On a dark and cold night a small group of shepherds are tending their flocks in the hills outside of Bethlehem. As they are huddled by a campfire trying to keep warm in the damp night air they stare into the sky at a beautiful star. In the darkness of the night sky the star settled over the little town of Bethlehem. What could it mean?
Suddenly their weary minds and exhausted bodies are startled by another light in the sky. It got closer and closer, and brighter and brighter. Too terrified to move and paralyzed with fear, suddenly they hear a voice coming from the light. It was the voice of an angel.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel said. “I bring 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 Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And with that glorious angelic proclamation to the lowly shepherds we learn what that star was all about. We hear the greatest good news ever heard by human ears. Joy to the world the Lord is come!
That star that shined so brightly over Bethlehem…it was a star of creation, it was a star of hope, it was a star of unity, but it was also a star of joy.
The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be a joy-bringer, that he would transform the world, that he would transform lives. Isaiah declared in Isaiah 61:1-3: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” True joy, found in Jesus, the star of Bethlehem, is amazing, wondrous, unspeakable joy. And this good news of great joy changes everything!
The reason I stress this is because it seems to me that many have missed the fact that this is GOOD news. Look around as you stand in line at a store. Are most of the people smiling? No. Most look stressed out; weighted down. Christmas often appears to be a burden.
Why is this? The simple answer is that they are looking at the wrong thing. People think Christmas is about proving our love for someone by spending money we don’t have to buy a person something they don’t really need. We think Christmas is about parties, decorations and increased activity. Christmas is an obligation we need to meet.
Do you see how far we have drifted from the truth? The gift at the center of the good news is not a new video game system, iPad, sweater, or expensive jewelry. The focus of the good news is Jesus, the star of joy. It is the message that God has not given up on us. Even though we have made mistakes; even though we have ignored God’s counsel and have gone our own way, God has not given up on us!
The good news of Christmas is that there is hope for the hopeless; there is healing for the broken! There is life for those who feel dead inside. There is forgiveness for those who have turned away from the Lord.
We turn on the television and we hear all kinds of bad news. There is bad news about the economy, the environment, the government, and crime that reveals a growing decay in our society. However, when you open up the Bible it is different. Instead of bad news there is good news: hope, life and joy have come to us in Jesus Christ. The solution to our problems, the answer to the deepest issues of our life is Jesus!
And as the angels sang this is good news of GREAT joy. The joy that the coming of Christ brings is a joy that dwarfs any of the joys the world has to offer. There are some great joys in life: the birth of a child, marital union, promotions, awards, victories. However, in comparison to the joy that can be ours in Christ, they pale by comparison.
Why is this such joyful news? It is joyful because it tells us that God has drawn us close. The enmity between God and humanity has ended because God has come to us in a manger in Bethlehem. God has brought about the solution to our greatest problem: the alienation of sin. What greater joy could there be than knowing that we can be made right with God?
Why is this such joyful news? Because it represents promises fulfilled. Way back in the Garden of Eden there was a promise that the Devil would be defeated. Satan was told that there was coming a day when a woman would have a child and, “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15). Abraham was told that through his descendents “all the nations of the earth would be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3). David was told that his Kingdom would have no end. In Jesus all those promises were fulfilled. Satan was defeated, the whole world was given a Savior, and He became King forever as a descendent of David. God keeps His word. And as God has kept His word in the past, so He will keep His promises to us today.
Why is this such joyful news? Because it changes our perspective on the hard times. There is joy even…
- For the one who has lost a loved one. Because of Jesus we know that those in Christ are not gone . . . they have simply gone ahead. Death is not the end of the story. Though we grieve we do not grieve as those without hope.
- For the one who has made horrible mistakes. Whether that person is in jail, ostracized from their family, or is paying a steep price for a lapse in judgment. Christmas reminds us that “If we confess our sin He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) The coming of Christ opens a door to a new beginning even to those who feel they are out of chances.
- For the one who feels desperately alone. It may be you have no one with whom to celebrate at Christmas. You may have lost your family due to any number of reasons. You may be separated because of work, military service, or even conflict. Christmas is the declaration that God cares, sees, understands, and has not given up on us. He will never leave us or forsake us.
- For the one who is overworked. In the stress of life Jesus promises a peace that passes all understanding.
- For the one who has reached the top of the world and has found that there is nothing there. Jesus reminds us that true joy comes not from titles and perks, but from a deep and abiding relationship with the Ruler of the Universe.
- For the one who faces an illness that threatens their life. Jesus reminds us that “He who believes in me will live even if He die.”
- For those who feel inadequate. Scripture reminds us that we can do all things through Christ who strengthen us. He reminds also that He will supply all our needs. We can move forward confident that He will equip us for every good work.
Christmas changes our perspective on the hard times of life. It is meant to lead us to a time of celebration, laughter, and singing. That’s why we sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”
May I ask, have you taken the message of Christmas personally? Have you let it penetrate to the depths of your soul? Is it old news or good news to you? The message of Christmas is meant for YOU even as it is meant for me. And it is meant for all people.
