Read: Luke 2:8-14
Now that school is out, my wife has returned to her rightful place on the sofa to binge watch a new batch of Christmas movies. Which really aren’t that much different than the ones from last year. Or the year before that. As someone recently described, “These movies all seem to come from the same candy cane factory.”
The story lines are pretty much predictable, big city girl…small town boy…snowstorm…a kiss…and Christmas is saved. It’s also a safe bet that carolers dressed like 19th century Dickens characters will show up and sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.
Like the sugary holiday movie, this is one of those happy tunes that promises to fill us with comfort and joy. But recently I heard this song in a different light. As I was trying to play it on the guitar, I noticed this majestic proclamation is sung in a minor key…like the ones you find in most blues songs. And if you’ve know blues music, then you know why the name is appropriate.
In a recent essay on this subject, Margret Manning pointed out that the juxtaposition between the minor notes of the song and its uplifting lyrics suggests that joy is not simply found in things that make us happy, but also in times of sorrow.
With only three letters, ‘Joy’ is a short but powerful word. It appears 145 times in the bible which tells me it’s important to understand. According to Merriam-Webster joy is “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune; or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” This definition leaves me to wonder what if you don’t get your way, does that mean you don’t experience joy?
Theopedia describes joy as “a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.” I think this definition brings us closer to what God is trying to tell us – that joy is not a feeling you get when something good happens. That’s happiness. Happiness lives in the head. It comes and goes depending on your experience or mood.
Joy is different. Joy is permanent. It lingers deep within our hearts whether we feel it or not. Famed British author C.S. Lewis said it best when he wrote, “Joy is an experience no one would ever exchange for all the happiness in the world.”
In Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, joy is one of the seven fruits of the Spirit along with love, peace, faithfulness, patience, gentleness and kindness. It’s not a fleeting or passing emotion but a holy gift from God that helps us navigate the ups and downs of life. And so, as we look to this small but bright flickering light, we know we are able to rejoice no matter what we are up against, if only because God is rejoicing in us.
In Luke’s gospel, as the angles hovered over the dark earth heralding in the reign of Christ, joy entered into creation in the bleakest of times. Through Christ, God brought glad tidings of comfort and joy.
One of the first people to feel the joy of Christ, was John the Baptist. While still in his mother’s womb John leapt for joy when a pregnant Mary entered the house. He carried that joy with him, and held on to it in the loneliness of the wilderness and the struggles he would face out there as he ushered in the Kingdom of God. Even in prison with the threat of death looming over his head, John’s joy did not diminish. He knew that no matter how difficult his life got, joy was present if only because God was present within him.
This is hard to hear or understand when you’re in a bad mood or when someone or something steals your joy. But you might take comfort knowing that not even Jesus himself was immune to the pain and sorrow of this world.
Manning says, “the tidings of comfort and joy which we desire come as God entered into a suffering world – not removed from it.” Whatever you are going through, right now in your life, you can rejoice knowing God is there with you; in a person who understands your pain and knows what it’s like to suffer.
I know that it’s hard to rejoice when people you love get cancer or when your friends abandon you. It’s hard for me to find joy as long as gun violence permeates our communities, as the homeless situation in our nation worsens, and children still don’t have enough food, or clean water, or a loving parent nearby. Joy isn’t easy to come by when you’re alone in your house, or overworked, or out of work.
Which is why, as Henri Nouwen once said, “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Jesus is God’s greatest joy. Therefore we have to make the conscious decision to seek and welcome him into our daily life. We have to wake up every morning and choose to see and do what Jesus did…if only so others may find their hope, their love, their peace and their joy.
When we choose to be with Jesus, to be imitators of his love, a deeper sense and understanding of joy begins to grow in us and all around us. It becomes manifested in us, in the way we love and care for one another, in the way that we give and receive the Christ within us all.
I invite you to chose to welcome Jesus as those shepherds did on that Christmas morning. I invite you to receive him as your utmost joy, and to live in his Spirit, bearing its good fruit in all that you do.
As you leave here today, I want you to know that we don’t experience joy because life is good. We experience it because God is great. God does not come and go like happiness. God sticks around, and is always there whether we know it or not. When life kicks the joy out of you, God is there kicking it back in.
