Cheerfulness: The Shepherd of Hermas (3rd Sunday of Advent)

Everything God does is out of love; it’s for our joy; it’s in order that we may be of good cheer. 

Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, a season of repentance, and we lit the Shepherd’s candle. Today we’re going to talk about a cheerfulness – and we’re going to see it through the lens of a special lesson from a special story from the early church, called the Shepherd by Hermas. 

Hermas was a member of the Roman church, and his claim to fame in today’s Bible is when St. Paul sends him special greetings in Romans 16:14. But actually, he used to have a bigger claim to fame, in the Bible of the olden days – because the Shepherd book that he wrote was in the very earliest Bibles. It is found in the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest copies of the Christian Bible ever found – from the 330’s. 

The story itself is about 100 pages. That’s the main reason it didn’t really stay in the Bible – it’s too long! 

So what is this story, and why was it briefly in the Bible? The Shepherd is about a series of visions given to Hermas, which means that it was a type of apocalypse — meaning, a revelation. People associate the word “apocalypse” with the end of the world, but the real meaning of the word is simply “revelation”. This is why traditionally the books of Ezekiel, Daniel are also called “apocalypses” alongside the Apocalypse of John. None of these apocalypses are very easy to understand – especially John’s. The Apocalypse of John was on the same chopping block as the Shepherd of Hermas because they were hard to understand – but John’s wasn’t quite so long, so his made the cut.  

Nonetheless, The Shepherd of Hermas enjoyed its place in the Bible for about 300 years! 

Now, the reason The Shepherd was in the earliest Bibles is similar to why John’s is still in ours: PR. Distribution! In both cases, the angel who gave the revelation instructed the author to send it out to the church. Just as John is instructed to send his apocalypse to the 7 Churches in Asia, Hermas is instructed to send his apocalypse to Clement. Clement is the same Clement mentioned by St. Paul in Philippians 4, and was an elder of the Church of Rome — in fact Clement became the 4th Bishop of Rome. In other words, it had serious cred. With Clement behind the PR and distribution for the Shepherd of Hermas, it had a real seal of approval. 

In his visions, Hermas meets a beautiful, radiant old woman who identifies herself as the Church. She introduces him to an angel who is called The Shepherd, and he is the angel of repentance. And he proceeds to show Hermas visions of the Church, built stone by stone, person by person, gathered from all the corners of the earth to Christ – and he gives Hermas instruction in the spiritual life.  

We’re going to focus on one particular teaching that coincides perfectly with the Christmas season: cheerfulness. An apocalypse that teaches about cheerfulness? Yes indeed – maybe not what you expected, but hopefully you’ll see why cheerfulness is such an important part of the Christian life. 

The angel of repentance starts by telling Hermas that he must be on his guard against grief. I’ll read the whole passage, which leads us to his teaching about cheerfulness. Close your eyes and listen for a few minutes, and reflect on these words: 

“Remove from you,” says he, “grief; for she is the sister of doubt and anger.”  

“How, sir,” say I, “is she the sister of these? for anger, doubt, and grief seem to be quite different from each other.” “You are senseless, O man. Do you not perceive that grief is more wicked than all the spirits, and most terrible to the servants of God, and more than all other spirits destroys man and crushes out the Holy Spirit, and yet, on the other hand, she saves him?” 

…“Hear, then,” says he, “foolish man, how grief crushes out the Holy Spirit, and on the other hand saves. When the doubting man attempts any deed, and fails in it on account of his doubt, this grief enters into the man, and grieves the Holy Spirit, and crushes him out. Then, on the other hand, when anger attaches itself to a man in regard to any matter, and he is embittered, then grief enters into the heart of the man who was irritated, and he is grieved at the deed which he did, and repents that he has wrought a wicked deed. This grief, then, appears to be accompanied by salvation, because the man, after having done a wicked deed, repented. Both actions grieve the Spirit: doubt, because it did not accomplish its object; and anger grieves the Spirit, because it did what was wicked. Both these are grievous to the Holy Spirit — doubt and anger. Wherefore remove grief from you, and crush not the Holy Spirit which dwells in you, lest he entreat God against you, and he withdraw from you. For the Spirit of God which has been granted to us to dwell in this body does not endure grief nor stress. 

