Formations 12.24.2017: A Song of Joy and Sorrow

Luke 2:8-20

Lucius Holsey

Lucius Holsey, a bishop of the CME church in Georgia from 1873 to 1920, preached a sermon he called “The Song of Believers.” In it, he riffs on the relationship between music and our faith, beginning with the sense that “creation is a system of harmonies combining in common unity…, the unit of all units—God” (275).

Because I live a few blocks from a hospital, ambulance sirens, and the occasional helicopter, form one pitch in that harmony of creation I hear. For what they signal—coming help and immediate danger—these sounds are above all interruptions demanding drivers to make way. But as I’ve seen the shepherds respond to the angels, I’ve realized that these interruptions, so central to my experience of creation, no longer get my attention.

As Holsey moves from the songs in creation to those in humanity, I wonder which songs I never hear. Humanity’s song, he notes, “when touched by the hand of sorrow or joy makes the chambers of the soul resonant with the symphonies of the angels and the euphonies of heaven” (275). In Luke’s song, sorrow and joy are present. The “wonderful, joyous news for all people” is clear enough (v. 10). But the sorrow songs sung by peasants watching sheep late into the night aren’t hard to imagine too.

At least for Mary, the good news could not be understood without the news of suffering. When she heard the news of peace and joy, she praised God because it would bring down the powerful to lift up the lowly. It would fill the hungry while leaving the wealthy empty handed (1:52-53). The good news was for everyone, but not everyone heard it. While the angels sang, the world kept moving. The shepherds, on the other hand, were interrupted by a song so disruptive it made them leave work.

Beginning this week, we celebrate the fulfilled hope of peace and joy come into the world. But as we ask how we can share good news, let us remember that it is with peasant shepherds that the songs of joy and sorrow meet in common unity.

Lucius H. Holsey, “The Song of Believers,” Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present, ed. Martha Simmons and Frank A. Thomas (New York: Norton, 2010) 272–80.

Discussion

• How are sorrow and joy present in your life? What is the relationship between these areas of existence?
• What interruptions have you experienced? What have these experiences demanded of you?
• What obstacles keep you from affirming your own experiences of sorrow or from noticing and believing others’ experiences of suffering?
• What challenges keep you from embracing your own joy or from welcoming the joy of others?
• How might holding both sorrow and joy shape our observation of Christmas? How might they shape our relationship to good news?
• What role does recognizing and understanding the joy and sorrow of ourselves and others play in sharing good news?

Reference Shelf

Jesus and the Shepherds

Birth stories of famous people are supposed to be predictive. The infant Heracles strangled a python with his bare baby hands when it appeared in his crib. When Alexander the Great was born, according to Plutarch, a new star appeared in the heavens. “When John Henry was a little baby, sitting on his daddy’s knee/ he picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel/ said This hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord.” You get the picture—what does Jesus’ birth tell us about who he would be?

Part of the answer may come when the scene shifts to shepherds on nightly guard duty. “Shepherd” is rich with nuances: David was a shepherd who became a king, so the new baby born in David’s city should rightly be acclaimed first to and then by shepherds. Ezekiel prophesied against the false shepherds of the flock of Israel, warning that when the true shepherd came, he would protect the flock and punish the false shepherds who harmed it. Shepherds were peasants, performing unskilled labor, and were on the other end of the power scale from Emperor Godly. The message comes to the shepherds, rather than to Augustus or to any other person of power, because Jesus’ destiny is to unseat the powerful. The baby born in unsettled circumstances is the real Savior, the bringer of peace, rather than Augustus or any subsequent emperor.

[…]

The angel tells the shepherds how they will pick Jesus out from any other infant in Bethlehem: he will be the one in the feed trough. When they arrive, they find it just as the angel has predicted. This seems to have been enough to convince them that the baby was worth talking about, so like Elizabeth’s relatives, they spread the word around. But unlike the relatives, who speak about what they do not know, the shepherds praise God for what they have seen and heard. The narrator describes them imitating the angels, who likewise give glory and praise to God. Contrary to our usual tableaux, the shepherds do not linger over the manger; they come in haste, and then leave to go spread the news. Like Mary, they seem more than a little unlikely to have been chosen to be first recipients and then bearers of God’s good news, but they take to their job with enthusiasm.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 58.

Peace and God News

Is the peace that Jesus’ birth is said to bring the same as that claimed for Augustus? In the Jewish culture from which Christianity came, peace (shalom in Hebrew; eirēnē in Greek) meant basically wholeness, the normal state of life that corresponds to the will of God. Such wholeness would characterize the basic relations of life: (a) the relation of persons and God, (b) the relation of persons with one another, (c) the relation of persons with the natural world, and (d) one’s relation with oneself. This wholeness meant well-being in contrast to evil in any form. It was the gift of God. Given human sin, however, this wholeness was lost. Peace, then, became an eschatological hope (Zech 9:9-10) and the messianic figure the prince of peace (Isa 9:6).

In the NT, peace reflects these Jewish roots. It refers, therefore, both to the normal state of life in line with God’s will and to the eschatological salvation. As such it involves wholeness in the relation with God (e.g., Rom 5:1; Col 1:20; Eph 2:14, 17), wholeness in the relation of people with one another (e.g., Mark 9:50; 1 Cor 7:15; Eph 2:14-17; 4:3), wholeness in the relation to the physical world (e.g., Mark 5:34), and wholeness in one’s relation with oneself (Rom 8:6; 15:13; Gal 5:22; Phil 4:7; Col 3:15; John 14:27).

Luke-Acts, with one exception, reflects this context. The messianic salvation is described as the way of peace (1:79). Jesus Christ is said to have preached the good news of peace (Acts 10:36). This peace associated with God’s acts in Jesus involves recovered wholeness in the relation of a person with God (e.g., Luke 7:50), wholeness in the relation with the physical world (8:48), and wholeness in the relations among persons (e.g., Acts 9:31). The absence of any reference to peace with oneself is not surprising in Luke-Acts both because of the evangelist’s focus on the visible and external realities of life, and because the Scriptures on which Luke is so dependent have little concern with peace as an inward feeling. For Jesus’ birth to be connected with the recovery of peace, therefore, was a matter of great joy, meaning the restoration of wholeness to life in every area: with God, with others, with the physical world. It is this peace about which the heavenly choir sings at 2:14.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 34–35.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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