Because God has chosen you and me to carry this light into the world – to shine our hope, love, peace and joy as bright as the host of angles who first brought glad tidings to those shepherds watching their flocks by night.
Manning, Margaret. Sowing Tears and Reaping Joy. A Slice of Infinity devotional, December 17, 2019 (accessed 12/17/19) https://us5.campaign-archive.com/?e=2ee208b3a9&u=45b75085e6ab57e339ea89d67&id=1b4bf221eb
While looking through some past post for a future post, I stumbled upon this from April 2016. In a four part message on “Joy in Philippi” I wrote:
“Ego and anger are the opposite of love and joy. Anger leaves us vulnerable to attack. Conflict, as you might know, opens the door that allows our joy to walk away or be stolen. But here's the twist. The love Jesus calls us practice also leaves us vulnerable. To love as God loves us forces us to always seek a common ground instead of a battleground. This doesn’t mean we have to be the same, or think the same, or dress the same. Christianity isn’t a robotic ritual. Jesus calls us into a way of life built upon the strong bond of God's love for us. Just as we are connected to God through Jesus we are to be connected to one another through the same love.”
As we look at the candle of hope, the candle of love, and now the candle of peace, Let us hold fast to the words of the Lord who said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to my people. Justice and righteousness will fill the land, and all will live in peace and safety.”
In the glow of this light, I am reminded that God’s peace is available for those who want it. And who wouldn’t want peace in their life? Some peace and quiet? Or peace of mind, knowing that you have whatever it takes to get through the difficult times. Tis’ the season to put our peace to the test. As we hustle for the last-minute gift or make our way home for the holidays…peace can be in short supply.
Since October 9, 2001 I have spent an enormous amount of time and energy searching for peace in my life. That was the day Fiona was born. The day was amazing. That first night, not so much. As most babies do, screamed and cried for most it. And to be honest, she hasn’t stopped since.
I imagine Jesus came into the world screaming and crying. It’s good for a newborn to let out some big bellows at birth - filling their lungs with their first big breaths of life. Through Jesus, God continues to scream divine life into a world that is anything but peaceful. No matter what you’re facing today, God’s peace is yours if you want it.
READ: Matthew 2:13-23
Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph is a dreamer. However, his dreams are really more like nightmares. In the first dream Joseph is warned that King Herod wants to kill his son. And he knows Herod has both the authority, and the means to do it without impunity.
watch service here
When Joseph awakes, the nightmare isn’t over. In a frenzy to get out of Bethlehem as fast as they can, Joseph hustles to gather their belongings and whatever supplies he can get his hands on before the gates of the city shut. In this moment, I imagine Jesus is restless as babies often are. I suspect Mary is sleep deprived as nursing mothers tend to be. And I am sure Joseph’s body tenses up every time a soldier passes by as they make their way to Egypt to escape a politically motivated hit job.
They escape just in time. Before them is the great unknown. Behind them the land darkens with the blood of innocent children. Echoing across the sky are the inconsolable cries of wailing mothers who fell victim to the injustice of an insecure and out of control king. Where is the peace and good will the angels promised the night Jesus was born?
Robert Gundry suggests it’s on its way because the one who is to usher peace into the world has escaped. This is the Kingdom of God. And in this kingdom Christ will reign. There will be no more murder or violence perpetrated ever again. Peace is coming, but we have to wait.
I know how hard it is to find peace when you’re rushing to make your connecting flight or taking your final exams or looking for a parking space at the mall.
But what about Mary? How did she find peace knowing her son was in danger? It’s a mother’s job to worry about her children – but she shouldn’t have to flee from her home to save their lives.
Or Joseph? Still a teenager himself, he has to protect his family in a foreign country. Peace is hard to find when you’re afraid or can’t find a job because you don’t speak the local language.
Jesus understands the plight of the refugee because his life began as a refugee. He knows our pain and suffering firsthand, because his body still bears the scars of human cruelty. Jesus spent his life moving from one danger to the next. Through it all, he embodied God’s perfect peace by practicing a ministry of kindness, mercy and radical inclusion of all people.
Where’s the peace we all seek? The same place it’s always been since the beginning of time - in the Christ, the very heart of God.
While in Egypt, Joseph has his second dream. Herod is dead. And the family can return home to Judea. As a father, I understand why Joseph hesitates to go back. Herod’s son is in charge now. And a rotten apple never falls far from the tree.
