“And an angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds.” Luke 2:9
During my college days I worked as a carpenter, first learning how to frame, then exterior finish work, then interior finish, etc. I really enjoyed it, especially during the Spring.
In the winter, however, during Christmas holidays, it was a different story. We would work if it was above zero. I can remember going to bed at night with the temperature hovering at zero and thinking we won’t have to go in tomorrow. The alarm would wake me about 5:00, and I would learn that it had warmed up to 4.
Working outside during the winter required that you plan ahead. Layering was the way to go. Also you had to gather some wood scraps the afternoon before and get the fire ready to go as soon as you arrived in the morning. If you waited until the morning all the wood might be frozen together and to the ground. I remember one time one of the guys brushed off about a foot of snow to build a fire on what he thought was a piece of plywood. The fire got bigger and bigger, before he realized that he had built a fire on a full stack of plywood. It was a very nice fire, even though the boss didn’t think so.
We would often take an old metal bucket, the kind glue or tar would come in, and use it as a fire bucket. Using a straight claw framing hammer we would poke holes in the side and build a small fire inside. I would take a fire bucket up on the scaffolds with me. It felt so good to have something to warm my fingers. Staying warm was always a challenge, especially for me. You see I have not always been a big strapping, burly kind of guy. I used to be thin.
In my years of winter work I noticed different ways the crew tried to stay warm. Most people would try to stay warm by staying near the fire. Every chance they got they would go over to the fire. I tried this, but found that I could never really get warm. One side might, a little, but the other side would get cold. So I had to rotisserie myself, and it never quite worked.
What I discovered, however, was that if I worked steadily then I would build up the heat from within. I could not stand and shiver. I could not stay near enough to the fire to stay warm, particularly if I was up on the scaffold. I had to move. I had to do something regularly. Heat never worked from the outside in very well. It always worked from the inside out. I had to generate the heat, in order to stay warm. It had to be on the inside.
Christmas is very much like this. The decorations, presents, parties, and religious services simply cannot be the focus and the means to joy. At their best they can awaken what is already inside you, but you really have to put in the hard work of believing, trusting, and committing. Faith is more of a muscle than a thought. Without works, it is dead.
The Third Sunday of Advent is about joy, and traditionally we focus on the shepherds. Interestingly, in Christmas plays the shepherds are one of the least favorite roles to play. You have three wise men who get to dress up in really fancy robes and crowns. Angels are glorious in their pipe-cleaner halos. Mary, of course, is central. So is Joseph, though we’re a little unsure of his lines (as the real one probably was too).
Of course, the most glorious role goes to the baby Jesus. If you get to play the baby Jesus in a church Christmas play, I’ve got to believe that you’ve hit the highpoint of your life before turning 1. How can it get any better? That’s why I think it’s usually wisest to just put a light in the manger. I’m sure baby Jesus glowed.
But back to shepherds. They get the drab bathrobes, and casting for them is unlimited. You can have a whole flock of shepherds.
I’m afraid that in the modern depictions, shepherds suffer from the same prejudices that their first century brethren encountered. You see, the shepherds were some of the lowest people on the socioeconomic scale. Chronically underpaid and overworked, shepherding was not a highly desirable profession. Their nomadic life kept them from having many of the social graces necessary for village life. They were typically not in the right area to attend synagogue services on the Sabbath. They lived isolated lives. Add to this the fact that they stayed outdoors among sheep day in and day out and you have a recipe for social alienation. These were not popular or powerful people.
But God never lost sight of them. They were the first recipients of the birth announcement. One of God’s right-hand angels brought them the message first-hand. “The Christ has been born.” Soon he was joined by a heavenly choir. All of this grand display for whom? Shepherds. We need not look any further for proof that God loves and includes all kinds of people in His providence.
You may feel small and insignificant. You may feel that the entire world is one giant DMV that makes you take a number and wait and wait and wait, only then to say that you don’t have the right information. The world says you’re inadequate, underperforming, and unimportant.
God says you are beloved. You are important to Him. He knows your name. He knows your concerns. He wants and loves to hear your voice. He tells you that He will never leave you. He gives you a part to play in His program. He has included you in eternity.
You are a bearer of God’s image. Always. This is the original blessing, and it’s far more significant than the original sin or any soul damage you’ve endured or inflicted on yourself.
Joy always requires recovery of the most fundamental blessings of what God has already done for you and made of you. It is what’s inside that counts, and to have a meaningful Christmas we have to listen for God’s whispers through the noise of the world. When you hear His love and affirmation, when you feel His presence within, you will feel the warmth of joy from the inside.
Dr. Terry Ellis
December 11, 2016