TEXT: Psalm 86:9-11 & Luke 2:8-20
We are studying this text earlier than usual this year because we are also celebrating the 200th anniversary of the hymn, Silent Night. The second verse of the hymn mentions the shepherds, “quake[ing] at the sight” of the “glories stream[ing] from heaven afar” as the “heavenly host sing ‘Alleluia!’” Though the “quaking shepherds” is unique to the English adaptation. The original German simply translates “To the shepherds it was first made known by the Angel’s ‘Alleluia!’” But our English adaptation, with its terrified, shaking, quaking shepherds is important for us to hear in our current times. Because fear and terror are constants within our lives. We are told by various media outlets about all the people, all the places, and all the things that we are supposed to fear. And that level of fear and anxiety can have a dramatic effect on our brains and our ability to think clearly.
In fact, brain science has shown just how dramatic an effect fear can have. Dr. Bruce Perry is a child psychiatrist with both an M.D. and a Ph.D. who specializes in the effects of trauma on the brain. In his research, Dr. Perry mapped the parts of the brain used in fearful situations. And in doing so, Dr. Perry concluded that “When people are frightened, intelligent parts of the brain cease to dominate.” Meaning that when we are placed in a fearful situation, the frontal cortex – the part of the brain that does logical risk-assessment and response – actually stops working. Instead, the areas of the brain responsible for emotions take over – allowing us to react immediately to unexpected threats. It’s a helpful evolutionary response because if you’re a caveman facing a charging wooly mammoth, the last thing you should do is waste time pondering all the logical possibilities to handle the situation. Instead, you just need to react. However, the immediate threat can trigger a persistent state of fear and anxiety – a sense of “jumpiness” – that can cause us to lash out at people for irrational reasons or harmful coping habits like abusing alcohol or drugs (prescription or not). At the same time, anything that reminds us of that threat can trigger the fear response cycle all over again, causing our fears to be attached to things that have nothing to do with the threat.
When you live in a constant state of fear you simply enjoy life a lot less. You dwell on the negative. You only see and talk about the things that are going wrong. Blinded to the things that are going right, you exhaust yourself trying to fix unfixable problems instead of enjoying the life given to you by God.
The shepherds are an excellent example of this fear response. When the angel of the Lord appears, the text says, “they were terrified!” The Greek uses the word for “fear” twice in the text – implying that their entire beings – heart, mind, body, and soul – were “filled with terror.” Because, as much as we want them to be cute little naked cherub babies, actual angels are terrifying to behold. Therefore, the first thing an angel says to anyone is “Don’t be afraid!” The Shepherds’ fear response is in full force. All logical thought has ceased. Everything is an emotional reaction all for the sake of survival. And this is saying a lot when you consider that these shepherds spend most of their lives struggling to survive. They can handle a lot. And their appearance (and smell) is rugged, tough, and well-worn as a result. In fact, most people in their community – especially the Roman High Society – view shepherds as dangerous, as a threat, as thugs to be feared.
And yet these smelly, outcast, thugs are the first people to receive God’s unexpected “Good News.” And the angel is sure to tell them that this “Good News” is for ALL people. Not just for them, not just for the Jews, but for “ALL people.” To make things even more contradictory, the warrior angel armies of heaven appear, singing praises to God and declaring peace on earth. It’s a moment of pure terror filled with pure joy. Good News for ALL people. Peace on earth. YOUR savior is born.
So why tell the outcasts first? Well, perhaps God knows that the People of God are going to have a problem with this situation. Because this is not how it was supposed to happen. They’ve never done it this way before. This is a big change. This is all new. The messiah is supposed to arrive as a great military leader, born to a great noble family in a grand palace, whose birth is declared to all the powerful citizens of society. The messiah will over throw the Roman occupiers and take us back to the Golden Age of Israel – the Kingdom of David, the ideal king – the time when Israel was great! That is the expectation. That is what we know. That is what we will trust. Anything else scares us. And anything that scares us, we will reject.
Yet the true messiah, the savior of the world, does not meet any of the expectations of the People of God. The messiah is born to poor, teenage, refugees; is forced to travel for miles under a government order; is born in a barn amid filth, flies, and animal feces; sleeps in an animal food trough; is announced first to a group of lowly, poor, untrustworthy, scary, smelly, thugs called shepherds; and later will have to travel thousands of miles to another country to escape the violence in his homeland.