Joseph’s fear is confirmed in a third dream which sends the Holy Family further north to Galilee. They will make their home in the town of Nazareth, a despised place in Jewish lore. For nearly thirty years, God will hide Jesus in an area where nothing good ever seems to come.
The bible doesn’t give us much info about those years, outside one story in Luke’s gospel when Jesus is twelve. But the way I see it, if God can protect this baby from hurt, harm, and danger, from even the most despicable people in the despised places, so too will God protect you in whatever uncertainty or nightmare you’re facing today. Through the birth of Jesus, peace has come. And by his resurrection we know that peace will come again.
As we wait for Christmas, for Christ to be born in a dark and smelly stable, we do so by standing outside the dark and empty tomb of Easter. It was there peace greeted Mary who ran off to proclaim the good news. And it’s here today if you want it. What the world isn’t able to give you, Jesus is able, and willing.
By living out a radical, all-inclusive love, Jesus showed us how to walk peacefully in a troubled world. It’s up to you and me to see and do as Jesus did, so peace can prevail. It’s up to us to embrace love like it is the most powerful weapon we have at our disposal. If we want to feel God’s peace in our hearts, we need to be the light of God’s hope, God’s love, and God’s peace in the world for one another.
This week, a pastor friend of mine in Massachusetts touched on a similar note when he posted his Christmas wish list on Facebook. He wrote,
In our hearts let us plant peace, and with our hands let us manifest it in the world today. As you go out into the world today, I offer you the words of St. Paul who said, “Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
Special thanks to Dr. John Tamilio III for his words posted to Facebook on Dec. 12, 2019.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 1. (Westminster John Knox: 2010) pp.164-169.
I had this thought. It's unvarnished but worth sharing in it's rawest form. It came to me while walking on the treadmill at the gym.
Gods self giving love = kenosis
God makes God's self vulnerable. Jesus is God’s vulnerability that comes to teach us and transform us through this vulnerable love. What does that help us do? It frees us from fear. It frees us of retribution or judgment. It frees us from anything out there that tries to stop us from loving with such greatness; the kind of greatness that gets us killed. This love, this vulnerablity, this radial idea is dangerous. Very dangerous. Why? Because such love is the enemy of the world that seeks to control and hold on to power.
Two summers ago we put up a new fence around our property. When I read this story I thought of the six huge ficus trees we had to cut down to make room for the fence. The guy who did the work didn’t use a stump grinder to finish the job. Instead he cut giant X’s into the stump with his chainsaw. Then, for safe measure, poured gas into the grooves which apparently kills the tree from the top down. With the trees gone, I removed the sprinklers from the area. And a couple of days later we had a brand-new fence in its place.
But that’s not the end of the story. A year later, these little green sprigs began growing out of those stumps. For a while, I would snip them off. But the more I snipped the stronger and faster they grew. Today, we now have a lovely green hedge in that old space.
Not only did the trees survive being cut down, dosed in gasoline and denied water…but they were also transformed into something new in the process, they went from trees to shrubbery. A perfect illustration of how God’s love works. Out of death comes new life.
We see this when Isaiah pronounced the coming prince of peace. Judah had been defeated and those who were hauled off in captivity believed God had abandoned them. Their life seemed hopeless. And those who remained behind were nothing more than old stumps of what they once were. But Isaiah said, God is up to something.
A green shoot from the House of David will emerge and reign with the Spirit of God’s love and righteousness. A new king will come out of Bethlehem and lead his people with “wisdom and understanding” “counsel and might” and with “knowledge and fear of God.”
And just for good measure, this ruler will be the bearer of God’s Spirit, who will transform a culture of fear into a world of peace. He will judge with justice according to God’s will and righteousness: freed from bias or favoritism.
Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, or left for dead, comes the sign of new life. This is how God’s love surprises the world. Hope emerging as a tiny tendril in an unexpected place. A teenage mom, a dirty stable, a tiny baby born with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a giant target on his back.
I had a professor in seminary who always warned us not to read Jesus into this text no matter how tempting it is to do so. St. Paul has no problem using the stump of Jesse metaphor to argue differently in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 15:12). Either way, Isaiah shows us how to wait for Christ.
