If you’re keeping Advent time these weeks before Christmas, today is the day to light one more candle. If you are a little shocked that three candles now burn, then the discipline of keeping Advent is working. It’s a reminder that we are stepping just beyond the halfway point of the season, and that we are not standing still! Christmas is T-minus-14 days and counting now; if you’re like me at all, between now and then you have a calendar with dayboxes over-filled in with all the places you have to be and things you have to do before the liftoff. If you are new to Advent, or you’ve slept 364 times since last year when I last told you this, the color of these circled candles tells a story, too. The first two candles of the season are purple, a dark color to signify the darkness of our world and lives before the coming of Christ; Advent is all about a time of preparation, and part of that is time for serious, somber, penitent reflection. We have to admit the darkness within before we can embrace the light of Jesus, and allow it to do its incomparable work. We are all well-acquainted with the darkness. Christmas, at its heart, is about what Jesus did about that!
If you pay attention to details, you may have noticed at church that the third candle of Advent is pink, and it would thrill my heart if you wondered “why?” In contrast to the purple, this one of four is meant to be a symbol of exuberant, uncontainable, standout and standup, clap your hands, whistle and shout, too-good-to-be-true JOY, as in the joy of angels proclaiming the Savior’s birth, or, in our culture, like the joy of your team winning the game after an exhilarating comeback in the final 3 seconds with a 60-yard field goal. (If that happened, your team would not be the Cowboys!) So it’s just about joy, which in its true and worthy form comes all too rarely in our days. And while you might expect that candle to be saved for last—well, sometimes it’s just too hard to wait for Christmas! From the first angel choir to the classical hymnists, JOY has been their reverberating theme. And it’s contagious! The third candle is called “the Shepherd’s Candle”—and nowhere in this story do we see a better joy-response than in the shepherds. The Gospel-painter Luke captures the scene: Grab your Bible or read along here:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
When the Angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in a manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told then about this child, and all who heard it were amazed…. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. —Luke 2:8-20
One version illustrates well their response, “The sheepherders let loose, glorifying and praising God….” There are, I suppose, lots of reasons for their joy. But maybe what excited them most was the fact that they were so rarely chosen as recipients of anything–except disdain. Shepherds in Jesus’ time were outcasts, necessary-but-fringe-at-best, marginalized and invisible, mostly forgotten lowest-class members of society. They would likely have been the last ones you’d invite to your Christmas party, the ones you wouldn’t waste a stamp on for a Christmas card, or even a text message for that matter. So why, being unwanted and with nothing to offer, did God spotlight them for all eternity as the very first to know that the long awaited Hope of the ages had finally arrived in Person. Why?
Maybe it’s because they were “Jesus’ kind of people”—they could relate well to a pitifully poor baby born out in the cold–because they had found themselves in that same position all too often. Or maybe they were the only ones with time, who weren’t so wrapped up in themselves as to be “uninterruptible.” I’m not really sure why God chose them. But their JOY validates His choice!
I’ve often thought that one reason God chose them is because Jesus would be a shepherd himself—the Good Shepherd, as he is named in scripture. And he would know just as they did the feeling of being despised and rejected, a “man of sorrows.” Maybe even more than that, God chose shepherds because Jesus would be a Lamb, the spotless Lamb of God, offered up for the sin of all the world.
I hope you know shepherds were not the only outcast, outsiders invited inside to something special. In fact, here we are today, none less worthy—and yet our names are on the list and we are invited to come right up to the table and share the feast of joy. As we shared together this Sunday these very ordinary elements of Holy Communion, I hope that we, too, can find joy at being chosen and invited to this place of honor; and I hope our joy will validate His choice!