friends or loved ones who are no longer with us; perhaps we're struggling with an important relationship and feeling some pain and hurt; perhaps we're feeling lonely or exhausted or maybe even hopeless. And we come together tonight at the close of a very difficult year in our world and nation – terrorism, heightened and out of control racism, misogyny and hate, political inaction and division, cruelty, exclusion, increased poverty and homelessness, violence everywhere we look and an overwhelming sense of fear as settled upon us. On the face of it the darkness feels like it is overwhelming. What is there to be joyful about?
So, let us take a moment to stop and look carefully at exactly what it is that we're celebrating tonight. Christmas - the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. And who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Jesus is Emmanuel - God With Us. The Angels tells the shepherds that this baby Jesus is a Savior – a savior who has not come to fish us OUT of our humanity but rather a savior who enters INTO our humanity – into the darkness of our humanity. There is such a tendency to whitewash this story of Jesus’ birth; we clean it up and take away the dirt and the pain and the stench and we add all kinds of things to make the story more spectacular and heart-warming. But if we can see past all of the escapist glitter and pomp and circumstance that are so popular in our culture, then what we are left with is the birth of an child to a rather ordinary peasant girl in absolutely miserable circumstances; we are left with the announcement of this birth by the angels to the most dirty, dishonest and unsavory bunch of lowlifes in Palestine; and we are left with the proclamation this this child is none other than God enfleshed – God incarnate – God who is born into our world out of incomprehensible love!
And there is where we find the joy of this story and the joy of this season! It's not because of the angels, or the chorus or the quaint pastoral scene at the manger - it's because at Christmastime we celebrate the event whereby God plunges God’s self into the depths of the human experience. God doesn't ease into this; but rather God jumps into the deep end of the human experience. At Christmas we celebrate that through Jesus the Christ God chooses to get involved in our lives. Not just during the good times or the happy times or the times when we feel confident and at peace - but also and more importantly God chooses to get involved with us and to remain by our sides during the dark times, the bad times - the times of grief and death and struggle and anger and loneliness and exhaustion and sadness and fear and abandonment and, yes, even during times of doubt and hopelessness. At Christmas we celebrate that God will never abandon us, God is with us, Emmanuel. At Christmas we celebrate that even in the face of hopelessness there IS reason to hope and that reason is God's immersion into the human experience through the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.This is what we have to rejoice about tonight. This is why Christmas is about joy - not happiness but joy! May each of you here experience the Joy of God with Us this Christmas; the joy of God's presence in the midst of your lives now and always. Christ is Born - Joy to the World! AMEN!
Addendum: I would add that what distinguishes Joy from happiness is the promise which is implicit in the Christmas event - the promise that God's grace, God's Hesed Loving-Kindness and Mercy, and God's Shalom, wholeness, unity with God and others is seen everywhere in the Bible, but especially in this story of the Incarnation. And the 2nd element for joy is hope in this promise; hope that Christ is eternally present; hope that no matter what nothing can separate us; God that in the end God through Christ will defeat the powers of darkness and light will prevail. This is why even in the darkness there can be joy; even in the midst of tears there can be joy; even in the midst of the hardships of life there can be joy!