All I Want for Christmas Is Joy

Seeing Shepherds by American painter Daniel Bonnell

There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12, NIV)

When I think of sheer unbounded joy, I think of dogs. My own dog, Max Power, waits every day for me to get home from work. And when I walk through the door, he acts as if he has not seen me in months, wagging his tail so hard that it looks like it will fly off his butt. This is one reason people like dogs so much – their joy brings us joy. It is not a joy that was ever learned in obedience school – it is just built into the relationship. 

Genuine joy does not come from getting all the presents we want for Christmas or having everything go our way.

Joy is not a product we can buy at the store. Authentic, real joy is the fruit of meaningful relationships. My dog cares nothing about how much money I have or even if he has the best dog food to eat and a trendy collar to wear; his joy comes from being with me.

The good news of a Savior coming to this earth means God is coming to be with us.  This is good news of great joy! We are loved because God is good, not because we are good.  And because God is good, and we are a mess of humanity, there is joy that the Lord is coming to save us!

The reason Christ’s birth was good news of great joy to the shepherds is that they were shepherds.  Shepherds in the ancient world were generally looked on with contempt. In fact, Egyptians refused to eat with Jews because they were mostly shepherds (Genesis 46:31-34). 

Shepherds spent most of their time living with their sheep outdoors, to protect the flock.  Shepherds were neither well-dressed nor culturally refined. They mostly smelled like sheep poop. Shepherds also had the notoriety of being drinkers. Because they slept with the sheep, many shepherds passed the time and dealt with the chilly air by taking a nip of alcohol.  We do not really know whether most shepherds were drunkards, or not; but we do know they had a bad reputation.

Becoming a shepherd was not a profession a young person aspired to. Nobody took out a student loan to major in shepherding at the University of Jerusalem. King David started out as a shepherd. He was the youngest in the family and got stuck with the job nobody else wanted.

Out of all the persons and people-groups the heavenly angels could have come to announce the birth of Christ, it was shepherds.

This is truly a gospel of grace. The angelic announcement to a bunch of stinky shepherds is profoundly significant.  It is important because grace is being shown to the lowliest of society. A lowly Savior, born to a lowly family, and placed in a lowly feeding trough, came to reach the lowly, common, ordinary person.

The Shepherds by Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese (1938-2009)

To have this kind of attention from God Almighty is like the master of a dog walking into the house. We, as the common, ordinary mutts of society, are beside ourselves with joy, feeling privileged to be in the same room as Jesus.

It is only the lowly and humble in heart who will see God and enjoy the Lord’s presence. That is because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. It is why the angels came to the shepherds and not to the religious leaders. It is good news of great joy for all the people. 

The gospel is not limited to those who are the most educated, the wealthiest, or from the most prominent of families – it is for everyone.

Yet, even with this good news of grace, many people still live their lives in fear and worry instead of joy. The message seems to only linger on the surface, not getting firmly pressed into minds and hearts. 

Even though a Savior is born, we still experience the harshness of a world under the dominion of darkness.  We worry about constant disease, financial difficulties, and the daily stresses of life.  We fret about dealing with ornery people, hard circumstances, family members who go astray, and the little plastic things on our shoelaces coming off leaving the shoestrings frayed! 

Sometimes, we strain our eyes to try and see some joy.

Jesus is the son of David, born in the town of David – both were anointed as kings but had to go through a lot of hardship before realizing their kingships.  We live in the time between the two advents of Christ in which God’s kingdom is already here but not yet here. It is a topsy-turvy time characterized by a weird mix of sinner and saint, despair and joy, adversity, and comfort.

Real joy is not found in having every circumstance go our way and having everyone like us, all the time. Joy comes from the gospel of grace, from God coming down and being with us.  Being in the presence of the Master makes all the difference. If joy comes from being with God in Christ, then cultivating and practicing the presence of Jesus in our daily lives is important and necessary.

Had the angels come into Bethlehem, a town swelling in numbers of people because of the Roman census, I am not sure anybody would have heard them. The shepherds were away from the noise, out in the quiet solitude of the fields by themselves. So, they were able to hear the message of God when it came.

