Author Dennis Prager once asked a deeply religious man if he considered himself a pious person. The man said he did not consider himself pious. Why not? Dennis asked. Did the man have some grievous sin in his life that kept him from being pious? Here’s what the man said: he didn’t think he was pious because he wasn’t joyful enough. A truly pious person, the man remarked, will be full of joy. The man went on to suggest that the lack of joy of many Christians is actually a threat to the Christian faith. In response, Dennis Prager wrote these words: He was right; in fact, unhappy religious people pose a real challenge to faith. If their faith is so impressive, why aren’t these devoted adherents happy? There are only two possible reasons: either they are not practicing their faith correctly, or they are practicing their faith correctly and the religion itself is not conducive to happiness. Most outsiders assume the latter reason. Unhappy religious people should therefore think about how important being happy is—if not for themselves, then for the sake of their religion. Unhappy, let alone angry, religious people provide more persuasive arguments for atheism and secularism than do all the arguments of atheists. That’s a challenging conclusion. Perhaps it’s overstated. Yet it does contain truth: Unhappy religious people provide more persuasive arguments for atheism and secularism than do all the arguments of atheists. He’s saying that if Christianity is a true religion, then it must certainly produce abundant joy in the lives of those who follow it. But since there are so many Christians who are not joyful people, it raises questions about the validity of the Christian faith.
Richard Foster points to the disparity between the joyfulness of Jesus and the joylessness of his followers: “Jesus rejoiced so fully in life that he was accused of being a winebibber and a glutton. Many of us lead such sour lives that we cannot possibly be accused of such things.” There seems to be a glaring gap between the joy experienced by Jesus and the joy expressed by many Christians.
Here’s another way of thinking about this. God has a present for us. But when many of us picture that present, we seem to picture the wrong present. I’ve got two presents here this morning. One is a present of fear. Sometimes when we think of the gift God has for us we picture something that is burdensome or guilt-inducing or fearful. A friend of mine was telling me about his background in a very conservative and legalistic church. He said, “You know that saying ‘Once saved, always saved’? In my church growing up it was ‘Once saved, almost saved.’” His point is that the present they pictured was one that was anxiety producing and terrible to possess. You never knew where you stood with God. You could never be sure God loved you. You couldn’t be certain you were saved. And too many of us picture a similar gift when we think of our life with God. It’s a present that does not produce much happiness and joy in our lives.
We find something similar in a text which is almost universally reserved for Christmas sermons: 8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. (Lk. 2:8-9 ESV). Angels appear. God’s brilliant glory shines. God’s come to this sleepy little place. And how do the shepherds react? “They were filled with fear.” Not “they were a bit concerned.” Not “they wondered what this might be.” But “They were filled with fear.” These people were quaking in their boots. If God was delivering a gift this night, they weren’t quite sure they wanted to open it. Because as they pictured God’s gift, they pictured something that led to fear.
And so often that’s similar to how some of us respond. The gift we picture seems to be one of fear, of anxiety, and one that leads to sour-faces and creased eyebrows. Joy and happiness do not always characterize us because we picture a gift of fear.
But that’s not the gift the angels came to bring: 10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk. 2:10-14 ESV). First the angel says, “Fear not.” The initial response by the shepherds is not the correct response. Their reaction is not appropriate to the gift. A gift of fear is not what God’s come to give. “Fear not,” the angel says. Then, the angel indicates the true nature of God’s gift: “I bring you good news of great joy.” The truth is that God gives us a present of great joy. This gift of joy causes the angels to praise God and glorify God. That is, the heavenly host itself models the right response to the gift. The real gift God has come to give is a gift of joy.
