This is not a spectacular sermon. There was no time for spectacular this Christmas.
Have you ever noticed how much JOY there is in the Christmas story? It starts with the angel who visits Zechariah and Elizabeth, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist: “he will be a joy to you” the angel prophesizes. When cousins Elizabeth and Mary are visiting each other, the unborn baby John the Baptist within Elizabeth’s womb “leaps up with joy.” Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and the Gospel of Luke says they “shared her joy”. When the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary with the annunciation the first words off his lips are a command: Rejoice! which means, literally, “be full of joy, Mary!” Then in the text often called Mary’s song she cries out, “yes! my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” When the angels appear to the shepherds in the fields in Luke ch. 2 they say: “Do not be afraid. We bring you good news of great joy!”
But lest you think that JOY is a New Testament invention, let me remind you of the great joy that came shining through our readings this morning from Isaiah and the Psalmist: Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! This morning the whole earth is singing with joy.
I hope you’re not getting bored of references to JOY yet, because there are almost 250 Bible verses with JOY in them and another 150 pertaining to REJOICE. That is a whole lotta’ joy! With over 400 total references to JOY and REJOICING in the Bible I think we can safely say that it is not a minor theme in God’s word to us.
Every time the Messiah is mentioned in the entire Bible, whether it is a Hebrew Bible prophecy or a proclamation of Christ’s coming in the Gospel, the good tidings are always sung forth with JOY, JOY, and more JOY. And by time we turn to the Christmas story in the Gospels, the story of God’s coming to be with God’s people in flesh and blood, the joy factor is through the roof. Joy has gone viral in the Christmas story. It’s contagious. It’s infectious. By the end of the second chapter of Luke there’s hardly been a single character in the entire story who hasn’t had the word JOY on his lips at some point: Joy! Joy! Joy! Rejoice! The angels are sharing it, the women are feeling it, unborn babies are leaping up with it, the shepherds are racing towards Bethlehem because they heard tell of it and the three wise men are hot on their heels on the journey towards Epiphany. If joy is like the clear sweet sound of a bell you’ve been longing to hear then the whole gospel is ringing with it. Rejoice! For these are good tidings of GREAT JOY!
If you were here for the Christmas nativity play this year on December 15, you might remember how this year’s production ended with everyone dancing in the streets: shepherds, angels, townspeople and shopkeepers were all getting down and breaking out their best moves on the streets of Bethlehem, singing aloud that the Savior had come. Even those of us who weren’t actually a part of the pageant were clapping our hands and tapping our toes. The joy was infectious.
I don’t know about you but I couldn’t help but contrast this REAL joy of Christmas with the stress and bustle of the Christmas season I experienced this year. When I looked around me this Christmas season, I didn’t actually see TOO many people who were dancing and singing their way through the holiday season with huge grins on their faces, transformed by the joy of salvation in quite the same way that the biblical characters were carried away with joy.
According to this liturgical calendar, this morning is actually just the first Sunday of Christmas, when Christmas is supposed to begin, but thanks to our culture’s emphasis on four weeks of nonstop pre-Christmas party you may have arrived this morning feeling like you have the last leg of an uphill marathon behind you.
Here’s the good news: God’s gift to us this morning and every morning is the totally stress-free gift of Joy in God’s presence. God’s joy is a gift to us, pure and simple, with no strings attached. Thanks be to God that joy is not one more commercial product to be obtained, worked for, or purchased this Christmas morning. It is not one more thing on your to-do list, not one more obligation to fulfill or emotion to drum up. It is a sweet, simple gift given to all with an open heart. This morning, God and all of God’s creation want to infect you with joy, and I hope you are not too tired to say yes!
