Readings: Luke 2:1-20 and Psalm 16:8-11
Let’s be honest for a moment. Are you happy? We spend huge amounts of time, money and energy searching for happiness. Marketing teams teach us lasting happiness comes from things- getting things ourselves and getting the best deal when we buy things for others. The perfect Christmas is purchasing the perfect Christmas present for everyone we know. (Check out this Target commercial as an example.)
But that’s the thing. Happiness doesn’t last. By its very nature, happiness is momentary because it’s based on outcomes and circumstance. I’m happy because I got what I wanted for Christmas… I got into college… I got good news from the doctor… I got the job… Most of the time we find ourselves in a vicious cycle of I’ll be happy when…
We search for happiness, but it can’t provide what we long for. What we’re really searching for is joy. Joy lingers long past the moments of celebration. Joy is based on something deeper; it’s based on presence.
This past week, six three-year-olds from our church preschool came bounding into my office. They were dressed for their Christmas party and so excited to give me a gift. “Open it! Open it!” I reached into the bag to find a white shirt with green imprints of their feet hanging from painted red ribbons. At the bottom of the shirt it read, “Mistletoes.” We laughed and hugged and took some pictures. Their gift was wonderful, but their presence more than their present filled me with joy.
Sunday night our eldest daughter arrived home from college. We only get to see her a few times a year. We laughed and hugged and settled in on the couches to watch some TV together. After a few minutes catching up, it became quiet. I took in a deep breath to remember the moment and whispered a prayer of thanksgiving for the joy I was experiencing.
Joy is about presence. The presence of those we love may come and go, but the presence of the One who loves us most never ends. (Hebrews 13:5) This is where we find the lasting joy we’re search for.
Joy is associated with the word enthusiasm which comes from the Greek word en theos – God within. This is the very heart of the Christmas story- God with us and for us and in us. This is what makes the arrival of the Babe in Bethlehem tidings of great joy.
Joy believes and trusts God is with us no matter the outcome or circumstance. Think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. George gets a glimpse of what life would look like without him. This helps him realize God is with him – blessing him, helping him – even though he couldn’t see it. Suddenly, George is filled with a new enthusiasm for living. He turns from despair to joy, even though his circumstances have not changed. The joy of the Lord has become his strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)
The same is true for Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge has a powerful change of heart, from sour, miserly and mean to enthusiastic, generous and joyful. Why? His circumstances have not changed. Why? Because he claims the gift of God’s presence and the presence of the image of God in each and every person he encounters, especially in the presence of the poor he formerly despised. Like George, Scrooge’s faith results in a shift from happiness to joy, circumstance to presence, death to life.
Think about the Christmas story itself. Joseph is confused and heartbroken when Mary is found to be with child. Everything changes when the angel reveals the child is the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us. (Matthew 1) It is not hard to imagine Joseph’s relief and joy at believing, a believing joy which comes even though his circumstances have not changed.
Miraculously pregnant Mary greets miraculously pregnant Elizabeth. In a loud voice Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:42-44) John leaps for joy because of Christ’s presence, not a change in his circumstance.
Mary replies, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (Luke 1:46-48) Like the shepherds, Mary rejoices that God is drawing near to all people. (Luke 1:46-55) All people, no matter their circumstance.
The angels rejoice at the birth of the Savior. (Luke 2:8-14) The wise ones rejoice as the star comes to rest and their search for the new born King is over. (Matthew 2:10)
The Good News is our searching can be over as well. The end of our searching for joy comes when we claim God with us and for us, and in us in Jesus.
One of my favorite Christmas poems is First Coming by Madeleine L’Engle.
God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace.
God came when the Heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time.
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine.
God did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame, God came and God’s Light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh; to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh, the maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,
or to share our grief, to touch our pain,
God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
God draws near, not when all is perfect, but now, in the time of great need. There is no need for us to wait either. No matter our circumstance, now is the time. This Christmas, lay aside the false hope of happiness for the presence and joy of God.
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