Joy is a big theme in Luke’s gospel. One of the things Luke wants us to know that is God came to bring joy. It’s almost as if Luke could see into the future, see that there are just too many Christians with sour faces and guilt and fear. So he writes his gospel in a way that highlights joy. For example, Luke’s first chapter focuses on joy: The angel speaking to Zechariah about his child, John the Baptist, says, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth (Lk. 1:14).” Luke’s last chapter also focuses on joy: “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. (Luke 24:52)” Luke’s gospel begins and ends with great joy. And in between these bookends of joy are repeated references to joy:
Luke 1:44 – [Elizabeth says to Mary] For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
Luke 1:47 – [Mary sings] and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
Luke 1:58 – [Regarding Elizabeth] And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
Luke 10:21 – [Regarding Jesus] In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said…
Luke 15:6 – [In the parable of the lost sheep, coin, and son] And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
Luke 15:7 – Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Luke 15:9 – And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’
Luke 19:37 – [Regarding Jesus] As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives— the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen.
Luke’s gospel begins and ends with joy and is filled in the middle with joy.
The point is that the gift God has come to bring is not a gift of fear. It’s a gift of joy. God has come to give us a present of great joy.
Christian blogger and author Jon Acuff tells this story: Two weeks ago, on a Monday morning, Quitter was finally available for pre-order. In the life of an author, that’s a big day because it’s the first chance to jump out into the world and say, “Here’s my book! Here’s this thing I wrote. I think it’s special. I hope you do too.” And then you wait to see if the world agrees. I’m sure other folks are cool and calm on days like that. I’m sure there are people who read this site who have had big projects launch, big life changes like moving over seas or big adventures like taking a new job and have been at peace the entire time. I am not like that. I was a mess. And in my quiet time, as I prayed that morning, this is what went through my head, “Maybe Quitter will fail so that God can teach you an important lesson.” In the space before I had the chance to have another thought, I felt like God rushed in. It wasn’t audible, it wasn’t written on the wall. A bush did not catch ablaze, but in my heart this is what I felt: Why can’t I teach you in the midst of joy? In what better way could I reveal the heart of who I am, goodness, then in the midst of something good? You believe I can only teach you in the midst of great hardship and hurt. But failure is not my only laboratory. Does not a father learn something profound about my miraculous goodness when he holds his newborn baby for the first time after delivery? Does not a bride not see my glory when she walks down the aisle toward her groom? Life and lessons cannot be limited to heartache. This is what I am wrestling with right now, the continued realization that I’ve made God into an emo god. I know how to cry with him, but not laugh. I know how to mourn with him but not dance. And I think the enemy wants that. He wants us to be ashamed or embarrassed by the great ways God blesses us and reject compliments and think that God can only hold us and mold us in times of great hurt. But when we do that, we miss who God is. That he is the God who loves us so much he sent his son to die for us. That he is the God who longs to be gracious to us and rises in the morning to show us compassion. (Isaiah 30:18) That he is the God who satisfies our desires with good things. (Psalm 103:5) That he is the God who delights in the well-being of his servant. (Psalm 35:27) Does God teach us in difficult moments? Have we not been promised that in this world there will be trouble? Without a doubt. But when we confine God’s love and lessons strictly to a classroom of misery we create a miserable god. And that’s not who he is.
That’s not who God is. That’s not what his gift is. He’s come to give a present of great joy. He wants us to not just cry with him, but to laugh with him. He wants us to not just mourn with him but to dance with him. He’s come to give a gift of great joy. He hopes our lives will be characterized by great happiness. He wishes that his people would be the most joy-filled people on the planet.