Noise comes in various forms, both around us and within us. Sometimes we even create noise on the outside so that the boisterous racing thoughts on the inside will get drowned. To be quiet is to be able to listen. To listen is to receive another’s voice.

Receiving the voice of the angels, their message, and their praise to God, is the pathway to joy and the way out of unhappy inner noise.

We need deliverance from our brokenness and unhealthy ways of coping. There is far too much unhappiness in this world. One in every two-hundred teenage American girls cut themselves on a regular basis. More than half of people in the United States with serious depression do not receive or will not get adequate help.  Anxiety disorders affect nearly sixty million adults in the United States. 

The coming of Jesus Christ into this world makes a difference. God has come to be with us to meet the deepest needs of our lives. The deliverance can be realized as we eagerly anticipate the Master, spend time with him, and allow the Lord’s loving presence and compassionate voice to transform our hearts and change us from the inside-out. 

Christianity is not a magic happy pill to swallow; it is a relationship with God which is cultivated and grows over time.

Joy is relational. That means no amount of positive thinking, buying new stuff, or good situations will create joy or sustain it. Christianity offers joy in Jesus – not a cheap sentimental happiness of having every prayer answered or each situation go our way – but the settled joy of God with us through the valleys as well as on the mountain tops.

Neither worry nor fret. Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. In the town of David, a Savior is born. He is Christ the Lord.  What can I give him, poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wealthy man, I would give him frankincense or gold. Yet, what can I give him?… 

I can give him my heart.

All Saints Day

All Saints Day by Vasily Kandinsky, 1911

In all times and every place throughout history God has specialized in taking imperfect or broken people and transforming their lives. On the Christian Calendar, November 1 is the day each year to remember the saints who have gone before us. This day is meant to be a way of not forgetting the people, friends, and family, as well as long-dead historical saints, who have made a significant impact in our spiritual lives.

All Saints Day is much more than a focus on extraordinary persons; it highlights the work of ordinary Christians who faithfully lived their lives and persevered to the end. We give thanks for the gift of how they daily lived their faith. We also remember that all believers in Jesus are united and connected.

Remembering is a prominent theme in Holy Scripture. Over a hundred times we are told to remember God’s covenant with people and redemptive actions on their behalf; to remember the needy and those less fortunate; and, to remember the significant persons who influenced us in our journey of faith.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7, NIV)

The saints of the past are an inspiration to us in the present. They serve us as a model of faithfulness in persevering in our Christian lives. Through biblical stories of very human persons being used of God, as well as reading biographies of godly people who were dedicated to God in service, we gain motivation and patience until Jesus returns.

Who were the people in your life that went out of their way to communicate God’s love to you with both words and actions?  Who were those persons who labored behind the scenes in prayer so that you and others would know Jesus? 

If any of those persons are still around, and you know where they are, remember them. Drop them a note. Express to them a simple thank you for their influence in your life. You will not only encourage that person – it will help you remember and re-engage with something in your life you may have forgotten or have just taken for granted for too long.

Gordon McDonald, a Christian pastor and writer, at the passing of a lifelong mentor, recalled his loyalty and the crucial counsel he gave in a crisis: “He was there when, many years later, my life fell apart because of a failure for which I was totally responsible. In our worst moments of shame and humiliation, he came and lived in my home for a week and helped me do a searing examination of my wife. I will always remember his words: ‘You are momentarily in a great darkness. You have a choice to make. You can—as do so many—deny this terrible pain, or blame it on others, or run away from it. Or you can embrace this pain and let it do its purifying work as you hear the things God means to whisper into your heart during the process. If you choose the latter, I expect you will have an adventurous future modeling what true repentance and grace is all about.’”

We truly stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in faith and patience. We will continue to persevere and thrive in faith when we remember them and allow those here in the present to journey with us along this road of faith.

Today is an intentional day of remembrance. We remember answered prayer and salvation. We recollect the people who gave us the life-giving gospel message in both word and deed. We remember the death of Christ and recall that he said he is coming back.

