Joy at the birth of a child is not such a unique or surprising thing. Folks since the dawn of time have rejoiced at the birth of their children. It is a universal feeling. So for the angels to have announced "good news of great joy" at the birth of a baby boy in Bethlehem was quite natural. Even Jewish shepherds loved kids back then just as we do, and the shepherds would have been happy one way or another that one of their kin had a child that night. It was for them a "L'chaim" moment, which is the Jewish salute "to life."
Our translations of the passage from Luke 2:10 use the phrase "great" or "exceeding" joy. Luke wanted to emphasize that the good news of the angels was for the whole world, that it was a joy of a particular nature, not just the joy of a family or their immediate neighbors at the birth of a child. Isaac Watts picked up on that in his great hymn of Christmas. This was news of exceeding joy because it was joy for all people.
Now sometimes we skim over this news of great joy because it is so natural. Who wouldn't be joyous about a birth? But the angels were voicing an especially enthusiastic expression of the Jewish belief in the goodness of life all forms of life. Yes, it's true that most Jews back then did not accept that the Son of God would be born as a baby; that idea was foreign to them and still is to most of the world's people today. But here is my point: the angels were lifting up the joy that is supposed to be a part of everyday life and ordinary things. In the case of Jesus, they made sure to put a cosmic exclamation point on this new life.
Rev. Ken Nelson
We Christians trace our roots to Judaism. However, we have largely adopted the mindset of the other dominant culture of Jesus' time, the Greeks, who insisted on separating life in the body from spiritual life. They more or less taught that the soul was "trapped" in the body, whereas Jews believed that the soul was "brought to life" by means of the body. That is why the birth of Jesus is such a vital part of our faith, because it teaches the Jewish way of understanding the union of the spiritual and the physical. God is spirit, but God was "pleased as man with men to dwell." Directed toward God, our lives and the things that bring us pleasure in life are rightly the cause of joy. Turned from God, pleasure becomes a perversion. God created the human body and its senses to appreciate the world, not just to be wary of the world. And God created us to be people of great joy.
In this New Year would you pause and give thanks for the ordinary things that God has given you to enjoy? That list could be pretty long. Even if it is not, we do well to rediscover Godly joy in our families, our congregation, with our neighbors, on our jobs, when we are engrossed in a good book or absorbing a piece of music, when we are playing, building, having a conversation. Whatever is the activity, being joyful in it would be a most welcome advertisement of the faith we as Christians profess. We are, after all, the blessed recipients of "good news of great joy."
I wish you an "exceedingly great" and joyful New Year, as we together receive and serve God in it.
Reflections, a mini-sermon written by Minot and area clergy, will appear each Saturday in The Minot Daily News. Clergy interested in writing a mini-sermon should contact Religion Editor Loretta Johnson at 857-1952 or Debbie Sandvold at 857-1950. The toll-free number is 1-800-735-3229.
The Rev. Ken Nelson is senior pastor at First Lutheran Church in Minot.