Monday, December 08, 2008

The Best News Ever

(This message is a part of our Advent Series titled, Christmas Gifts You Can Use.

Luke 2:8-15

‘Joy to the World, Joy to the World!’ People keep singing that. I hear it in shops and in the background during TV commercials. On the bus last week I heard it as someone’s ringtone on their mobile phone. ‘Joy to the World, Joy to the World!’

It’s one of the great songs of this season—we’re going to sing it at the end of this service. It’s one of the great Christmas songs, but have you seen the newspapers lately?

Hard times of all kinds seem to be hitting people all over the world. Financial meltdown, natural disasters, the threat of violent attack.

Joy to the World?

I decided this past week to read up on the topic of joy, and found something interesting. You know what it was? I don’t have a single book on joy—not one. I checked the index in Calvin’s two-volume theology and found just one single reference to the word ‘joy’. When I looked it up it turned out to be a footnote alerting me to the fact that the word had been incorrectly translated, and doesn’t mean joy at all.

I have books on worship and missions and community and history and peacemaking. I have commentaries and novels and collections of poetry. I have important works of philosophy and theology—including a classic by Soren Kierkegaard with this title: The Concept of Dread. Isn’t that priceless? Out of 1200 or so books in my office, I have one on dread, but not a single title on joy.

What in the world is up with that?

Our text this morning is from Luke’s gospel, in the middle of the Christmas story. Luke 2:8-15.

8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

There are some important things to notice in this story. First, well, it’s a pretty dramatic story. There are angels and heavenly choirs and a message from on high. This is not your run-of-the-mill, ‘a couple of guys walking down a road having a chat’ story—this is big.

Second, notice that at the end the shepherds didn’t just go back to what they were doing. Did you catch that as soon as they heard the angels they dropped everything and went to see if it was true? There’s a sermon crawling around in that part of the story, too.

Most importantly, as we read this story we should be aware that the angels appeared to shepherds who were probably in a pretty lousy mood. Not much holiday spirit for shepherds back then. They’re at the low end of the economic food chain—out in the middle of the night, watching someone else’s sheep—in a country occupied and controlled by the most powerful army the world had ever seen.

And to top it off they were religious people—you can tell because it meant something to them to hear the angels announce the coming of the Messiah—they were religious people, struggling to believe that God would keep his promises to somehow make their lives mean something—that God would send the one who would show them that their prayers were answered.

There wasn’t much joy in the shepherds’ world before the angels came and told their story.

When I was in seminary I lived with 4 other guys who were training to be therapists. A lot of my friends felt sorry for me—they asked if I was always being analyzed or if my housemates used me as a counseling dummy. You know, like a tackling dummy, only instead of hitting me they would always ask me how I was feeling.

The fact is that I loved it. One of those therapists-in-training married another seminary friend, and that was the first wedding I ever performed. The groom in that wedding ended up being the best man in our wedding, so I don’t think having therapists as housemates was much of a problem.

What I loved was learning some of their subject matter, and picking up some of their skills. I learned a lot from them, and one of the important things I learned was how difficult the Christmas season could be for some people. At some level I think we all know that—the holiday blues can strike anyone at any time—we know this season can be hard for any number of reasons.

This time of year brings back memories of past Christmases that might have been sad or marked by conflict or loss somehow. I still miss my grandparents, every Christmas, and wish I could have another holiday with them. Those of us who have come to London from other places might miss being with our families and old friends—as glad we are to experience Christmas in a new place, we’re missing our home and traditions this Christmastime.

What I learned from my therapist friends is that there aren’t enough hours in the day to see all the new clients who come for help during the holiday season. This time of year can be so hard.

Joy to the World? What does that mean? What does that mean when we’re feeling anything but joyful?

At one level we know that ‘joy’ is synonymous with happiness, right? Even the newspapers talk about happiness. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Reuters all ran stories last week about the importance of happiness in our lives, and how interconnected we all are in the way we share that happiness with others.

Dennis Prager, a radio talk show host in the US, wrote a book a few years ago called Happiness is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual. In the book he talked about cultivating a philosophy of life that focused on the really important things: integrity, having a purpose in life, doing good, and nurturing deep friendships. Happiness, Prager wrote, is the by-product of focusing on other, more important things. We’re going to spend some time on that idea after the first of the year.

But there’s more to joy than simply being happy, right?

Wes Harty was a Bible teacher in Southern California, and he used to come and teach at our church once a year. Back when I was still in high school he came and taught a series on Joy, and his definition has stuck with me for all these years. He said: ‘Joy is the deep, settled confidence in the character of Jesus Christ.’ That sounds like something completely different from just feeling happy.

One of my early childhood memories is really a sensory memory—something that gets recalled by a sound or smell or a touch. Here’s the thing I remember: I would be drifting off to sleep, and then I’d hear a sound that made me feel safe and loved and protected. It was the sound of my Dad checking the doors and windows every night before going to bed. Now we didn’t live in a dangerous area or anything, but it was still comforting to know that we were secure as we slept.

In this deeper sense, joy is partly about the present, and partly about the future. Joy describes our response to Christ’s presence in our lives right now, in this place, in our hearts and in our actions. It’s about feeling safe and loved and protected no matter what is happening in our lives. Joy is about the here and now—right now—it’s about Immanuel, God with us—it’s about Christmas.

But joy is about the future, too. It’s about believing that the promises of Jesus are just that: Promises of Jesus—promises made to us by the Messiah himself—secure promises made to us by God.

Joy describes the deep, settled confidence we have in the character of Jesus Christ, even when we struggle to believe. Even when the teachings of the faith seem so far from our own experience. Even when we doubt they’re true at all. Joy steps in—when we let it—and replaces the fear and the dread we carry about our lives and problems and histories.

Joy is what happens when we trust that Jesus Christ is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he said he would do.

That’s what the angel in our text was telling the shepherds.

Don’t be afraid.
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.
He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord.

Then more angels came and praised God right then and there, saying ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all people.’ The promise there isn’t that life will somehow magically become easy or painless or problem-free. The promise is that no matter what happens, in the midst of that struggle we can have peace with God and each other through the ministry of the Messiah.

However bad the news can get, it can’t overshadow the good news of great joy we find in Jesus Christ. But like any promise, it has to be received and accepted if it’s ever going to be fully enjoyed. It’s like an engagement between two people: if it’s ever going to grow from a promise into a marriage, you’re going to have to set a wedding date.

If this is your struggle. If you find yourself this year waiting for a promise to turn into something more substantial, then take a moment to hear the words of the angels one more time:

Don’t be afraid.
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.
He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord.

If that’s something you want to talk about this Christmas season, don’t let it go by. Find someone to talk to after the service, or slip me a note, or send an email or text. Don’t let it go by.

As we come to the Table this morning we come as the church, the community of the struggling faithful, and ultimately as the Bride of Christ.

In Communion we celebrate the past, present and future of our lives as disciples of Jesus. We come to celebrate our joy—our deep, settled confidence in the character of Jesus Christ. In Communion we get a glimpse of what ‘Joy to the World’ really means.


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