As three candles are now burning on the Advent Wreath, we find ourselves gasping at the speed with which Christmas is approaching! Indeed, one of the lessons brought us by Advent is just that—the weeks rush by, and if we’re not careful, Christmas overtakes us and leaves us lying flattened out at the bottom of our calendar! The colors of the candles are a lesson, as well. 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. Before we can embrace the light of Jesus, we have to admit the darkness within, and allow it to do its incomparable work. We are all well-acquainted with that darkness; we saw pure evidence of it in the news this past week. The good news, even in the face of such bad news, is that Christmas is about what Jesus did to deal with that darkness.
If you pay attention to details, you may have noticed that the third candle of Advent is pink; in contrast to the purple, this one of four is a symbol of exuberant, uncontainable, standout and standup, clap your hands, whistle and shout, too-good-to-be-true JOY. 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 and you can read about it in Luke 2:8 where it begins, “And there were shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night; and an angel of the Lord appears to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified…” The text goes on to tell of the angelic announcement of God’s favor, a message of truly gospel proportions, that the coming of this gift-child would bring peace. You should read that text again, for yourself, if you haven’t read it in a while. It sounds like the very message our world might still need to hear! The shepherds heard, and boy did they respond!
One version explains their reaction to this baby found in a hay crib– “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! And so does ours…
I’ve often thought that one of the best reasons God chose them is because Jesus would be himself a shepherd—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 in to something special. That’s us, too. None could be less worthy, but indeed God bids us come, He clothes us in the righteousness of His Son Jesus, He calls us sons and daughters, and we are seated at His table. 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! Let the good news of His coming wash away the bad news of a fallen humanity. That Good News, after all, is the only cure!