Christmas is a season that can be described with a myriad of different words – turkey, mashed potatoes, presents, stuffed, Santa, friends, family… the list goes on and on. This is how most of our world sees this time of year. But when we think about Christmas from a Christian perspective, other words usually used – peace, hope, love, Jesus, baby, Mary, angels, and joy.
Joy is a Christmas word! When Jesus was born, God sent his angel from heaven to tell the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” So, this evening, as we take time out of the busyness of Christmas preparations, I want us to ask ourselves the question, “what is joy?”
In some of my readings in putting together premarital counseling materials, I came across research from UCLA who said that a couple’s joy in marriage is determined by each partner’s “ability to adjust to things beyond their control.” That is a good beginning to understand the joy of Christmas because there are a lot of situations in life that are beyond our control. In our economic instability, people’s livelihoods and careers – are pushed into the realm of the unknown.
Even as a pastor, we often find ourselves in situations that are out of our league. As they shared at the pastor’s conference, we are often over our heads. Things are often out of our control… trusting God in those situations is critical and vital for our health and joy.
When we look back at what was happening about 2000 years ago, we see that like today, things were happening that were beyond the control of those in the Christmas story. One of the things we see from the Christmas story is that the government was not very supportive of the people. And even in the democracy, we live in today, governments often do things that are beyond our control or liking.
We read in Luke 2:1-5, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.”
A Roman census was not a good experience. Because Joseph was a descendant of the famous King David, he and his immediate family were forced to register for the census in David’s hometown of Bethlehem. Because Mary was pregnant, this was not going to be an easy trip. There were no hardship exemptions for pregnancy. Unlike today, they don’t come to your door. Under Roman Law, avoiding this was not an option.
Even in our day and age, we can put off taxes until the following year. We can choose not to vote or participate in a national census. But they did not have this option.
Political pressure is a part of every generation. Governments do things today at their discretion and for their benefit. They sometimes go to war out of economic interests; They legislate taxes to make up for their excessive spending; they change marriage laws and redefine God’s model for relationships; They control education to teach what they think is right and best and the list can go on and on.
The bottom line is that most of us have no control over these things, nor do we have influence. Because things haven’t changed, we can all share to varying degrees what Mary and Joseph were feeling in their forced journey to Bethlehem. But it wasn’t the journey that was harrowing. Even when they arrived, more obstacles appeared and seemed to block their path.
Luke goes on in verses 5-7, “He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
So after making this journey and arriving at their destination, Mary and Joseph are confronted with another obstacle – there was no room in the inn for them to stay. I think all of us have had that happen. You go through one difficulty only to discover another problem that needs attention.
A number of years ago, one of our former youth kids got married. She is a Canadian and he is an American. You may think that is no big deal, but it was a headache and heartache for both of them. Because they didn’t go through the proper protocols and processes, they had to jump through more and more hoops and cut through more red tape. Every obstacle they cleared led to others they had to face. It was a year before they could live together.
But when we look back to Mary and Joseph, they weren’t the only ones experiencing struggles and having frightening surprises. There were others having a bit of an out of control Christmas.
In verses 8 and 9, we read about some shepherds whose lives were about to be flipped upside down. We read, “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.””
How did the shepherds first respond? They were terrified. Now I’m not sure about you, but if I had been one of the shepherds, I would have been pretty frightened too. Many of us don’t like surprises – people jumping out from shadows or even pleasant things like surprise parties, but seeing angels appear from out of nowhere – that is about as beyond control as life gets.
These shepherds were poor, ordinary people. Life was hard but routine. Suddenly, they were caught in the headlights of an angel. The glory of God surrounded them, so there was no place to escape. This was totally out of their control. Although the angel meant well, he started out as a terrorist as far as those shepherds were concerned. Life was beyond their control.
But in the midst of all that they were experiencing and the things we go through today, there was a mitigating factor that is often missed. God was in control. When life seems to be at its darkest, God can intervene and bring calm and joy to any situation. To those whose lives were beyond their control 2000 years ago, the angel announced the joy of Jesus Christ, the joy of Christmas, to the shepherds.
So how did God calm their nerves? We read in verses 10 and 11, “The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.””
So the question to us today is this: How could Jesus possibly be good news of great joy when life is out of control?
The answer is powerful and profound. Jesus has control. He will handle what we cannot. He will do what we cannot do. He is more powerful than the government. He will make room where there is no vacancy. He will settle the terrified heart. To be a Christian is to trust Jesus to take control. It is a deep conviction that Jesus will handle what we cannot and that he will do it well.
There is a sense in which we can never experience the joy of Jesus until life goes beyond our control. As Christians, we deeply trust Jesus no matter when or what. I’ve mentioned before that joy and happiness are not the same. Joy comes from and is found in Jesus, not in circumstances.
Listen again to what the angels said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
“But,” you might be thinking, “they saw Jesus that day and that’s where they got their joy.” We can’t see Jesus today! Well, I want to encourage all of us here today that there is good news. The angel’s message is for all of us whose lives go beyond our control. Listen to 1 Peter 1:8. “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.”
That is the joy the angels sang about. That is the joy Jesus came into our world to share. May you experience the Christmas joy of Jesus—trusting him when life is beyond your control.