Luke 2:8-12 – All I Want for Christmas Is Joy

Welcome, friends! Christians around the world celebrate good news of great joy because God became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. Click the video below, and let us enjoy a time around God’s Word.

The video below is, of course, a classic…

The Christmas speech of Linus, quoted from Luke 2

The Christian’s unspeakable joy comes from the incarnation of Christ…

My Soul Magnifies the Lord by Chris Tomlin from the album Glory in the Highest

May Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, shine upon you, scatter the darkness from before your path, and make you ready to meet him when he comes in glory. Amen.

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.

Matthew 14:1-12 – Speaking Truth to Power

16th century Russian Orthodox icon of John the Baptist

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (NIV)

John’s murder is a story about our world – a world of power, sex, and intrigue. Times may change, but people across the ages do not change. Humanity is fundamentally the same in every century. And the world is still the world, no matter the historical time. 

The contrast between Herod and John supply us with two types of people who exist throughout every age of humankind, offering us the choice of which way we will go with our lives. The story illustrates for us the reality of living in a fallen world as a devout person.

The Herod in today’s Gospel lesson was a son of Herod the Great, the one who killed all the male babies when Jesus was born in order to try and get rid of any rival king (Matthew 2:1-18). King Herod is displayed in the narrative as a tragic and pathetic figure who is ruled by his own lusts. He seems too proud and wimpy to admit he made a rash promise and killed a man just to save face with his guests at a party.

Talk about a Jerry Springer worthy family drama, here it is: The Herod family was rich, proud, and downright violent. They tended to marry within their own clan to hold their power and possessions for themselves. Herodias married her uncle Herod Philip; Salome was their daughter. Later, Salome married Philip the tetrarch, half-brother to Herod Philip. Through marriage, Salome became both aunt and sister-in-law to her mother. Then the Herod in our story married Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother, Herod Philip. Having fallen in love with Herod Antipas, Herodias divorced Herod Philip to marry Herod Antipas. Sheesh, nothing like complicated family drama.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod by Italian artist Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908)

Into this violation of Old Testament marriage laws (the Herod’s were Jewish) came John who made no bones about the fact this was not right (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). Herodias nursed a grudge against John for speaking out against her and Herod’s choices. Hell, hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, and when Herodias found an opportunity to get rid of John, she coached her daughter into asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod, too insecure to take back his ridiculous promise and look like a fool, consented to the execution of John.

In contrast to all this tragic theater is John the Baptist. John was a messenger of God and a preacher of repentance. As one who was preparing the way for Jesus, his message was simple and to the point: Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. John got into trouble and lost his life because he spoke truth to power by meddling in the life of King Herod and his family. The Herod’s were the political establishment of the day, and John did not temper his words when dealing with them.

There is a refreshing integrity about John. He was always the same no matter where he was, and no matter who the people were around him. In contrast to Herod, John was bold, courageous, confident, unafraid, and secure enough in his relationship with God to engage in ministry without thought to the consequences.  He was unconcerned for what others might think of him if he proclaimed truth in the public square, and it did end up costing him his life.

The story of John the Baptist’s death speaks about the hostility of this world. And it prefigured and foreshadowed the death of Jesus. Like John, Jesus was executed by the civil authorities. Herod, like Pilate after him, hesitated to execute and was swayed by the crowd. Herodias, like the chief priests toward Jesus, finally got her way through scheming and manipulation. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it, just like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did for Jesus.

These stories, on the surface of things, appear to be only gloom and doom. Yet, there is a message of hope and joy. The absurd is working out itself in deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Through death, Jesus conquered death. We now have no fear of death; its sting has been taken away. Without fear of death, we have no reason to fear life with its troubles and tribulations.

The fork in the road is between the way of John or Herod. It is a values-based decision. If worth is derived from what we do, what we have, and/or other’s opinion of us, we will likely identify more with Herod and his choices. If there is a preoccupation with hoarding power and control, this is the path of Herod. 

Conversely, if the ultimate value is in knowing Christ crucified and the power of his resurrection, then we identify with John as our spiritual ancestor. If security and worth is derived from being in Christ, then there is boldness to speak truth to power and give grace to the powerless.

Herod saw no further than his immediate needs and safety; he failed to discern his own heart. Because of his spiritual blindness, Herod did not look away from himself and look to God. Faith in Jesus comes when persons look away from themselves and look to Christ who holds the power to free all from spiritual bondage.

Let us look to the example of John the Baptist who consistently sought to do the will of God as best as he understood it. Together with all God’s people past and present, we declare that God is with us, the kingdom of God is near, and the love of Christ brings faith and hope.

Almighty God, through your providence John the Baptist was wonderfully born and was sent to prepare the way of your Son, our Savior by the preaching of repentance. Lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.