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.

Psalm 126 – Sorrow and Joy

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them. (NIV)

Likely none of us awake in the morning, sit up on the edge of the bed and say to ourselves, “Well, let’s see, I think I’ll cry and be sorrowful today.” We might do that with joy, not with sadness. It can be easier to gravitate toward the fulfillment of dreams, laughter, and happiness than tears and weeping.

If we want to experience authentic joy, the path is through crying because it is our tears which find a better way.

Whether it comes from a certain denominational tradition, ethnic background, or family of origin dynamics, there are many Christians who love to emphasize Jesus as Victor and camp in resurrection power – while eschewing Christ as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief and sadness.

It is from this place of continually viewing only one dimension of Christ’s redemptive work that pastoral care often falls far short of true help. Trying to engineer cheerfulness and create solutions to a person’s genuine grief is, at best, not helpful, and at worst, damaging to their soul. Such attempts will only lead to cheap joy.

Coming to the place of sincerely singing spontaneous songs of joy with a sense of abundant satisfaction comes through suffering and sorrow.

There must be a crucifixion before there is a resurrection. In the agrarian culture of ancient Israel, the metaphor of sowing a reaping connected well to the importance of planting tears and allowing them to flower later into an abundant harvest of joy.

Perhaps in American culture, a more apt metaphor would be financial investing and cashing out. The investment we put into attending to our grief with expressions of lament through tears, will eventually get a return, and we shall be able to cash out with a rich bounty of joy.

All good things in life are realized through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus, “for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4, NIV). Just as it takes both field crops and economic investments time to grow and mature, so the believer’s life is a process of spiritual development which is watered through tears and experiences the up-and-down sorrows of a market economy.

There is coming a day when our joy will be realized in full measure. The season of Advent reminds us that we must wait, and that we must suffer many things before we enter the kingdom of God and enjoy unending fellowship with our beloved Savior and King.

Great God almighty, with expectant hearts we await the coming of Christ. As once he came in humility, so now may he come in glory so that he may make all things perfect in your everlasting kingdom. For Christ is Lord forever and ever. Amen.

John 16:16-24 – From Grief to Joy

Light Shining in Darkness
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (NIV)

Jesus tended to say things that were neither expected nor wanted. That was even true of Christ’s own disciples who walked and talked with him for three years. Jesus consistently told them there must be suffering before glory. Getting them to buy into such an idea is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to write their names on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.” Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

I tend to think in metaphors, so I like that Jesus uses one to bring some context about leaving and returning. And I resonate a lot with his metaphor. My dear wife spent 128 days on total bed rest before our youngest daughter was born. During those four months, we agonized over the health of our little peanut in the womb. I was also in a constant state of concern for my wife’s health. This kind of pregnancy we were not expecting. Those months were hard not only for us but also for our two daughters who needed to step up and participate in family life in new and different ways.

There were months of pain and hardship, not to mention the actual pain of childbirth. Finally, our little girl was born – a bit small, yet, quite healthy. Our grief turned to joy. Nothing could ever take away that joy. We prayed hard back in those days. We asked. We received. And our joy was complete. When I look back on those days, I can remember the anguish. Yet, what prominently stands out is the joy because true unmitigated joy has the power to swallow grief and despondency whole.

In talking through with his disciples about their disappointment of his leaving and their grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending. I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will have its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, we still experience heartache along with the joy of new life. It can be confusing living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind that the grief is temporary, and the despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

Christ is risen! Therefore, we need not wait to be happy or expect that everything must go our way to have joy. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family kind of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living in the days of the new normal and continual change. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of the disciples walking with Jesus, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.