I don’t know about you, but that ain’t right. That isn’t appropriate for church. That’s just disrespectful of Jesus, and I don’t like it. Do you know all the bad things that could happen? LOTS! So how can we trust this? How can we trust this to be the savior of the world if his arrival doesn’t coincide with anything we’ve ever expected or ever known? How will he earn the respect of highest in power if he is only known among the lowest of the low? Where is the prestige in that? There is nothing good about this situation. Everything is wrong. Nothing is the way it once was. Nothing is the way it is supposed to be. Therefore, none of this can be trusted. Just go tell God that he got this one wrong. I fear for our savior’s future. I fear for our own future. There is nothing joyous about this. This will only cause negative emotional reactions and rumors about how everything going wrong.
Faced with fearful situations, our logical thoughts shut down and our emotional reactions overwhelm us. When nothing is going right. When nothing is familiar. When no matter how hard we work, how hard we try, all we can hear are frightened reactions all around us. All we can see is all that is wrong. Rumors start to spread. And we quickly loose our joy.
I know that I get overwhelmed this way. When rumors and backbiting make me feel like I’m not good enough, like I’m a failure as a pastor, I get stuck in this fear-based cycle of irrational emotional reactions instead of logical, thoughtful, responses. And my immediate, emotional reaction is just to work harder to prove myself – even at the expense of my family and my physical health. But staying in the fear-based cycle of emotional reaction takes the joy out of ministry and even takes the joy out of life.
As I prepare my annual report, I look through my calendars and notes from the year, and I calculate the totals of how I spent all my time in the various aspects of ministry (because I keep records of all of that). And as I do this, I realize why I often have those moments where I don’t enjoy ministry – those moments throughout the year where all I see are the things going wrong instead of the things going right – where I am a bundle of emotional reactions instead of logical responses. It’s because I didn’t do enough self-care to allow those emotional reactions to pass. And when you don’t take care of yourself, you lose the joy in the midst of the fear.
Because, even though emotionally I felt I was keeping my days off, the fact is I spent 23 of my 51 Saturdays working at the church. Even though emotionally I felt that I took vacation time this year, the actual reality is that I only took 23 of my 42 vacations days – only 4 of my 6 Sundays off. That’s 46 more days I should have spent enjoying life with my family, caring for them, and caring for my own personal health and soul. Even though emotionally I felt I was maintaining a good work/life balance, the actual facts reveal that for several months in a row I was working between 65 and 75 hours a week. In fact, my wake-up call was when my son said to me one day, “Dad, my birthday is coming up, and I was hoping that we could do something together that weekend if it doesn’t interfere with your work.” My own son had come to believe that the Church should come before him. (And we wonder why so many pastor’s kids don’t go to church anymore.) Even though, emotionally, I feel like I’m not doing enough pastoral care of the congregation, the actual records reveal that I personally spent 488 hours, so far this year, just on pastoral care – and that doesn’t include text messages, emails, and social media messaging. (which makes up about a third of my pastoral care time.) In fact, pastoral care averaged one-quarter of my weekly ministry time. And pastoral care drains you not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. No wonder I was quick to react to every rumor and negative response this year.
Meanwhile, a logical assessment of the situation – as they teach us in seminary – is that the rumors, and those who spread them, are an emotional reaction to fear. These beloved individuals are afraid as well. And I understand that, because the world around us is frightening. And all of us want something that is constant, consistent, and unchanging. And for many of us, that place is this Church. This is the place where we can always know what to expect. Where things will always be the same. Where we will always feel secure. Yet, we read this story about the dramatic, unexpected, polar-opposite, change that God causes in the nativity story, and wonder what lead us to believed that the church would always stay the same? Because God is constantly disrupting our human ideas over what should or should not be expected of God. Blurring the lines between the sacred and the secular. Even upsetting what we believe the church should be. And that is scary. That is terrifying. Probably more frightening than warrior angels singing “peace on earth.” So what do we do when God disrupts the things we’ve always believed to be sacred and secure?