And to drive this point home, to put an exclamation point on it, God delivers the news of his gift of joy to a group of nobodies. What we see in this morning’s text is that God’s present of great joy is even for people with no names. Listen to the rest of our story: 8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” 15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Lk. 2:8-20 ESV)
God has this present, this gift, which is intended to bring joy. And if God worked the way the rest of our world worked, there’d be only certain people who would receive that gift. In our world, the biggest gifts go to the people with the biggest names. For example, singer Beyonce gave her beau Jay-Z a $2 million car for his 41st birthday. For Beyonce’s birthday, Jay-Z gave her a $20 million island in the Florida Keys. Nick Cannon bought Mariah Carey a pink Porche for her birthday. Angelina Jolie purchased Brad Pitt a $100,000 motorcycle for his birthday. David Beckham bought his celebrity wife a $1 million California vineyard for her birthday. We live in a world in which the biggest gifts go to the people with the biggest name. And it’s easy to think the same might be true of God’s gift of joy. Surely he’s going to give it first to those with big names. But that’s not what we find. God wants us to know that this is a gift for all people. He wants us to know that no matter who you are, you can have a life of abundant joy.
Thus, the first people to receive this gift of great joy are unnamed shepherds. There are plenty of well-known celebrities in this story. Earlier in his chapter Luke mentions Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor (2:1). Everyone knew the Emperor. Luke also writes about the governor of Syria named Quirinius (2:2). Many people would have known that name. Luke mentions David, that great figure from the Old Testament (2:4). But the first ones to receive the news of this gift of joy are unnamed shepherds.
Not only are they unnamed. They are unworthy. Generally speaking, shepherds were not terribly well thought of in that time. In an ancient Rabbinic list of thieving and cheating occupations, you will find shepherds listed. They were classified especially by the religious establishment as thieves and cheats. And as a result they could not fill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses. In fact, to buy wool, milk, or a young lamb from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.
This is a group of people with no names and no worth. Interestingly, the only time that actual shepherds show up in the New Testament are here in Luke’s gospel. This is the only time in the New Testament when an author chose to tell a story about real shepherds. Why? Luke probably focused on these shepherds because his gospel is filled with stories about the fringe and the marginal. More than any other gospel, Luke’s gospel focuses on God’s love for and Jesus’ friendship with the marginal: sinners, tax collectors, and the like. For Luke, the shepherds belong in that group. They are misfits. They are marginal. They are the nobodies of his day. They are such nobodies that he doesn’t even bother to name them. And what caught Luke’s attention was that the announcement of God’s gift of joy was made first to shepherds. What amazed him was that on the name tag on God’s gift of joy was not merely written “Emperor Augustus” or “King David” but “Shepherds.”
They are the nobodies and no-names of the story. Yet they receive the first news of God’s gift of joy. It was God’s way of saying that his joy is for all. His joy is for anybody, even a nobody. Even your name is written on the name tag of God’s gift.
In November 2010, eighty chorus singers surprised people in the food court of the Seaway Mall in Ontario, Canada. The singers dressed just like everyone else in the food court. They sat at the tables eating or walked around window shopping just like everyone else. But then, at a prearranged time, they all began to sing the words of the Hallelujah Chorus, a classic hymn of great joy and praise. [VIDEO]
From all outward appearances, this was just a bunch of nobodies. No names. They didn’t stand out. They didn’t look different from anyone else. They were not celebrities. But they’d each been touched by God’s great gift of love. And now, just like the shepherds, they bubbled over with joy.
That’s the scene in this text. It’s a scene of a bunch of ordinary and average people getting the greatest gift ever given. And it’s that same group bubbling over with praise and joy as they go about their ordinary lives.
And if they were here today, I think they’d share this message: God’s gift of joy is for you—no matter who you are. Especially if you are a no-name, a nobody, a person of little notoriety. God’s come to give especially you this gift of great joy. Have you received that gift? I’m not asking if you’ve been baptized. Many of you have. I’m asking if you’ve received his gift of joy. I’m asking if you celebrate and praise and rejoice every day. That’s what God’s got for you. That’s his gift. And it’s got your name written all over it.
 Dennis Prager, Happiness Is a Serious Problem (Regan Books, 1998), 4.
 Richard Foster Celebration of Discipline Revised and Expanded (Harper & Row, 1978), 196.
 . Vol. 6: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (488–489). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
 . Vol. 6: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (490). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.