All Saints Day by Kandinsky, 1913

It is sage to recall events of rescue and pull them forward into the present so that all God’s worshipers can taste and see that the Lord is good. This is exactly what the Apostle Peter did for a church which needed to recall and remember the mighty acts of God:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:2-5, NIV)

Our memories are accessed through symbols and with taste and sight. God uses symbols as a means of revelation. For example, when the Lord wanted to demonstrate the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told the Israelites to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar. It sounds awful. Yet, the worshiper never walked away from the experience scratching his head and wondering what it was all about because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption. His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it. 

Symbols have the power to access other parts of our being in knowing God. We are more than thinking beings; we are also emotional and sensory creatures. We need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals. Every year faithful Jews gather to remember and re-enact the Passover – the story of how they were enslaved in Egypt, oppressed by Pharaoh, and set free by God. To this day pious Jews still remember the Passover by eating and drinking together and telling stories.

We need both words and sacraments. Therefore, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of kindness and gratitude in giving gifts and sharing food. Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people. Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together. Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of care and redemption. Jesus told the disciples about his upcoming death and provided symbols which reinforced the words. 

“Take and eat – this is my body…. Take this cup – drink from it, all of you” (Luke 22:7-20). Rather than analyzing the bread and discussing the wine’s vintage, the disciples simply ate and drank. They tasted real food and drink. They also tasted real spiritual food. It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.

God is good, all the time; and, all the time, God is good. Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us. Christ is present with us through our ritual of fellowship and food. When the sixteenth-century Reformer John Calvin was asked how Jesus is present to us at the Lord’s Supper he explained, “Now if anyone asks me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either the mind to comprehend or my words to declare….  I rather experience it than understand it.”

The taste of real bread reminds us of the physical incarnation of Christ, and Christ’s humiliation and death. Drinking from the tangible cup reminds us of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, the drops of blood which Jesus sweat in Gethsemane, and the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that caused the bleeding. Tasting the bread and cup when celebrating communion reminds us that our sins are forgiven, we are united to Christ, and we are united together. 

There are historical events which happened and are forgotten. Then, there are past actions which linger with continual results into the present. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the Lord Jesus are past redemptive events which continue to exert powerful force into the here and now.

Saints throughout church history moved the message of Christ along and demonstrated for us that the past is alive in the person of Jesus Christ. Along with them we proclaim that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again. And God has something planned for those who have gone before us, along with us, so that together we will experience the perfect righteousness of Christ forever. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Believers are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ until he comes again. So, let us respond to God’s wooing invitation to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through faith, hope, and love. For God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help.

Mark 2:18-22 – Structuring for Mission

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (NIV)

The late newspaper columnist, Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby,” made famous the phrase, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s to remind, reorient, and reframe our call in this world and our charge for the church. Christ’s Church does not exist on this earth primarily for the healthy Christian’s benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the welfare of doctors or insurance companies.

The Church exists to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom in both word and deed. Jesus came to restore lost sinners, redeem wayward sons and daughters, renew bodies and souls, and reform calcified religion with grace and truth.

Physical, spiritual, and emotional sickness is ubiquitous throughout the world and even the church. Many people are just not healthy. Some are sick because of destructive coping strategies; some are brokenhearted and dispirited; others are plain sick and tired of being sick and tired. Jesus is the source of healing and change and he invites us to admit our needs and come to him. Conversely, others are healthy, spiritually alive, and well. For those folks, now is the time to roll up our sleeves and participate fully in the mission of Jesus for the church and the world.

Jesus came to this earth to set up a new structure that could embrace his mission. Christ used the occasion of John the Baptist’s disciples asking him about fasting to communicate that his mission of reaching people through mercy and forgiveness will need a significant structural change. 

Jesus was letting his followers know that after he leaves this earth, things will need to change for the mission to continue. For example, when my wife and I raised our girls, our family dynamic was a certain way because we had them in the house. But when the empty nest phase of our lives finally came, I can tell you there was plenty of fasting that went on in our home. We live differently now, just the two of us. Our daily life structures have changed significantly.

The two illustrations Jesus used, of cloth and of wineskins, emphasize that old and new wineskins are incompatible – old and new pieces of cloth do not go together. I frame it this way with my own metaphor: You don’t put a new collar on a dead dog.

The incarnation of Christ was neither about perpetuating the status quo, nor to make a few cosmetic changes and minor adjustments to what was already going on. Instead, Christ came to fulfill the old and do something new so that it could accommodate his mission on this earth.

