Since we cancelled Sunday’s worship gathering due to a snowstorm, I am offering a version of my planned message here. We are celebrating the Advent season and I am sad that we missed being together to focus on Joy. But thanks to the Internet, you can read through some teaching on joy and even participate in this week’s live we event. You’ll find the scriptures I reference and ways to interact about with your own thoughts too. You can access our live web event (until 12/21) here: http://bible.com/e/1DU7.
What is joy?
In the last few years, our family has added a tradition to the list of Christmas celebrations. It’s called “Elf on the Shelf” and it works like this; a little elf doll made of felt and stuffing, with a slightly mischievous smile, migrates around your home to various observation points. His job is to report back to Santa Claus the naughtiness or niceness of family members. Of course, this is neither creepy nor matching the legal definition for stalking in 35 states; it’s a beloved holiday tradition!
Elf seems to have become increasingly popular in the last year or two. You may have seen little outfits available in the stores or Pinterest posts online with creative ideas. Facebook friends share photos of the mischief that little Elf creates, which also serve as seed ideas for other elf wrangling parents. In other words, Elf doesn’t usually stay on the shelf!
In our home, Elf sometimes finds a creative pose but sometimes…he forgets to move. It’s sad really. But sometimes Elf finds a comfy spot and decides to stay there until we remem he decides to move on. This isn’t a new phenomenon in our home; once in a while the tooth fairy experiences “high winds en route” and is delayed for a day (or three). Our kids enjoy the Elf on the shelf tradition, and it’s fun when they discover a new Elf observation position.
Last week, though, we witnessed something strange that seemed to make Elf on the Shelf a little less special to us. We saw a TV commercial where young kids were shown – via alleged home video footage – hysterically screaming with excitement upon finding little Elf in their home. Kids can usually smell a fake a country mile away, and my kids cried foul at the commercial. Sure Elf is fun to find and they have every right to expect regular Elf migration in our home, but there is NO WAY any kid would get that excited when they find him. At least my kids never have, and to them it smells like foreign factory-manufactured joy.
In particular, TV commercials pushing products to desperate-for-something-new-but-not-digital parents and grandparents tend to go a little overboard. Kids are shown squealing with delight, “Thank you, Grandma!” over not-available-in-stores-so-call-now foreign factory-manufactured junk as my own kids only stare at the TV in disbelieving horror. “No way would kids say that,” they say.
Now, I have nothing against buying your grandkids stuff from TV offers or elves on shelves or capitalism or kids squealing with delight. In fact, I have no gift buying or Christmas tradition advice to offer you. It’s just that I know how much parents and grandparents love to hear that response from children and I resent when commercialism uses that genuine desire to make a buck on something. It’s not fair.
And it’s not true. Stuff doesn’t bring happiness that lasts. Sure, it’s great when a gift is well-received or a surprise elicits a delightful squeal. I’m all for that! Gift-giving is a form of art, I think. But let’s not pretend that giving or receiving stuff brings lasting happiness.
Joy is prolonged wonder.
True happiness that lasts is what the Bible calls “joy.” What causes joy? Well, imagine the wonder of Christmas in the heart of a child, only it lasts and lasts. Does that sound too good to be true? Well, it’s both possible and impossible. Just look at Luke 1:26-45 when Mary received the news from the angel Gabriel that she was a vital part of God’s redemptive plan. Why was Mary blessed? Because she believed in God’s promises. Mary, along with all of Israel, waited expectantly for God to send a redeemer king for His people. Imagine the wonder that Mary and the others were filled with as God’s miracles were seen firsthand: Even a baby in the womb leaped for joy! Apart from believing God, all of these events were just plain strange. But looking through the eyes of faith the fulfillment of God’s plan brings blessing; a joy-producing wonder that lasts.
I was mildly amused when I read about a recent article in Popular Science magazine titled, “Could a Virgin Birth Even Happen?” The article explained how virgin birth was impossible because of the complexities of cell division, chromosomes, and DNA. But that’s the whole point! I agree with Derek Rishmawy that “We already know it’s generally biologically impossible – that’s precisely why we make a big deal about it.” It’s not that Christians believe virgin birth isn’t impossible. It’s just that we worship a God who does the impossible because nothing is impossible for Him.
So in attempting to disprove a major tenet of Christian belief, the article only highlights what Christians actually believe: That God promised a virgin birth as a sign. He promised the impossible, and then…it happened! God’s promises always come true and it produces lasting wonder in our hearts. So we experience joy as God keeps His promises.
But does this kind of joy really last? Is it really more powerful than any of the bad things that life brings? What about tough times? What about when it seems like God isn’t keeping His promises?
Joy is not dependent on circumstances.
Joy runs deeper than happiness caused by good times or things. It’s not that the good times and good things are bad; they are indeed good and we should receive all good things with gratitude as God’s gifts. But if happiness is grounded in anything changeable, it’s going to change. Joy is more resilient than that.
