For many, Christmas is an exciting, joyous and celebratory time. Presents, lights, food. Watching my little Abigail literally jumping a shouting with excitement while we put up the tree warms the cockles of my heart… whatever cockles are…
For others, Christmas can actually be the opposite. Stress, loneliness, disappointment, emptiness.
And then sometimes you turn on the news and hear of a massacre at an elementary school.
The third Sunday of Advent is one we designate as a time to reflect on joy. Advent should be a time where we hope to find the joy of God poured out to us. I had a nice sermon finished off Thursday afternoon, ready to go, and then Friday it seemed completely inadequate and inappropriate, but let’s reflect on this theme of joy.
The coming of Christ is depicted with terms like light, promise, hope, joy. In fact when the Angel appears to the shepherds he announces “I bring you good news of great joy”.
Christmas should be a time of great joy. If our focus is where it should be, we will experience joy. Our saviour was born. The Messiah came to us. The word became flesh and pitched his tent with mankind. This is good news and great joy.
But we get sidetracked. We get caught up in cooking, shopping, driving from one event to another and somehow we just feel tired. We get inundated with all sorts of debates about an alleged war on Christmas, and somehow we let all the craziness cause us to miss the point- we have been given good news of great joy.
Jesus didn’t come expecting a big celebration. He came to his own who did not recognize him. He came in humility; his earthly family had to improvise because there wasn’t space to host him. He was surrounded by farm animals- cows, goats and sheep. He experienced human birth. We have this image of how it looked which is pretty unrealistic. We have sanitized the nativity. Look at your Christmas cards… there’s Mary, cuddling a sleeping Jesus, not even a hair out of place. I’ve been in the delivery room twice… it doesn’t look at all like the Christmas card. Jesus experienced all the messiness of a real birth. Christmas isn’t about “nice” and pristine things. It’ s about God entering the mess of human life to redeem it- not to sanitize it, but to buy back the mess, to share in it, to bring the light of heaven down to dwell here.
The joy of Christmas is not in the celebrations and festivities. It is not contingent on having an immaculate table setting, and having decorations just right, and the perfectly cooked turkey. The joy is in the encounter with Messiah. The joy is in the knowledge of Jesus’ presence shining a light into our lives. The Lord our God revealed himself to us through this child. The Kingdom of God came to us.
In this person, in Jesus, rests the full character and life of God- gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in covenant love and faithfulness. And mankind got to see, hear, touch the Lord of Hosts, God Almighty; right there for us meet and know.
The Grinch famously discovered, maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas is a little bit more. The joy of Christmas is not the toys, or the turkey, the mistletoe or the twinkling lights, the tree or the tinsel, feasting or giving, but in the reception of this little baby. All those other things get packed up and put in a corner of the basement or garage or set at the curb for pick up. Real, lasting joy should come to you when you experience this Jesus.
The birth of our Saviour is cause for great joy. The Angel proclaimed to the shepherd “I bring you good news of great joy”. This phrase “I bring you good news” is euangelizomai, I preach the Gospel. I “gospel” you, the Angel said. In English we don’t use gospel as a verb, but in Greek they do. I bring you the gospel of great joy- Messiah is here. The Saviour is born.
The gospel is not just good. It’s something to get excited about. That took me a long time to get. Salvation brought some guilty feelings- God saved me, so I owe him. Christ died so I better work my tail off to not sin and do good. Sin meant Jesus had to die, so I should be serious about my life. But that’s not what grace is about.
The Salvation which comes through Jesus is not a burden or a duty, but a joy, a gift- and it’s for ALL PEOPLE! The birth of Christ is good news for Israel, Greeks, for prostitutes, for tax collectors, for adulterers, thieves, young, old, male, female, poor, rich, you and me, everyone- the news is for all people to hear. The Word made flesh is here to redeem us, the Kingdom of God appeared among us. And Paul tells us the Kingdom of God is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). The Kingdom has broken into our world, and set up shop, and is moving out into the whole earth to bring light and life and joy and peace.
The Magi came from the East because they saw a star. Interestingly, the Mosaic Law would state these guys are practicing divination- something considered evil and outlawed in Ancient Israel. But God uses it to bring these guys from a distant land (probably Persia) to Bethlehem to see this Jesus. When they find him, they were overjoyed is what the English translations usually say. It’s a funny, and kinda awkward sentence in English- “they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.” (ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα – Mt. 2:10)
Are we rejoicing with exceedingly great joy? Are we hearing the Good News that Jesus is Messiah and Lord- who came into this world to fulfill the promises of God- and being filled with joy? Are we giving ourselves permission to get excited about who God is and what God has done and is doing? It’s ok shout for joy, it’s ok to clap, it’s ok laugh, it’s ok sing your heart out, even if you’re like me and can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It’s an appropriate response to the God who loved us in spite of our condition.
The Christian faith is not something somber, stern, or even neat and tidy. God works with our mess, he comes in and says, “here I am” (e.g. Isa. 65:1). He reveals himself to a world which is lost. We encounter the God of the universe in a tangible and experiential and relational way. We don’t just get to know about him, but we meet him.
But we get so sullen, and serious. Church is serious business. Well yeah it’s serious in the sense that our sin and our brokenness is a big deal, but God has said I came to free you from all that, from the guilt and burden. I give you freedom, hope, peace, love, joy. And we approach God with a sit still and keep quiet attitude. How can we sit quietly and stoicly when we hear we have been given a Saviour- the Messiah.
Rejoice. We should be filled with exceedingly great joy. Seriously.
Yeah, life ain’t perfect. We often have serious struggles. We have grief and sadness. But we are called to find our joy in him, in the knowledge Jesus turns our grief into joy and our mourning into dancing. Yes, I, a baptist pastor, did just suggest it’s ok to dance.
If your faith in Christ has never produced joy, you’re missing something; a crucial element. A true encounter with the Saviour will shine light and joy into you.
Does that mean you’ll always be happy? No, of course not. Some days you want want to rejoice. Some days a mentally ill man will walk into a grade 1 class with an assault rifle. There will be pain along the way. Jesus, when providing final instructions to his disciples lets them know grief is coming, you guys will experience pain and suffering and grief, but God will take that pain and grief and turn into great joy. Just as the pain of child birth produces the joy of holding that new baby, so our grief will turn joy as we are lead through the dark times to a new encounter with our wonderful Saviour.
The Psalmist writes (Ps. 30),
11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.
Though we are surrounded by grief and tragedy and pain and sorrow, our God walks with us through it. Though we walk in darkness, God will be our light.
We have reason for great joy in Christ. We have the encouragement of knowing that he came to us to fulfill the promise of God and then he overcame even death and has promised that he will come to us, and we too will experience the same.
The Kingdom of God is at hand. It was seen, heard, and held in the arms of a young woman.