As we reflect on the story of Christ’s coming as told in the Gospels we are struck by the willingness of the biblical writers and the biblical characters to throw open wide their arms and embrace the joy of Christ’s salvation. When we look at the Christmas story, we see biblical character after character who opened themselves up to the possibility of joy by daring to say “yes” when it was offered. Elizabeth and Zechariah dared to hope that they could experience joy at their advanced age, after so many decades of unfulfilled dreams and years without a baby. Mary dared to accept the joy of giving birth to the Christ child in her heart and in her boy. When the angel commands, “Rejoice!” Mary responds: My soul does rejoice in Christ, my savior! And when the angels appear to the shepherds that famous night near Bethlehem bringing good tidings of great joy, the shepherds dare to drop everything they are doing and take off for a stall in an inn in Bethlehem in pursuit of great joy.
Character after character in the Christmas drama of the gospels is offered the precious gift of JOY, and not one turns away. Not one says, I am too busy for joy this year; sorry, I have a headache; no, marrying a pregnant virgin teenager sounds too complicated – – – couldn’t you ask someone else?; my to-do list is too long; hm, yeah, I would love to come to Bethlehem, but the sheep need feeding and the cows need milking, I’ll celebrate the coming of the Messiah later.
The bible characters drop everything they are doing and LEAP with all their hearts into the joy they are offered. No second’s hesitation, no glance back over the shoulder to see what would be left undone. When the gift of joy is offered, they seize it.
Brothers and sisters, here is the good news this morning: this same joy is offered to each of us in the same measure that it is offered to each person in the gospel story. Christ our Savior is no less present to us this morning that he was to the shepherds and angels 2,000 years ago. There is no reason that our songs of good tidings of great joy cannot be as loud and as soulful as those of the angels. We are invited to get swept up in the current of joy and lose ourselves in songs of rejoicing.
To each of us, an angel comes, commanding: rejoice! Rejoice in God your savior! Do we have the obedience and the courage to respond to that commandment with all of our hearts? Are we ready to make this a year of great, contagious, wild and unfettered joy?
I said at the beginning that joy went viral in the Christmas story. From the angels to Elizabeth and Zechariah to Mary and Joseph to the shepherds and finally to the wise men and finally to the whole world – a love that couldn’t be contained, a joy you can’t keep to yourself.
It is the joy of the unexplained and the unexpected. It is the joy of hopes fulfilled after long years of waiting. It is the joy of arrival and fulfillment, just when you wanted to give up hope forever. It is the joy of God coming to us when we needed him most. It is the joy of salvation.
Brothers and sisters, I hope with all of my heart that when people meet us as Christians, or when they come to our congregation, they can see and feel this joy that we have been given in Jesus Christ. I hope more than anything that our community is radiant with the kind of explosive, dynamic, uncontainable JOY that bubbles up in the Christmas narratives and throughout the entire gospel. And I hope that joy is so infectious among us that every person who walks into this church leaves with a strange smile on their face, wondering, what was that?
We have been given GOOD TIDINGS of GREAT JOY that shall be for ALL PEOPLE. Let us say YES to it.
Let us be like Elizabeth, who shouted out with glee in her old age, and like John the Baptist who leapt up with it… Like Zechariah who first laughed and then was stunned into silence by it…. Let us be like Mary, whose soul sang out within her because she couldn’t keep all that joy inside. Like the shepherds, who dropped what they were doing and raced towards Bethlehem to find the promised joy. Let us be like the angels who filled the heavens with their songs.
I want to leave you with one last image of joy. Pope Francis in his recent Evangelii Gaudium – the Joy of the Gospel – writes that the joy that runs through the whole Bible is like a river. And if you think about it, joy is like a river with a rising current that gets faster and deeper and crazier the longer time goes on. It’s a river of joy that runs through the Hebrews, the Prophets, the coming of the Messiah, and the whole Gospel message, a joy that infects the new church in Acts and all that it does. JOY is the river of God. Won’t we enter into that great stream of joy?
Brothers and sisters: let’s say YES to that invitation this year. Let us jump with both feet into the river of Joy. When the angel comes to us and says REJOICE, let’s sing out with our very souls. Let us be wild with the joy of our Messiah’s arrival. And let’s make sure the whole world knows it!