For those of us who are fed up with the moral, religious, and political crisis our nation and world are facing today, Isaiah reminds us that God is up to something.
For those of us who are in dark places, and cannot muster the strength to live another day, Isaiah says hold on, God is up to something.
For those of us who are barely getting by, or living in poverty or suffering injustice, Isaiah offers hope that arises out of God’s great love for us.
No one exemplified God’s love better than Jesus, the Christ. When we look to him we see God. Through him we know who God is and who we are to God.
And so Isaiah invites you to ask where are the stumps in your life? Where do you feel chopped down, hopeless, or alone? Can you imagine or believe that even now, in your own dark space, God is nurturing the growth of something new and good?
The world can dowse us with gas, and even deny our thirst, but it cannot stop God from doing what God wants to do – creating life out of death.
When I thought my ministry was done, God was up to something – transforming my faith and leading me to a new kind of church that uses technology to reach people who, for whatever reason, aren’t hearing the Good News. Today, New Church Sherman Oaks, along with our sister church The Phoenix Congregational Fellowship, are literally reaching the furthest corners of the world to share Jesus’ story of love and redemption. As long as we have the internet, we have mission and ministry...because God is always up to something.
No matter what you might be going through, I pray these words of Isaiah speak to your heart and give you hope in your head. Because God is not only faithful, but God is hard at work. Through Christ, God is taking your pain, your fears and worries, and making something new. A new life, and new light, and new everlasting love.
The peace of God that is inaugurated with the incarnation is one where all things will be transformed. Humans, animals, and the land itself will be filled with the knowledge of God. And be reconciled and restored into God’s glory, where the kingship of Christ will reign with justice and fairness.
But here’s the kicker. All we can do is wait it out. Yet in this time of wait, I invite you to look within yourself. And ask how can you use this Advent time to spiritually mature? How can you bear the fruits of God’s love, through acts of mercy, forgiveness, and justice?
How can you see and do what Jesus does, so others can see and do the same. Our hope, and our love, are the first fruits that God uses to bring divine peace into a world that desperately needs it. In Jesus, God came to be with us, to show us how to be the shining lights in the darkness, to show how God is at work in the most ordinary and unusual of ways.
As you leave here today, how you might live out this light of hope and this light of love in such a way so the wolf and lamb can live in harmony? Here’s a hint: follow the little child who leads the way back to God’s glory?
Bartlett, David. L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Westminster John Knox Press: 2010) pp. 26-31.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father...Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Nothing like starting off the Christmas season with a story about the end of the world, and the end of humankind. But if we look at it honestly, we might see Jesus’ words are no different than a Hallmark Christmas movie, where something good always happens no matter how bad the situation might seem.
Recently we’ve talked about how prophetic and apocalyptic text are warnings for us. They are the flashing red lights and sirens that get our attention, designed to keep us on our toes. Matthew uses this technique to awaken us from our slumber.
He tells us that one day Jesus might appear like a thief in the night. We don’t know when that day or hour will come. We can’t mark it on our calendar or prepare for it beforehand. We just have to stay awake. For those who like to nap, this is a bit disconcerting.
So why does Jesus bring it up? Does he want us to be feel unsettled and anxious? Personally, I think that the fact Jesus isn’t telling us when that day will come, is actually very telling. Just as we overlook advent to get to Christmas, it’s easy to jump ahead and make faith only about the end goal- getting into heaven. We become so enamored with talking about spending eternity in the Kingdom of God that they forget Jesus said the kingdom of God has come.
Advent is not a time to simply wait for Christ to be born, or the resurrection to happen. Instead it’s a time to “Stay awake.” To be present and live intentionally, to see and do what Jesus does as if Jesus meant what he said. It’s a time, not just to ponder the first and second coming of Christ, but to be fully engaged with the Christ within us all until that day comes.
I love to tell the story of a Buddhist monk who is being chased by a very hungry tiger. Running as fast as he can the monk realizes he’s running straight towards a cliff. As the tiger gets closer and closer, the monk searches for an escape. He sees a long vine dangling from a tree over the cliff. The monk jumps and grabs hold of the vine and begins to shimmy down just before the tiger can pounce.
But as fate would have it, the vine wasn’t as long as the monk had hoped. And when he looked down there were sharp, jagged rocks about 1,500 feet below. Letting go of the rope would be certain death. As would climbing back up.