We all go through difficult times, and those times test our resolve. The writer in Hebrews 12:1-11 compares life to a race. Life has a set path and it requires endurance. It is difficult and requires discipline. But, like all forms of discipline, we naturally resist. And that only makes the race more difficult to run. No one is spared the pain that a broken world causes – and sometimes the pain is even caused by us. We try to good, but we’re not as good as wish we were and trying wears us out. That’s why Jesus came; to run the perfect race because we cannot. He ran His race path all the way to the cross. He suffered and died and secured victory, so don’t lose heart! Keep running and keep running well. Victory is assured.
If Jesus finished the race perfectly, then why do we face difficulty? Has God forgotten about us? Is he withholding joy from us? No! Joy isn’t bound to circumstances, so joy can be experienced in difficult circumstances. In fact, the promise of God is that He will treat us as sons and daughters because of Jesus. So, believing in God’s promises means trusting that difficult times does not negate His promise to love us. In Christ, difficulty is used for our good – building up our endurance as we run the race path – so that we run well and finish well. We experience joy as we trust God through difficulty.
I sometimes wonder just how many “church people” understand this. We too easily despair when difficulty comes our way. Instead, we should see it as a promise being fulfilled and an opportunity to grow. Of course, this requires believing God’s promises are true. But when we do, joy blossoms despite the circumstance and that is when we realize God is doing the impossible again. Only this time, it’s the impossible happening in us.
This past January, I was invited to watch the New England Patriots football team host a playoff game in Foxboro, MA. It was a great game for two reasons: First, the home team one; second, it was warmer than expected. January in Massachusetts can be very cold and four hours sitting outside can be a test of endurance. But the temperature was in the fifties, so the game environment was more than bearable. But then came the drive home, at night, back to Maine. The warm area hung over just-recently-frozen ground and produced fog for the final two hours of the drive. It was tough going. Actually, it was exhausting. I used as much concentration as my tired mind could produce to focus on the fog-covered road as we drove. I needed to drive at reasonably fast highway speed in order to make the trip last no longer than necessary. At the same time, high speed reduces reaction time and I feared seeing a deer or moose appear on the road in front of us. Driving through fog is difficult, especially when there may be obstacles in the way.
When we race along life’s path without trusting in God’s promises, it’s like driving blind in the fog. It’s exhausting and we can’t see the destination. Perhaps this is what robs so many people of the joy that trusting in Christ should bring. Believing in God’s promises opens our eyes in faith to what He is doing. But focusing on the circumstances will keep us in the fog; we only see what is directly in front of us. The destination isn’t what is immediately around us anyway.
So what is joy?
Joy comes from trusting in God’s promises despite our circumstances. So it can’t come from the things we give or receive, from other people, or from everything going our way. In fact, it is often experienced most powerfully despite nothing going our way at all. This Christmas, remember that this is why Jesus came. No so that we can get – or even give – what will make us happy. Instead, He offers us a lasting happiness that will keep the wonder of Christmas alive in our hearts all year every year. That is real joy.
Have you experienced joy despite your circumstances? Tell us about it in a comment below…
Yesterday, we had some friends over for breakfast and – of course – we showed them our Christmas tree. It was fun to talk about some of the decorations and to answer questions they had about some of the more unusual ornaments. I imagine that our tree is decorated like others in our stage of life; lots of crafty ornaments the kids made over the years, some keepsakes that commemorate milestones like marriage and babies, and some lovely gifted ornaments that remind us family and friends. Our Christmas tree is full of memories! The more I thought about this, the more I realized just how grateful I should be.
I am grateful for my family. I have a beautiful, talented, industrious wife who works hard to meet the needs of her family. We have built a wonderful life together over the last 14 and a half years. I’m also blessed with wonderful, talented, healthy kids. They are a source of joy as well as a means of revealing how much I need to learn and grow.
I am grateful for my extended family and friends. My biological family helped plant and nurture the seeds of the Gospel in my young heart. I am rich with friends from every stage of life, including friends who are tried and true though seasons of loss and difficulty. I’m also glad to live in an era when technology, such as social media, helps me keep in touch with those who live far away.
I am grateful for my ministry. I work and serve as pastor of a local church. It’s rich with the joys and heartaches of life, and the people are generous to let me walk through this particular season with them. We’ve seen many people’s lives changed – amazing stories – and they offer encouragement despite my many weaknesses.
But there is something more for which I must be grateful. As I reflect on all these blessings, I realize just how undeserving I am. I’ve been saved completely by God’s Grace; I deserve none of the many ways in which He has blessed me. But it’s even more than that. Possessing a nature that loves to rebel (sin) against Him, I am constantly in need of His mercy. Any desire I have to love others more than myself is the result of His spirit at work in my heart. Realizing this, I see how God blesses me despite my unfaithfulness. I’ve been given much, am still faithless on my own despite the mercy given me, and yet am blessed all the more abundantly and daily. All this is because Jesus came to earth, lived perfectly, and died for me.
So my heart is full this Christmas. I hope that, as you reflect on the ways in which you have been blessed, your heart will be full too. Most of all, I hope that you will come to know the Savior who gave His life to give you life.
How have you been blessed? In what ways do you experience God’s mercy? How might you express your gratitude?