The perspective from the New Testament book of Hebrews is that the entire sacrificial system and ritual laws of the Old Testament were:

“…superficial regulations that are only about food, drink, and various ritual ways to wash with water. They are regulations that have been imposed until the time of the new order.” (Hebrews 9:10, CEB)

“Because Christ offered himself to God, he is able to bring a new promise from God. Through his death he paid the price to set people free from the sins they committed under the first promise. He did this so that those who are called can be guaranteed an inheritance that will last forever.” (Hebrews 9:15, GW)

First, Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). Then he said, “Look, I have come to do your will.” He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. (Hebrews 10:8-9, NLT)

“When it says new, it makes the first obsolete. And if something is old and outdated, it’s close to disappearing.” (Hebrews 8:13, CEB)

The following three activities are necessary for Christians if the mission of Jesus is to occur:

  1. Develop intimacy with Jesus. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading, and meditating on Holy Scripture puts us in a position to know Christ better and affords the ability to know and respond to what is important to Jesus.
  2. Establish relationships with one another. That is, relations which avoid shallow interactions and instead help each other to spiritually grow, thrive, and flourish by holding one another accountable for the mission of Jesus.
  3. Build new relationships with those on the rim of society. People on the outside of power structures and lacking any leverage toward advancing their own needs could use some connections. Our world and our communities are filled with sick, underprivileged, hurting, lonely, oppressed, forgotten, and unhealthy persons. They don’t need slight alterations to their lives but the kind of radical change that comes from the strong meat-and-potatoes of God’s gospel of grace working through a wild bunch of sold-out-to-Jesus Christians. 

Are there any structural things we need to let go so that mission and care can happen in this world? How might the structure of our prayers change if we were to focus on what is important to Christ’s mission? In what ways will we work toward a structurally just and right society which champions the common good of all persons?

Gracious God of all creation, create generations of people transformed into wholehearted lovers of God, encountered by the living Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Contend with those who oppress others and multiply the good and the beautiful in us all. Bring the fullness of your benevolent rule and reign to this world. May we exist for the purpose of enjoying God, loving others, and joining Jesus in the restoration of all things. Amen.

Philippians 1:15-21 – On Living with Purpose

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt, 1627

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preaches Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (NIV)

 It was the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan who said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” The ability to have disinterested attention from others and freedom from selfishness comes from a place of humility and strength – the power to know oneself well and be secure in that knowledge, as well as the humility to care more about an important cause than self.

The Apostle Paul had so learned humility from his Lord and was so thoroughly convinced of the gospel’s centrality that he did not care who got the credit when it came to proclaiming Jesus. Paul was quite aware of the varied motives of preachers other than himself. And much to the astonishment of many, he cared little about receiving personal credit even though recognition went to others who likely did not deserve it.

Paul had such a disinterested stance toward receiving accolades from his preaching because his burning, driving, constant, and passionate pursuit was the proclamation of Christ – and he cared little who did it, so long as it got done. He wanted the entire world to know Jesus Christ crucified, risen from death, ascended, and coming again. It seems Paul would have done anything toward this overarching purpose and dream, draining himself of every drop of self-centeredness in order to champion the cause of seeing people repent and believe the gospel of forgiveness and realize new life in Christ.

I freely admit that my own heart resonates deeply with Paul’s – I am absolutely enamored with the person and work of Jesus. Along with Paul, my desire is ardent to see God’s grace in Christ transform the world with a collective and miraculous enlargement of heart toward our fellow humanity. In fact, my longings for this are such that I sometimes lay awake at night wondering how to introduce Jesus to others through basic kindness and altruism. I want the great cause of my life to meet the world’s deep need with the deep love of Jesus Christ. 

From decades of personal and anecdotal experience, I can say that attention and recognition are far too overrated – and giving up one’s life for a cause greater than oneself is much too underrated. If you and I really want to find our lives, we must give them up. For to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Thus, we have nothing to lose.

 Gracious God, thank you for the example of your servant Paul.  I rejoice in what you did in and through his life.  I am available for your purposes.  Use me in the advance of your gospel of grace so that I might fully participate in your grand forgiveness mission.  Amen.