This Christmas Season we have all been on a journey following the star, not an actual star, but the light that God sent into the world when he sent Jesus. As we allow the life of Jesus to shape our lives, and as we allow the unconditional love of God to fill us, we find hope that our lives and our world can be a better place. What is also amazing about God’s love is that it is always MORE than enough for what we need, which means that we have love to share, and love to give.
The light of Jesus, and the love of God, not only lead us to hope and love, but they also lead us to places where we can experience great joy. Not just some joy, not a little joy, but great joy, because that is what the angels said. On the night Jesus was born the angels said, Behold I bring you good news of great joy. But let’s be clear about what joy is and what it isn’t. Joy is not the absence of pain. Joy is not a place where we experience no problems or hardships. The truth is that joy and pain often go hand in hand. Joy doesn’t come to us when we are experiencing the fullness of light; joy often comes to us when we are in the dark. That is what happened with the Shepherds. Luke 2:8-12.
So the shepherds were in the dark when the angels appeared, and it doesn’t say they were filled with joy, in fact, the appearance of the angels brought fear. The explosion of the heavens and the appearance of a host of angels scared the shepherds, and shepherds were not men who were scared easily. Shepherds were rough and hardy men who knew how to fight and stand strong in the face danger. That was their life. Shepherds had to fight off wild animals. They had to take on people who might want to steal the sheep, and they always had to be on their guard at night when these dangers would be more likely to appear. Shepherds did not scare easily, but this event filled them with such a great fear that they were literally in pain and afraid for their lives. It was into this pain and fear, into this darkness, that the angels told these men that they could experience great joy, but that joy didn’t come by staying where they were, they had to make a journey to Bethlehem to find the baby that had just been born.
The shepherds made the journey. In their pain, fear, and almost certain doubt about what they just heard, they travel to Bethlehem, found the baby, and realized that what the angels had said was true. It was then that they are filled with joy. Not just a little joy, but great joy because it says they returned to the hills praising God for all that they had seen and heard. Think about that journey back to the hills and fields and sheep. It was still dark. It was still dangerous. The situation around them had not changed. Their circumstances did not immediately get better, but their hearts were filled with joy so they could keep going. So we see here that joy doesn’t mean everything will go well, and it doesn’t mean everything will immediately get better. Joy comes into darkness and while it doesn’t always remove our pain, doubt, or fear, it does give us what we need to keep going.
We have all seen the images of children receiving OCC boxes and the joy on their faces. The joy in receiving that gift did not remove the hardships that they faced. They still battle hunger, sickness, and violence. Their lives are still difficult and painful, but in the midst of it, they have found a joy that helps them keep going. For these children, and the shepherds, joy is simply the reminder that we are not alone and that we are not forgotten. Joy comes is in knowing that God is with us.
When the shepherds made their journey to Bethlehem, they found a baby, and while they didn’t know exactly who, that child was, they did know that the message they heard from the angels had been confirmed. God had sent a savior and God shared that news with them. They had not been forgotten. In a world where shepherds were often overlooked and forgotten, God had not only remembered them, but included them in the event. The joy they found in the baby is the joy of knowing that God is with us, and that God is working in us, and in the world around us. This is what helped them keep going in the darkness.
The more we are able to hear God’s word speaking to our lives, the more we walk with Jesus and see the power of God moving in our lives, and the more we are able to see God at work in the world around us, the more we find joy, because like the shepherds, we realize that we have not been forgotten. God is with us. God is speaking to us. God is working in us. God is using us in the world. It is in knowing that we are not alone, and that we are not forgotten, that fills us with joy. The God of the universe has come for us, for you and for me. This joy doesn’t always take our problems away, but it brings a light that helps us through them.
Joy comes in knowing we are not alone and forgotten by God, but joy also comes when we come together in community. Part of the joy the shepherds experienced came when they gathered with Mary and Joseph. They were able to see the people God was using to bring the savior into the world, and what an encouragement it must have been for them to see two ordinary people. They were in a stable, not a home or an Inn where the shepherds would not have been welcome. While coming together gave the shepherds joy, think of what it must have done for Mary and Joseph.
Up until this point, Mary and Joseph had been alone in their journey. They knew what was going on and what God was doing, but other than a few family members, no one else did. I have to believe that there were days during those long 9 months when they must have doubted that God’s message was true. I’m sure they must have struggled to believe what they had heard so long ago. Alone in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph were filled with doubts and fears about their child and life, but when the shepherds suddenly appeared and told them what the angels had said, it was confirmation that what God was doing was real. The presence of the shepherds must have given Mary and Joseph great joy.
