Leave Your Job And Worship The Lord
Church does not get much more joyful than this. There is an enthusiasm on Christmas Eve that only Easter Sunday can compete with. All of tonight's Scripture readings speak of joy, as well as most of our hymns: "Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plains, and the mountains in reply echo back their joyous strains". And let's not forget, "Joy to the world! the Lord is come" and "Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee".
Admittedly, what makes the joy of a Christmas Eve service so fascinating is that joy can often be a challenge in church. On most Sundays, church tends to overdo the imperative, filling the air with "should", "ought to", and "must". There are those who concern themselves with what people are wearing. Some worry about the behaviour of other people's children . And, unfortunately, there is the occasional church attendee who comes to church only to confirm that we are still doing many things wrong. One Christian psychotherapist half-jokingly describes depression as "an ecclesiogenic illness"--that is to say that Church is the cause of most people's depression.
But not tonight. Tonight is a night for joy.
Tonight is a night for joy, and yet our text begins in a very ordinary fashion: "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered"(v.1). Not much joy there. We are reading about an oppressed, occupied people. Why were these Jews being registered? Likely for taxation purposes(Morris, Luke, 90), and also to help Roman forces keep track of the Jewish population they are oppressing. It doesn't matter whether you are pregnant or whether you live almost 200 km from your husband's town. The Emperor says register, and so you go.
And while staying in a room, likely filled with animals, Mary gives birth and must use a feeding trough for her newborn's bed(v.7). What's going on here? Unfortunate circumstances? Poor timing for delivering a baby? None of the above.
In the dark of the night, an angel appears to a group of shepherds keeping watch over their flock, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy"(v.9, 10).
This is why we sing. Christmas is a gracious intrusion. It is a break from the ordinary. Here we are, visiting our home town, paying taxes, working the night shift, having babies--and then--something intrudes. God has intruded in the natural order of things. This is no ordinary baby that has been born--a Saviour has been born, "who is Christ the Lord"(v.11). How do we know? We know because an angel has announced it.
At the appearance of one angel, Luke records that the shepherds were terrified(v.9). This scene is not something you will likely find in a Touched By An Angel episode. There is no sense where the angel has to prove it is really an angel. The angel simply showed up, and whatever the angel looked like, it was so beautiful and so majestic that it struck terror into the hearts of the shepherds. "And the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy'"(v.10).
Shortly thereafter, we are told an army of angels arrive in the fields. Does the army of angels have something to say to the shepherds that hasn't already been told to them?
It is not so much that they have something to say as they have something to sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased"(v.14). The birth of Christ, evidently, is not something that simply inspires humans to worship. The tone was set by an army of angels that responded to the birth of Christ by worshipping God.
And how did the shepherds respond? Luke records that they "began saying to one another, 'Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.' And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger"(v.15, 16).
The hymn writer, John Wainwright describes this scene in his hymn, Christians, Awake!, by writing, "To Bethlehen straight the enlightened shepherds ran, to see the wonder God had wrought for man, and found, with Joseph and the blessed maid, her Son, the Saviour, in a manger laid; joyful, the wondrous story they proclaim, the first apostles of His infant fame".
The excitement of the shepherds is impossible to miss. Like children chasing an ice cream truck in the middle of July, the shepherds wasted no time in getting to see the Christ Child.
'Wait a minute', you say, 'Weren't the shepherds watching their flocks? If the shepherds all left to find the Christ Child, then who is watching their sheep? You mean to say that the shepherds left their job to see a baby lying in a manger?'. More precisely, the shepherds left their job to worship the baby "who is Christ the Lord".
'But couldn't they have waited until they were finished their shift? The baby wasn't going to go anywhere.' No. This is the most glorious day in human history. Work can wait. Coffee break can wait. Opening presents can wait. Turkey dinner can wait. Worrying about finances can wait. Grieving over loved ones who have died can wait. Worship is the most important thing we can do right now.
Worshipping God is at the very heart of what Christmas is all about. It is only in worship that our grieving can give way to the hope that we will be reunited with those Christian family members who have died. It is only in worship that we recognize that God is bigger than all of our worries and that He is ultimately in control. It is only in worship that we recognize that our family is a gift from a loving God, and is to be cherished and not taken for granted.
I trust this is why so many of you are here tonight. I know that all is not right in your life. There are events of the past and present that cause you great distress. Yet, you are here tonight because deep down you know the truth--you know that moving in to the middle of you family, moving in to the middle of your life, with all of your problems and all of your successes, with all your anxiety and all your hopes, there is God.
I think that is why you are here. You know that, at the end of the day, there is only one source of true joy--God--born to us as Christ the Lord.
This is why we gather. This is why we drop everything and come to church. It's time to praise God for what He has done. It's time to be joyful--and the joy begins when we, like the shepherds of long ago, visit Christ. The joy begins when we sing praises to Christ, our Saviour and our Lord. Amen.