Pastor Chris Layton tells the story of a young boy who visited his grandfather on the farm:
There was once a young boy who went to spend the week with his grandfather on the farm. While walking around he noticed the chickens, they were scratching and playing around. The little lad said, “They ain’t got it”. Next he saw a colt in the field playing and kicking up its heel’s to which he replied, “He ain’t got it”. After examining all of the animals on his grandfather’s farm and see that none of them had “it”, this boy finally found the old donkey in the barn. When he saw the donkey’s long, frowning face and the way that the donkey just stood there he screamed for his grandfather to come quick. “I found it, I found it” the boy kept yelling. When his grandfather asked what he had found he said, “Pawpaw, I found an animal that has the same kind of religion that you have.”[i]
Yes, sometimes we can allow our circumstances to dictate our attitude. We can let life rob us of joy. Like Charlie Brown, we can turn everything into a problem. But the Christian message declares joy even in difficult situations, and despite the pain of life. I’ve heard many Christmas messages (and probably preached a few myself), talking about how the angels appeared to miserable shepherds, huddled in the cold, announcing joy despite their suffering. These messages often focus on the shepherds as penniless outcasts, and so they were. In these sermons we hear that the angels appeared to the poor in order to declare their acceptability in God’s sight, giving the gift of joy to those who sorrow and struggle. And this can be true. Certainly, when we are in pain, this is a comforting thought. But recently, I’ve come to think of it in a different way.
Perhaps the shepherds weren’t chosen because they were miserable, and because God wanted them to perk up. Maybe they were chosen because they weren’t like Charlie Brown—because they already knew joy. Joy isn’t the same as happiness. Joy is close to contentment. These shepherds were homeless vagabonds who owned nothing and had to learn to be at peace with that. They knew how to draw from a deep well of joy, rather than trying to be fulfilled by all the things that made other people happy. The angels’ song declares, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests (Luke 2:14 NASB).” But some translations render it, “on earth peace to men of good will.” In other words, peace will come to you on earth if you are the kind of person who has good will. This was exactly what was happening when the angels appeared to the shepherds. They appeared to those who already practiced joy and contentment.
These shepherds remind me of King David, in his younger days when he was just a simple shepherd. In the solitude and simplicity of this life he sought God, and wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible. Perhaps it was because of this uncomplicated, joyful contentment that he grew close enough to the Lord to be a “man after God’s own heart.” Rather than seeking the things of this world, he sought God and found joy.
These shepherds remind me of an old Puerto Rican homeless man named Victor whom I once knew. Victor had long stringy gray-blond hair and wore rags on his body. He spoke a mixture of Spanish and English and was at times hard to understand. He had nothing, except joy. At random moments you could see Victor jumping up and down, shouting, “Thank you, Jesus! Ay-eee! Holy, holy, holy!” His exuberance was infectious, and lifted my spirit whenever I saw him. Joy is unlike happiness in that it doesn’t require everything in your life to be going well. It doesn’t require creature comforts or even happiness. As Victor showed, it doesn’t even require sanity. Joy simply needs contentment, and results in peace.
Maybe this Christmas, you’re saying, “I hear what you’re saying—but I can’t just turn on Joy like a light switch. Where do I begin?” You begin with things that are a little easier— things like simplicity, gratitude, and trust. Add in a little giving, spiced with a bit of expectancy. Spend some time caring for someone else, rather than focusing on your own problems. Work on these things, and joy will gradually creep up on you.
When joy latches onto you, you can’t help but do something about it. You want to share it with others. The shepherds left their flocks to go and find the baby whose birth was proclaimed. They spread the word, not only about the child, but about what the angels had said concerning him. Like Victor, you can find joy if you start with gratitude and contentment. Then, when the word of God visits you like it came to the shepherds through the angels, these things can be transformed into joy. That joy then spreads to others, eclipsing both the struggles and the happiness of the world. This Christmas, I’m not praying for personal happiness—I’m praying for joy. And I’m praying the same for you as well.
[i] http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-chris-layton-humor-joy-3079.asp. December 11, 2015.