Personally, I try to stop, take a breath, and look at the bigger picture. To try and get a “God’s-eye-view” of things. Because even in the midst of the immediate terror, God has a long-range plan of joy. So I re-examined all that’s happened both this year and over the past three years I’ve been here – to try and see God’s bigger picture of joy. I stopped my irrational, immediate, emotion-driven, reactive view of my ministry, and looked at it through the long-range lens of God’s “Good News” – to see the ways God’s glories stream through this church, its mission, and my ministry. The ways in which ALL people – both inside and outside this church – are experiencing grace through God’s mission here. And here is the wonderful, joyous, Good News that I discovered:
I discovered joy in the ways this congregation brought joy to others. The children making Valentines’ cards for our shut-ins. Taking homemade treats to our first responders. Collecting eyeglasses for the Lions Club so that underprivileged people can see clearly again. Continuing to support homeless youth in our community both through donations of money and Christmas presents for them. Providing much needed school supplies for Crystal City Elementary students. Honoring our Veterans with a luncheon. And helping our local Cub Scouts earn their God and Country achievement.
I discovered some personal ministry joys: Since my ordination, I performed 16 baptism (with three more to come in January). I performed 21 weddings (4 for Grace members). We gained 22 new members (with two more joining today and another in January) and added 17 children to our baptized rolls. I’ve had the honor of conducting 19 funerals – 9 for Grace members. And over the last two years, our stewardship pledges have increased significantly both in terms of the amount pledged and in the numbers of new people pledging. All of which are joyous signs of Good News – signs of how “glories stream” through this congregation as it continues to grow!
Some personal joys I discovered from this year, are: The gracious welcome Grace members received at the St. Louis Islamic Center. The joy of my team winning trivia night. The joy of blessing the hands of nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers at Mercy Hospital. The joy of a publishing company asking to publish a collection of my sermons, saying they are, “Sermons that more people need to hear!” (I’ll be working on that this January.) I found joy in spending time with Clyde in his last days on earth. It was an honor and a joy to preside over communion at the General Assembly of our denomination with my children and to watch Owen dance at the opening worship service. It was a personal joy to welcome dear friends of mine to my congregation during G.A. It was such a joy to show off my congregation – my people – to them and to share all the amazing things you have done for the community as you continue to grow as disciples of Christ. Our worship service in the Crystal City park was a joy for both me and everyone who attended – with all the food, fun, and fellowship. I deeply enjoyed leading the Making Sense of the Bible study, and watching many of you let go of biblical anxieties and experience the joy of sharing long-held questions and doubts – discovering that doubts and questions are just as important to faith than certainty. The Session retreat was a joy for me as I watched the intentional effort of the Session to follow the will of God as they did the vulnerable, honest, challenging, yet necessary work of witnessing to what the Spirit has been doing through this congregation, and discerning the new life the Spirit is calling us into as a congregation. Like the people of God before us, it may not be what we expected or even known before – but it’s what we must pursue if we are to be faithful to Christ. I experience so much joy each time I watch the friendships between the kids and adults at Clyde’s Buddies. You can see that joy on the faces of both the kids and the adults! It was a personal joy to preach at Rich’s commissioning as a pastor in our denomination, to serve Mercy Hospital. And it was a great joy to have our church back in the Twin City Christmas Parade again – especially winning 3rd prize on our first year back!
In the midst of all the fear-based, emotional reactions and rumors – if we just step back, take a breath, and assess things logically and rationally we discover that there is so much joy to be found in the ministry of Grace this year. Even joy to be found in the midst of the fear and anxiety of the unexpected – just like that first Christmas night when the shepherd’s quaked at the sight of this unexpected Good News for ALL. There is so much joy to be found here at Grace that I know I missed something. So you tell me –
What’s a moment of joy you’ve experienced at Grace this year?
Especially joy you discovered while doing something that made you anxious or nervous?
(Congregation members offer their responses.)
So why are we so afraid?
Why do we struggle to find the joy in the fear?
I want to share a quote from author
Marianne Willamson’s book Return to Love:
(Quote excluded from published sermon due to copyright laws.)
Free yourself from fear of the unexpected.
Let the glory of God’s Good News stream from you.
And the unexpected Good News will free others from fear.