So the monk looked for another escape plan. And that’s when he saw a small ledge on the side of the cliff. On that small ledge was a patch of soft, dewy grass. Growing from a crag in the rocks was a small strawberry bush. And on that bush rested a fresh red, ripe strawberry.
The monk reached out and plucked the strawberry off its branch, and brought it up to his nose and inhaled its goodness. It was the best thing he had ever smelled. He savored that moment before he took a bite and enjoyed its sweetness.
There was something about that strawberry that made heart sang with joy. In that moment he was fully alive. Had he only focused on what was to come, the sharp jagged rocks below, or on his past where the tiger waited, he never would have seen the gift God had placed in his path to savor.
Jesus says, “stay alert.”
“When we are too focused on heaven as the only place of beauty and goodness,” writes Jazzy Bostock, “we run the risk of not only ignoring the beauty and goodness of the world but also our responsibility to it.”
A life of faith need not be focused on the world to come but on how to remain faithful in this one – the one God gave as our mandate to love and care for. It’s here in this world, in this place and in this time that we find that red ripe strawberry to savor.
If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my blog, you know that I spent each day of November getting to know someone new. Afterward I quickly wrote about the experience. What you may not know is I didn’t take notes, or record the conversations. Instead I listened to what they had to say. In doing so, I learned something new about myself: I could remembered their story, their quotes, and the small facts about who they were and where they were from, simply because we shared a moment. Their story became a part of my own story.
Moreover, I discovered this simple act allowed a young man named Matt to cry with a total stranger. It helped Dan to confess something before going home to make amends to his wife. It gave Bill, an elderly vet who I continue to run into, a friend to talk to in the park. And it helped Gerry and Victoria to take sting out of a bad situation.
We may not know the day or hour, but we do know that at any given second Jesus will appear around the corner, suddenly like a hungry person, or a neighbor in need of help, or a friend who is sick, or someone we love who is in a broken or toxic relationship. People around us are suffering in many different ways. They are worrying about climate change, gun violence, and fearing what is to come out of this political mess we’re in.
Jesus doesn’t tell us when the day is coming, because today there is work to be done. When we focus only on the world to come, we lose sight of the task God has called us to do right now.
“Jesus is offering us an invitation into the world we are already in – an invitation to this world, to this time and place” (Bostock). As messy as this place might seem, it’s precisely in this space we find our hope, our strength, our beauty, our truth, our grace, our salvation.
Here’s the best part about it all. We don’t need to be perfect, just present. We don’t need to hide from our messiness to participate in this season. John Pavlovitz calls us to,“bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. This is where we notice beauty, move with compassion, and have grace revealed.”
Jesus calls us to ready ourselves to leave this world by truly living in it, by soaking up every grace-filled moment and savoring its sweetness. To actively wait for both the birth and rebirth of Christ that is happening all around us, right now.
If you’re only sitting around waiting for God’s kingdom to come, then you’re missing what God’s Kingdom is all about - a kingdom where Heaven and Earth are one. In the race to get to Christmas morning, the season of Advent can come and go without notice. So I invite you to take the time to be in a spirit of wakefulness and watchfulness. And to make yourself God’s Christmas gift for those around you.
Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour – it might be in this moment or it might be on Christmas Eve, we don’t know. But what we do know is what we can do while we wait. And that’s to make heaven happen for someone today. It might be in the most outstanding act of charity or the simplest act of compassion. It may be in our our daily busyness or in our quiet moments.
As we kick off advent, we do so with gratitude that Jesus makes us sit and ponder what is to come. In doing so, Jesus is giving us the time we need to simply be in the moment where life is happening in real time. He is giving us this day to see Christ in our midst, in the stories of strangers and friends alike…and he’s giving us the time to love them as if we were loving Jesus himself.
Not knowing when the day or hour will come is a gift for us. It’s the time we need to look around and see those red ripe strawberries that are growing wildly all around us, to pick them and to savor every bite of goodness, as we wait the goodness and the greatness that is to come.
Bostock, Jazzy. No One Knows. episcopalchurch.org. (Accessed Nov. 27, 2019).
Pavlovitz, John. Low: An Honest Advent Devotional. (Chalice Press: 2019) Kindle edition.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”