Anticipating The Joy
It snows in Bethlehem.
I know that we do not often think of that as being true; but last year, for example, at just this time of the year they had a seven-inch snowfall in Bethlehem. Because that region stands some 2,000 feet above sea level, they can experience the harsh reality of winter weather. Winter can bring times of chilling winds and freezing precipitation and even snow. That’s why winter would have been a hard, terribly hard time for those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks out on the hills around the little town of Bethlehem at the time of the first Christmas.
Let me say at this point that it has always seemed that God has a special relationship with shepherds. I think I know why. When one is alone, when one has extended times of quiet, when one has time to ponder deep thoughts, when one can dwell on wind-kissed hills and lift one’s heart to the heavens, there is something about that that makes one accessible and available to the messages God is sending. Bethlehem, while not a large town now, was even smaller then. It is perched on the crest of a low ridge, plainly visible from the hillsides all around; just a cluster of sun-bleached buildings, a few stands of olive trees. Stretching out from every side of Bethlehem is the raw barrenness of the Judean wilderness. Bethlehem, then, is like a jewel set in the midst of nothingness. So as the shepherds of Bethlehem would sit out with their flocks and gaze upon that scene, it is not surprising that they would think Godly thoughts, and it is not surprising that they would be open to hearing God speak in their experience.
However, at that time of the first Christmas when the raw winds and snows of winter were blowing, the Bethlehem shepherds must have felt that God had abandoned them. As they would look toward Bethlehem at night, they would see the sentry fires of the Roman legions circling the town. The flickering lights of those fires must have sent a deeper shiver down their spines than even the weather. The census was on. The hated Romans were exercising their power. The shepherds must have thought that it was the Roman emperor on the throne of the universe, not God. They must have felt that their cries to heaven for help were being swept away by the winter winds. Yes, that wintertime must have been a depressing time for those shepherds—cold on the outside, but even colder in their hearts.
You know that same thing is true here and now? Strange, isn’t it, that December, Christmastime, is for many a depressing time. December is the month when there are the most suicides. December is the month when I have the most funerals. December is the month when the patient loads for doctors and counselors reach their peak. December is just plain bad news for a lot of people. Maybe they’ve seen their hopes dashed or their businesses collapse or their jobs disappear or their marriages fall apart. Maybe they’ve lost loved ones to death or their children have become rebellious or they’ve suffered painful illness or they’ve experienced profound temptation. But when December comes, because we think of it as a time of such love and light, well, it winds up making the darkness and the coldness of their circumstances all the more difficult to endure. Yes, this season of the year is for many people what it must have been for the Bethlehem shepherds—a hard, cold, heavy time.
But the Christmas story reminds us that God sent His angels to those Bethlehem shepherds, giving to them what the Bible calls “good news of great joy.” God sent to them the light of Jesus Christ so that even in the wintertime of their circumstances, their hearts were embraced by warmth and their spirits were lifted by joy. I want us to examine the experience of those Bethlehem shepherds in hopes that what happened to them might happen to us.
We learn from the shepherds that we can experience joy in the midst of difficult circumstances because God’s schedule is more important than ours.
No doubt those shepherds at Bethlehem were anxious about what the future would hold for them and for their country. No doubt they had prayed and prayed about the matter. And finally, God answered. But notice please, that God answered at the right time. One of our problems as Christians is that we fail to synchronize our prayers with God’s answers. We pray selfishly. We pray for what we want, when we want it, and we want an answer now. But God knows what is best. God’s timing is always the best timing.
Look at what happened on that first Christmas. God answered the shepherds’ prayers but not until the time was right—not until there was what has been called “the fullness of time.” The great historian, Paul Maier, has a book by the title, In the Fullness of Time. It is a powerful examination of how, in God’s time and by God’s power, circumstances came together at a precise point in history to make the birth of Christ and the spread of the church possible. For the first time in history, the whole Mediterranean world was united by a single language—Greek—and that meant that the Gospel could spread more easily. For the first time in history there was a relatively secure peace over the then-known world. Historians call it Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace”—and that meant that missionaries of the faith could move about with freedom. For the first time in history, the nations of the world were linked by a network of roads and sea lanes, some of which are still in use today. That meant that more people and nations could be exposed to the “good news of great joy” of which the angels sang. For the first time in history there was the devaluation of ancient pagan religions, and people were yearning for truth and the secret of the meaning of life—and that meant that people’s hearts and minds were fertile ground for the teachings of Jesus Christ. It was then, in the fullness of time, at that precise point in time when all of those things were as they had to be and as they had never been up to that point in history. It was then that the angels came and made the announcement that God had answered the shepherds’ prayers—the Savior of the world had been born. That’s the point we need to remember; that instead of trying to force God to fit our schedules, we ought to be trying to fit His.
