Last week in the Guardian, James Meek wrote a great article on English words we don’t use anymore. He kept running into words he didn’t know, and so he decided to make a point of looking up every obscure word he found. Here are some of his discoveries:
Zugunruhe describes the migratory restlessness of birds.
A Gonfalon is a long banner with a coat of arms, used in Italy, if you were curious.
Albedo describes the amount of sunshine refelcted back into the atmosphere by the earth.
Isn’t that useful? I hope you were all taking notes...
Christmas is a special time for all kinds of reasons.
We’re more generous than usual.
We go out of our way to be nicer than usual.
We seek out friends and family.
We eat different foods—in different quantities than usual.
I suppose my point today is that in addition to all of those things, in the Christmas season there’s something else we do differently. There are different words we use that we don’t always find places for during other times of the year.
Over this Advent season we’ve been looking at the big themes of the Christmas message: Love, Peace, Hope, and tonight we’re going to talk a little about Joy.
But first, it occurs to me that we don’t always use these words during the rest of the year. Sure, we tell people that we love them, and we read the news about peace talks and things like that. We even talk about our hopes sometimes if we really feel safe.
But how often do we talk about these things together?
How often do we take a moment to think about how these words fit together?
It’s one of the blessings of Christmas that we read these beautiful passages that show us what life can be like—what life was meant to be—what life really is because of the Christ-Child.
A few weeks ago we talked about Love. John 3:16 is such a familiar passage to many people: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. It’s because of God’s love for us that we have a Christmas to celebrate in the first place. It’s because of God’s love for us that he came in the form of a helpless baby, to grow up and show that love in a way that offers forgiveness and redemption for everyone.
Next we talked about Peace. God created everything to live in perfect harmony—he created us to live in contented relationships with each other and with him. He called that Peace ‘Shalom’, and even though we’ve broken it, he never stops trying to help us put the pieces back together again.
Just yesterday we talked about hope. Not just pie-in-the-sky hope, but the real hope that comes from believing—from expecting—that God has fulfilled his promises to us in the birth of the Christ Child.
And so this evening we come to Joy. The word Joy is all over the Christmas story: The Magi in Matthew’s gospel were ‘overjoyed’ at the sight of the newborn Christ-Child. In Luke’s story we heard the ‘good news of great joy for all people’. Joy is a pretty important part of the Christmas story.
It’s hard sometimes to get a good definition of Joy. It usually gets lumped in with happiness, even though it’s a much deeper thing than that. More often than not we hear it in an ironic form—with an eye-roll and someone saying, ‘Oh, Joy’.
I like to think of Snoopy in the Peanuts cartoons. When something really good happened to Snoopy—something really special—he would dance. Have you seen that picture? Snoopy dances with pure Joy.
Bob Bennett is a singer-songwriter. One of my favorite songs of his is called Madness Dancing, where he talks about what it feels like to pray and worship and just be in the presence of God. ‘Joy is like a crashing tide’, he says in that song.
Maybe the best definition of Joy in the Christian sense came from a Bible teacher I knew back when I was in high school. He said that true joy was the ‘deep, settled confidence in the character of Jesus Christ’ Think about that. True Joy is having confidence that Christ is who he says he is, and that he can do what he promised to do.
Confidence doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have any questions or doubts, but it does mean that we put some effort into the lifelong journey of learning to trust God and God’s work in our lives. The Jesus we celebrate—that ‘infant lowly, infant holy’ from the choir’s song tonight, is God’s act of love toward us—his gift of Love and Peace and Hope and Joy. Words we don’t say together often enough.
On the first Sunday of Advent we read the story of the Prodigal Son. You’ve probably heard that one before: A son takes his inheritance early, and when he blows all the money he comes back home. But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him and dropped everything and ran out to embrace him. He forgave him and kissed him and threw a party for him.
To me, that parable tells the true story of Christmas. That while we were still a long way off—before God had even crossed our minds—he was running toward us, ready to embrace us and throw a party for us.
And so in that party—and in the ones we’ll celebrate tonight and tomorrow—in all of these parties I invite you to see the Love and Peace and Hope and Joy of God, rolled up into that tiny baby, given as a gift for you.
Merry Christmas, and may the Love and Peace and Hope and Joy of Jesus the Messiah be with each one of you, today and every day. Amen.