December 22, 2019
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! We are all familiar with that carol, one of my favorites. It is the season of joy. So my title this morning reflects the fact that joy is not universal. It wasn't at that first Christmas we read about in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. And today, how do we live in joy with the troubles and trials we witness and/or experience daily?
“When Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” I've been involved in this conversation in our Tuesday bible study and in confirmation; How did Joseph feel?
But the angel had given Joseph the message of the Lord's place in all this, so we read, “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son.” Not to get too graphic, but I imagine waiting for marital relations didn't make Joseph too happy either. But he did it in obedience to God. Not everything we do for the Lord brings us joy; it can be difficult serving whether we go without something we want or give up time to serve in the church or community.
Then there was the trip to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth. They were required to travel to Bethlehem because of the Roman census. The Census was Roman law: whoever had property in another city must deliver his tax declaration in that city. Joseph was of the lineage of King David of Bethlehem. The Romans would survey & value property, register & verify owners, and tax them accordingly. I don't know about you, but the idea of taxes doesn't generally feel me with joy. There is no indication that Joseph was rich so any tax he had to pay would be a hardship. Then there was the added aggravation of paying tax to the conquering nation of Rome. Not joyful.
And the trip had to be difficult. It is almost 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. By car, you can make that journey in less than 2 and a half hours.
Joseph and Mary walked that distance in about 5 days. Julie and I were able to follow the trek they'd have taken... around mountains, through passes, definitely not a straight line. And it wouldn't have been an easy journey at any rate; Mary was nine months pregnant. I've never been in that situation but have been around it a few times. Walking for 5 days straight would not be a joyful experience. Often, there were dangers of muggings and theft associated with traveling, but they most likely joined a caravan for protection.
But after their 5 or so days of travel, they made it to Bethlehem. Time for the joy to begin, right? Well, Joseph had failed to make reservations! No room at the inn. And the inn would not have been anything like a Holiday Inn. It would have been shelter and food, but not much more in the way of amenities. Probably not much privacy even. But all that didn't matter, the census had filled the little town of Bethlehem beyond its capacity to be a good host. Christmas pageants throughout the years show Mary and Joseph going from place to place looking for shelter. A kind inn-keeper says they can use their cattle shed. Dark, smelly, dirty. Mary's contractions coming closer and closer together. Joseph, being a man, was probably not much help. Perhaps he found a midwife. Perhaps Mary had a woman to help with the birth. Perhaps she was alone with just Joseph to be with her and pray with her. Fear would have been the emotion, not joy. The pain and agony of childbirth for Mary; the helplessness and worry for Joseph.
After all this turmoil, the birth would finally take place. Now the joy is there. For Mary, the pain is quickly forgotten as she wraps her baby boys in swaddling cloths and lays him in a manger. Joseph's feelings I can speak to a bit more as I've been on his side of birth a few times. Julie loves to tell the story of the birth of our firstborn, Richard. She says I wasn't as attentive to her as I could have been; fascinated as I was with the birth itself. And then when the baby was safely delivered, I said, “Let's do this again!” She wasn't quite ready, but there was joy in that birthing room. And there was joy in that stable! The troubles behind and ahead were forgotten. In one of the Christmas programs Julie and I saw last weekend, Joseph speaks after the birth and he speaks joy. There was this miracle of birth that he had witnessed and participated in. And there was Mary and there was a baby. We all know he was a very special baby but I don't think that was even foremost in their minds. Jesus was their bundle of joy. But joy was theirs on that very first Christmas Day.
So the long awaited, much anticipated Messiah was finally here, God in human flesh. Now there should be nothing but joy, right? Wrong. It certainly wasn't the end of their troubles as we know they had to escape to Egypt to save their lives. Troubles are a part of human experience. Job said it and it so often seems true, “Man is born unto trouble and trouble becomes his name. Trouble is everywhere. We live a life of sin and we get trouble. Listen, sin brings the worst things in life. It exposes us to all the ultimate misery.” (Job 5: 7) We just need to look around our sanctuary this morning to see the suffering we face. Five pews are vacant where a year ago we shared fellowship with loved ones. Other pews are empty due to falls and sickness and troubles. Many that are here face challenges the rest of us are not privy to. Troubles and sorrow are our regular companions on this journey of life; it is part and parcel of the sinful world in which we live. We held our Blue Christmas service yesterday with the understanding that joy is not everybody's experience, even at Christmas. As we extinguished the candles to mark our losses, we purposefully left the white Christ candle lit and shared this, “The Christ Candle remains lit as Jesus remains the Light of the World; as a sign of hope; the hope that the Christmas story offers to us. We remember that God, who shares our life, promises us a place and time of no more pain and suffering.” We understand that that time of no pain or suffering is not here yet. Christ's kingdom has not been fully realized. We celebrate new life at Christmas, but the whole story of scripture reminds us that death, injustice, sorrow, oppression are all very much a part of our world. So where do we get our joy?
Joy in this world of struggle and pain comes not by Jesus removing our burdens. Joy comes not from miraculous healings or lotteries won. It is not even in the traditions and memories of Christmas. Joy comes in the person of Jesus Christ. And not the baby in the manger but the Lord who dwells in our hearts. We make a mistake if we look for joy in the trappings of the season. Or in the happy idea of a baby who came to earth 2000 years ago. Joy is being fully aware that Jesus is with you today. Joy is having Jesus as part of your daily walk. Joy is Jesus as an intimate partner in life. I believe that too many of us play it safe; we keep Jesus at arm's length. We give an hour or two on Sunday morning and spend the week going our own way. That is not the way to experience the full joy God offers us.
And sometimes it takes trials and sorrows that remind us of our need for Jesus. We've held 5 funeral's this year; every one was a service of hope and joy because Jesus was the focus. Can we make Jesus the focus of our daily walk? That does not mean an end to troubles or trials or death or sadness. It means that we don't face this world in our own strength. Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit walks with us. Only in Jesus does the joy survive the struggles of life.
Max Lucado is an author I often quote. He wrote of this kind of joy on his website, ”The joy offered by God joy is different than the one promised at the car dealership or shopping mall. God is not interested in putting a temporary smile on your face. (God) wants to deposit a resilient hope in your heart. (God) has no interest in giving you a shallow happiness that melts in the heat of adversity. But God does offer you a joy: a deep-seated, heart-felt, honest-to-goodness, ballistic strong sense of joy that can weather the most difficult of storms.
Think about it. Can death take your joy? No, because Jesus is greater than death.
Can failure take your joy? No, because Jesus is greater than your sin.
Can betrayal take your joy? No, because Jesus will never leave you.
Can sickness take your joy? No, because God has promised– whether on this side of the grave or the other–to heal you.
Can disappointment take your joy? No, because though your plan may not work out, you know God’s plan will.
Death, failure, betrayal, sickness, disappointment. They cannot take your joy, because they cannot take your Jesus. And Jesus promised, “No one will take away your joy” (Jn. 16:22).
Is that to say your life will be storm-free? Is that to say no sorrows will come your way? No. “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Is that to say you will never cross the drylands of sorrow? No. But that is to say your sorrow will not last forever; “Your grief will turn to joy” (Jn. 16:20).”
Jesus came as a baby in a manger. We know the story well. But, do we know him personally as a companion, savior, lord? Joy to the world, the Lord has come...and the Lord has come to be the source of that joy. But true joy only comes as we turn our lives over to Jesus. I started to type “and”... something. But that's it. Invite Jesus to be the center of your life and experience joy unspeakable. Amen.
Hymn: Joy to the World 40 PH