I get letters from our television ministry—amazing letters, touching letters, inspiring letters. Not long ago, I got a letter from a man who is in prison. He watches “The Certain Sound” every week. He said something I haven’t been able to forget. He said that you have to be in jail to understand what Christmas really means. He said that the prisoner in jail can’t go where he wants to go when he wants to go—he’s locked in, he’s contained, he’s restricted. He has to rely on help from the outside. When that help comes—and only when that help comes—is he set free. His deliverance is dependent upon someone coming from the outside, and he has no choice but to wait until that help comes.
Wow! Tell me that God’s Word can’t arise from a prison cell! That’s a powerful theology for this Christmas season. God comes to us in Jesus Christ to help us, to save us, to set us free, to secure our future. But He comes at the time which He knows to be best. The angels will sing, but only when they are supposed to sing. That’s the first great lesson we learn from the shepherds of Bethlehem. God’s timing is always better than ours. And, therefore, we must be patient and persevering in the midst of the difficulties of life, knowing full well that God is in charge and our deliverance in Jesus Christ is assured. You can stand a lot of cold when you have the warmth of that in your heart. You can stand a lot of sorrow when you have the joy of that in your spirit.
But also we learn from the shepherds that we can experience joy in the difficult times because God’s promises are more dependable than ours.
On that first Christmas there came a point when the angels were gone and the sky was quiet and the moon passing overhead didn’t even stop to look, and the sheep settled down for the night. And then the next morning business took up as usual and there was the same bartering and bargaining there in the shops of Bethlehem that you find today. But things weren’t the same for those shepherds. You see, the night before, God had come down the back stairs of heaven with a baby in His arms—a baby whose life would become the greatest light the world has ever seen. When those shepherds had looked down at the baby in the stable manger they had no idea what His life would be like or who He would become or what He would do. But they had heard the promise of God and they knew that God always keeps His promises. So as they looked at the little One in the manger they were filled with joy. They knew that, ultimately, by the power of God, they would win. They didn’t understand it all, but they understood that much. That’s why the Bible implies that they returned to the fields and to their flocks jumping and shouting for joy!
I read about a father, a few summers ago, who was swimming with his thirteen-year-old daughter and his seven-year-old son in the Atlantic off the coast of New Jersey. He suddenly became aware that they were caught in a riptide and were being swept out to sea. So he said to his daughter: “Float on your back. You can float on your back all day if you want to. Don’t fight the water, just float. I’m going to try to get your little brother to shore and then I’ll come back for you.” So the man put his son on his back and swam toward the shore. In a short while people were gathered on the shore and boats arrived to begin searching for the little girl. Two and half-hours passed before they found her. There she was, floating on the waves. The man who lifted her into the boat asked, “Weren’t you afraid?” She replied: “No. I wasn’t afraid. My daddy told me that I could float all day long if I had to. My daddy promised that he would come to get me, and I believe my daddy. And sure enough, he did it!”
That’s what Christmas is all about. God promised that He would come, and He did. And God has promised that He will come again, and He will. That means that no matter how harsh or hurtful the circumstances of our life may be, no matter how frustrating or frightening our experience may be, we can be buoyed up by the knowledge that God’s promises are more dependable than ours. And what does God promise? That nothing—neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s the second great lesson we learn from the shepherds. We learn first that God’s timing is better than ours and we learn second that God’s promises are more dependable than ours.
And so the shepherds went back to the fields. When they reached the hillsides, the ground beneath them felt just as hard as it had before. They had to pass the Roman guards who stared threateningly at them. When they looked up into the winter sky it was icy and empty, and the winter wind was still biting and cold. Everything around them was the same. But they were different. Why? Because the Lord had come. And they knew that because the Lord had come they could never be lost to the Lord. And if they could never be lost to the Lord, they could never finally lose in anything. We need to learn that lesson from the shepherds.
I want to tell you something, my beloved. You can stand a lot of cold in this world when you have the warmth of Jesus Christ in your heart. You can stand a lot of sorrow in this life when you have the joy of Jesus Christ in your spirit.