But you see joy, real joy is a choice. It’s a difficult choice. Mary had great joy. She sang a whole song about it. We heard it in our scripture lesson from Luke 1. Hear again a couple verses from that song. “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.’”
So she’s got a lot of joy. She’s singing about her joy.
But I want you to know with Mary, this is not where she started. It was a decision that she made that got her here. Look at where she started. A few verses before that in Luke 1:29-30 we hear these words: “Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary,’ the angel told her, ‘for you have found favor with God!’”
Did you hear those words; “confused,” “disturbed” and “afraid.” That’s where Mary started. And you’d feel that way too. Here’s this teenage girl and you’re told you’re going to have a virgin birth. ”How am I going to explain this one, God? Who’s going to understand this one, God? This is not going to go well with Joseph. It’s not going to go well with anybody.”
She’s confused, disturbed and afraid.
But then just a few verses later she’s joyful. What happened? She made a decision. She made a difficult decision. She decided to trust God. She decided to trust God instead of trust in herself.
The thing about joy is it often scares you at first because you’ve got to let go of the familiar and make this decision to trust God instead of trusting yourself.
Joy is found on the other side of the difficult choice to trust God instead of trusting myself. I don’t care how long you’ve been a follower of Christ it’s always easier to trust yourself than to trust him. Because yourself is right here. I don’t care if this is something brand new to you and you’re trying to figure it out, there’s this moment in our lives where we decide, I’m going to trust Him instead of trusting me.
Jesus is our example in this, by the way. He did this. He decided to trust the will of the Father so that he could experience joy. Hebrews 12:2 “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
He didn’t want to go to the cross. But he trusted God that on the other side of that difficult choice was going to be joy.
For us it so often seems we live our lives thinking that joy is just out of grasp. We can feel like we’re almost there. If I were a little more healthy. If my job were a little bit better. If I just got that one promotion. If I had just a little bit more money. If I just earned a little more in the stock market this next year. Whatever. If I just got that “little bit more” then I would have joy.
I just want to say, “No you wouldn’t.” I want to say it to myself too, “No I wouldn’t.” That’s not where the joy is found. Some little bit better.
The truth of the matter is joy is found in trust in God. Instead of trusting me.
That means every one of us can experience joy today. If joy was found in one thing just a little bit better then you could have more joy than I have. But that’s not the kind of joy that God came to offer. Every one of us is equally able to experience this kind of joy.
In fact Jesus taught us he wants us to experience this joy. The night before he died he’s talking to his disciples. Here’s what he teaches them about joy. In Matthew 15:11 “I have told you these things so that you can have the same joy I have and so that your joy will be the fullest possible joy.”
So Jesus knowing he’s going to die the next day, knows he’s going to be resurrected three days later, he’s teaching his disciples about joy. He wants them to know what’s going to happen. He says what I want for you is, I want you to have the fullest possible joy.
And that’s what Jesus wants for you – the fullest possible joy. That’s what he’s working to do in your life. So my question is how can I cooperate with him? He’s working to bring this kind of joy into my life. How can I cooperate with him?
I can do what the people of the first Christmas taught me. I can stop chasing after what God has already sent. I can take the first step on the journey, the step of realizing that God is with me. I can let go of that branch. That’s what a lot of us need to do. Let go of that branch, that thing I thought would bring me joy. I can make the difficult decision to trust God instead of trusting myself.
The truth is you could choose to be a discouraged person the rest of your life. There’s a lot in this world to be discouraged about. You could choose to be an angry person the rest of your life on this planet because there’s a lot to be angry about. You could choose to be a bitter person. You could choose to be a cynical person the rest of your life – there’s a lot to be bitter or cynical about.
But the story of Christmas, the good news of Christmas is you can choose. You can choose to be a joyful person. Because there is a lot to be joyful about. The good news of God, the good plan of God, the good grace of God, the goodness of God in your life, you can choose to be a joyful person.
That choice you can make right now. That choice is made just in connection to him. So I want to end by giving us a few moments to connect to him. To talk to him.
I want to encourage you. Maybe this is the first time you ever prayed a prayer asking for joy. Or maybe it’s the first time in a long time. To make the scary step. To make the Biblical choice and to say… Just follow me in this prayer… Father, I want your joy in my life. I want your joy. So I’m willing to be on the journey. I know you’ve sent it in Christ, the Star of Joy. I want to find joy in Him.
Some of you, it’s the first time you’re praying a prayer like this. I just encourage you to make this difficult choice to trust God rather than trusting yourself. Say, God I’m trusting you with even the wrong things I’ve done. I need your forgiveness. I’m trusting you to forgive me instead of trusting myself to make it all better, make it all right. I’m trusting you to guide me rather than trusting myself to figure it all out. You’ve made me for a life, a blessed life. Guide me into that life.
And for all of us I just encourage you to pray right now, Lord, I want to experience your joy this Christmas. So whether it’s taking the first step on the journey or recognizing suddenly that you’re here right now, I’m looking to you to find joy. Not that thing, not that circumstance, not that wish. I’m looking to you like I never have before. Thank you for the joy that you came to give us, Jesus. In your name I thank you. Amen.