Anticipating Joy


Anticipating joy. Who here is anticipating some Christmas joy? (Good, most of us.) You wonder about that in these times where things are tenuous and the economy is not doing so well. Yet at the same time, I have been seeing love reborn, love coming to individuals in many and various ways… through cards, through gifts, through kindness in exchange of words, sometimes a little extra patience shown in places where patience may not have been given. Love is coming to us and it is bringing joy. And it is good for us to expect that joy. We may not hear those same words from the angel Gabriel that Mary heard which brought great joy to her heart, but we know a different kind of joy…the joy of knowing who that child is in the manger and what that child has brought to all of us. We live with that blessing in our time.

For us, it's not just expectation of what might be, and, "Is this the answer to God's promises to us foretold by the prophets?" For us, Jesus is the reality of that promise fulfilled. Jesus is the reality of that hope and peace and love and joy come down and come close for all of us. That, in its essence, should give all of us a measure of joy, even in what might be difficult times. But the resiliency of the people that I see is amazing because I'm seeing glimmers of that joy coming to people's eyes. I see it opening up in many people's hearts.

For me, that joy has been slow to come this year. We're only four days away from Christmas, and usually for me, in preparations with the family, that joy starts coming out for me and I experience it pretty fully about two weeks prior to Christmas. But it's been slow this year, maybe due to illness, maybe due to the hectic schedule that our family has been facing (maybe you all can relate to some of that). Maybe it's some of the difficulties that have been shared with me by members of the congregation which I also carry in my heart and in prayer. Sometimes those things delay the joy that comes with Christmas. Sometimes it slows that anticipation a little bit, maybe because we know what's coming and it comes every year. I'm not sure. But one thing is certain, at least for me. The joy that I anticipate coming does arrive, and it usually arrives before Christmas or right at Christmas. For me each year, it's taken a little longer for those things to arrive.

For a child, Christmas really starts at the beginning of Advent. When they see that wreath pop up, they know what's coming, and the joy starts to well up within them. When you drive around at night and the children see the lights and you hear the oohs and ahhs, and the, "Look, Daddy, look at that!" And it may just be those lit-up icicles or something simple. And then you pass someone's extravagant display that almost seems to light up the entire night sky like up on 194 near Littlestown. How can you not feel joy when you see that? Even I have to slow down a little to behold the number of lights and ponder, "Where do they put that stuff after Christmas is over?" But it does have the effect, I think, which they intend…to bring that wonder and joy into our lives at Christmas, to remind people that light is coming into the world. It may not be in the shape of the little trolley or the Santas with the snowmen, but light is coming into the world again.

It comes into our hearts when we not only anticipate that joy, but when we open ourselves to begin receiving it, when we take a few moments of time to reflect on that and not get too caught up in preventing joy from landing on us because we're too busy, or too sad, or feeling too alone. The joy will come in, and the joy has been coming in to many of you who I've been talking to. Part of my hope and Christmas prayer is that by Christmas day, all of us will be filled with so much joy that it will just drip from our bodies. And that when we come on the Sunday after Christmas…for those of you who come (yes, we are holding service the Sunday after Christmas, one of the traditional low Sundays of the year)…we will be here to sing more Christmas carols and to lift that joy up again because Christmas is not over just on Christmas day. We celebrate Christmas until we hit Epiphany on January 6.

As we are anticipating this coming joy, let it fall upon you. Let it fall upon you hard. Let it touch you in ways that maybe you haven't thought it might. Open yourselves to the idea that sometimes joy brings with it tears, joy brings with it deep thoughts, joy brings with it considerations that we might always associate with joy. Mary, in hearing those words from the angel Gabriel, you can imagine with those words and the joy that she felt, there was probably some fear mixed in with that. Some of that, "Oh, no" factor because Joseph didn't seem to know this. He wasn't standing there with her. Was Joseph going to believe this story? We didn't read about Joseph hearing from the angels as well. But what would Joseph think? "Here I am a virgin and I'm going to conceive and bear a child." That's grounds for Joseph to break off any engagement that might already be in effect. So fear and struggle are also part of what was going on with Mary. And those things, it's just natural for that to be part of where we are and what we are dealing with today too.

But the joy that Mary felt began to override any other feelings that she might have had. And Mary sang out her own song to the Lord. And we read that little passage from Luke together as our Call to Worship. But it was a way of Mary being able to express that joy to God.

Now, many of us are preparing for Christmas. I hope everybody is more prepared than I am. But we're preparing for Christmas to share that love and to share that joy, and we do it with gift-giving, we do it with sending cards, we do it with visiting those we know and love. And that is a very meaningful way to spread that joy. I know that kind of joy really works. When I visit people, I get to see the joy on their faces and I hear the joy in their voice when they say, "Oh, do you know who else came to visit me?" "Oh, do you know who called me? I haven't heard from them in six months." Little sparks of joy. And those are only the beginning of the joy that comes.

As we continue in this Advent season and we get ready for Christmas Day, which is often surrounded with family or loved ones and the tradition of opening gifts, I want us to remember again what Christmas joy is truly about. And I'm not sure that I actually picked out this song for this year's Christmas Eve services. It's O Thou Joyful, and I want to read some words from that hymn to you:

O thou joyful, O thou wonderful Grace-revealing Christmastide!
Jesus came to win us from all sin within us; glorify, glorify the holy child!
O thou joyful, O thou wonderful love-revealing Christmastide!
Loud hosannas singing and all praises bringing: May thy love with us abide!

Grace and love, the promise foretold of what God would do, bringing grace and love to come and be near us. That's what Christmas joy is all about…God's promises fulfilled, God coming into the world, not only bringing love, but bringing redemption and grace. Just as a parent would love and forgive their child many more times than we probably would if they weren't our child. God comes to us in the form of Christ giving us that grace and that love that we all long for. That's what brings us real Christmas joy. That is the true and deep meaning of what we are celebrating here. And it is because we have this long history that we were not just simply there at his birth, but are there after his life and his ministry to be able to understand what it all means.

That's the joy coming into the world today. It might be difficult for the kids to understand that in the kids' message because I know as my children see the gifts under the tree or packages arriving in the mail, boy, that's Christmas joy to them. Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, all of those things bring joy. The Christmas program for our Learning Center, dancing elves, Santa and his reindeer, and the little kitten that falls out of his sleigh. All of those things are Christmas joy for children. As we grow up, the real joy is God's love coming near, is God's redemption given to us freely. That should give us joy because no matter what we face in this life, that can never be taken away. No matter what struggle we might be dealing with, God's love and grace will prevail. Trust in that, hope in that…and be at peace.

Read other Sermons by Pastor Steve