Joy is experienced most powerfully when we come together, which is why it is so important for us to gather together during this holiday season and make sure we invite others to join us. For many people, the holidays are not joyful times. The pain of loss, the grief of broken families, the financial struggles people face, and the reality of loneliness, is all magnified during this season, and the antidote to all of this is the joy we can experience when we come together. When we reach out to people in any way, we are sharing joy because we are reminding them that they are not alone. Sending a note, sharing a plate of cookies, giving a simple gift to someone who might be feeling forgotten, is a powerful gift of joy, because it tells people they are not alone and they are not forgotten.
My very first Christmas as a pastor was spent in Altoona, and my closest family was in Lancaster. Christmas Eve that year was on a Friday, which meant Christmas was on Saturday and I had to be in town for worship on Sunday, so I wasn’t able to celebrate Christmas until Monday. Christmas Day I was prepared to be alone. I was really ok with it, and not feeling too sorry for myself, when my neighbors called me and said, come to our house for dinner and we will not take no for an answer. So I walked over and experienced a deep sense of joy because I wasn’t alone.
In so many ways, this is the power of our Christmas Dinner. While many people might think the gift of that day is the food (and the pies all of you will make!), the real gift of the day is the joy we are able to share by simply reminding people they are not alone. The people who deliver the meals often tell us that the people who receive them say, you are the first person I have talked to today. The gift isn’t the meal, it is the joy that person feels in knowing that they are not forgotten and alone. Many of the people who eat with us in the dining room don’t have any other place to go, so the gift isn’t the food, it is the joy they find because they are not alone.
If you have never volunteered for the Christmas Dinner, I want to invite you to be part of it this year. Take an hour or two out of your day to share the real gift of Jesus, which is the joy that we can share with others. You can give just a few hours of your day, just about any time during the afternoon or evening, and the gift you receive will be greater than the gift you give because you will also find joy. Joy is expanded and experienced when we come together.
The last thing we learn about joy from the Shepherds is that the only appropriate response to joy, beyond sharing it, is to worship. Everyone in the Christmas story who was filled with joy ended up worshiping God. It said that the shepherds glorified and praised God for all they had experienced. They found great joy when they found Jesus, and their response was to worship God. When the Wisemen arrived, and found Jesus, they also worshiped, it says they bowed downed and worshiped the New Born King.
Corporate worship, when we come together to sing our praises to God, is important because it is an opportunity for us to not only worship, but also share our hope and love and joy with one another. We are working hard to make sure that every person who comes to worship here on Christmas Eve experiences great joy. From donkeys and sheep, to special music, to simple songs and candles, we want everyone in our community to feel the hope, love, and joy of Jesus. We need your help to share this joy, which is why we provided you a card last week to invite someone to worship with you. We have more cards, or a generic invitation card available in the lobby. Joy leads to worshiping together, and we need to invite others to join us.
The second part of worship that we cannot forget is personal, it is humbling ourselves before Jesus, like the Wisemen who bowed before Jesus and offered him gifts. The worship God desires isn’t always joyful songs of praise, and it isn’t always large gatherings where we proclaim our love, and it is not always the gifts we give like gold, frankincense and myrrh. Many times the worship God wants is the silent, personal moments when we reflect on God’s love for us seen in Jesus, and give him the gift of our hearts.
There is a beautiful Christmas carol called, in the bleak mid-winter and one of the verses says it best.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wiseman, I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.
That is what God ultimately wants when we come to worship him, our heart. A simple turning of our hearts to God.
In the middle of all that, people who came to worship Jesus as a baby-sat Mary. It says she watched it all and pondered these things in her heart. She silently reflected on all she had seen and heard. This too is worship. Can we find moments when we can be silent before God and ponder what the story of Jesus’ birth is all about, and what it means for our lives? Can we reflect on how the love of God, given in Jesus, is always more than enough to forgive us and set us free? Can we give thanks that this story tells us that we are not forgotten, we are not alone, and that we are loved unconditionally, so there is always hope for our future?
Joy is a gift that doesn’t always take away our pain, it doesn’t always solve our problems, and it doesn’t always fill our emptiness, but it does give us what we need to keep going. Joy is a light that shines into our darkness and helps us keep walking through it. Our response to this joy is to humble ourselves and worship God, and it is to share this joy with others.
A Journey Toward Joy
1. Read the words to these Christmas carols and identify the source of joy and our appropriate response.
• Away in a Manger
• Little Town of Bethlehem
• In the Bleak Mid-winter
2. How can you share this joy with someone who is feeling alone or forgotten?
3. Joy is experienced in community. Identify which Christmas Eve service you will attend and invite someone to sit with you.
4. Share the joy of Jesus on Christmas Day by signing up to volunteer at our Christmas Day Dinner.