Wherefore put on cheerfulness, which always is agreeable and acceptable to God, and rejoice in it. For every cheerful man does what is good, and minds what is good, and despises grief; but the sorrowful man always acts wickedly. First, he acts wickedly because he grieves the Holy Spirit, which was given to man a cheerful Spirit [did you catch that!]. 

“Secondly, Grieving the Holy Spirit, he works iniquity, neither praying to the Lord nor confessing to Him. For the prayer of the sorrowful man has no power to ascend to the altar of God.”  

“Why,” say I, “does not the prayer of the grieved man ascend to the altar?” “Because,” says he, “grief sits in his heart. Grief, then, mingled with his prayer, does not permit the prayer to ascend pure to the altar of God. For as vinegar and wine, when mixed in the same vessel, do not give the same pleasure [as wine alone gives], so grief mixed with the Holy Spirit does not produce the same prayer [as would be produced by the Holy Spirit alone]. Cleanse yourself from this wicked grief, and you will live to God; and all will live to God who drive away grief from them, and put on all cheerfulness.” 

Now. Let’s remember who is speaking these words: the angel of repentance. So these words are perfect for Advent season in two ways: first, because Advent is a season of repentance; and two, Christmas is the season of cheer. The Shepherd associates repentance with cheerfulness. We don’t normally associate repentance with cheerfulness, do we? 

No, we normally associate repentance with sackcloth and ashes, with tearful confession of sin, and grief. But the angel of repentance here says, “Remove grief from yourself.”  Not only that — “Put on all cheerfulness.” 

I think sometimes, a picture is painted of Christian life that is dour, self-critical, judgmental – and the picture of God and Christ that is painted is angry, wrathful, and demanding. After all, our God is a God of commandments. “Commandments” — those are big, almost fighting words to some people. 

But it’s important to remember the purpose of his commandments — Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” Love. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (Jn. 15:10-11). Joy. 

“Be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” Be of good cheer – because I have overcome the world. In other words – he overcame the world in order that we would be of good cheer! 

Everything God does is out of love; it’s for our joy; it’s in order that we be be of good cheer. 

Our Lord said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. 

“If you ask me anything in my name, and I will do it.” 

Our God is not just Creator – our God is a loving parent. Never doubt this. The Shepherd in Hermas’ vision tells him: “Put away doubting from you and do not hesitate to ask of the Lord, saying to yourself, ‘How can I ask of the Lord and receive from Him, seeing I have sinned so much against Him?’  

“Do not thus reason with yourself, but with all your heart turn to the Lord and ask of Him without doubting, and you will know the multitude of His tender mercies; that He will never leave you, but fulfill the request of your soul. For He is not like men, who remember evils done against them; but He Himself remembers not evils, and has compassion on His own creature.” 

In other words: “Be still and know that I am God.” And in that stillness, you will encounter the God who is Love. This is what true repentance is all about. It’s about turning to Him, and being in His presence. Again: everything God does is out of love; it’s for our joy; it’s in order that we may be of good cheer. 

*** 

For plenty of Americans, the idea of Christmas cheer is trite, superficial, and annoying. These are the “Bah Humbug!” types. Their loss! Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year in our culture, because we still have cheerful traditions. I don’t care how watered-down or commercialized they’ve become: we decorate storefronts, hang pretty lights everywhere, we have holiday parties and we give gifts to one another. That’s still the cultural expectation in America. And even the most superficial of these traditions make life that much more cheerful. 

How much more so, then, will true cheerfulness make every day like Christmas. And true cheerfulness is to be found in spiritual life with Christ. Did you all catch when the angel of repentance says to Hermas, “the Holy Spirit was given to man a cheerful Spirit”?  

I will say this one last time, third time’s a charm: everything God does is out of love; it’s for our joy; it’s in order that we may be of good cheer. So cast aside all doubt, all grief, all anger; and “put on cheerfulness, which always is agreeable and acceptable to God, and rejoice in it.” 

Amen. 

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