Advent Week Three: Joy
“Joy in the Hard Things”
We are in week three of the Advent season, a time when we prepare once again—not only for the birth of our Savior in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, but also in His coming again to establish His kingdom with us forever!
For that reason, we talked about having Great Expectations in the first week of Advent. God is expecting us to be ready for Christ’s return by the way we live our lives according to His Word.
Last Sunday, our theme is PEACE. Using a passage from Isaiah 11, we saw a Messianic vision of Christ as the Branch of King David’s line who would bear new fruit for the kingdom, give justice to the poor, and destroy the wicked, while at the same time establish a PEACEABLE KINGDOM where adversaries would be friends…where the wolf & lamb would lie down together and the leopard with the baby goat. This is nothing less than a vision of the New Eden…Heaven where true peace reigns.
Sadly, with all the division and hostility today, this is NOT the world in which we live. But this vision gives us hope for a better eternal future and a picture of how we are to try to live at peace with others.
We turn our attention today to another vital aspect of the advent life—JOY. And we will use the song of Mary (the Magnificat) to explore the significance of praise and joyfulness as a key characteristic of her life, and ours. [READ LUKE 1:46-55]
The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Praise
46Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. 47How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! 48For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
49For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. 50He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. 51His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. 52He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble.
53He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. 54He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful. 55For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.”
Today’s text from Luke’s Gospel follows Mary’s encounter the Angel Gabriel when he declares that Mary will conceive a son through the Holy Spirit and will give him the name Jesus, the Son of God, who’s kingdom shall never end.
Being favored by God…having the presence of God…might have been a foreign concept to a young, poor Jewish girl. But for those of us who believe and follow the risen Christ, we BELIEVE that—because we are in Christ—the Lord is indeed with us! Why is it that we don’t always behave as if the Lord is with us?
Presumably after conception, a few days later she sets out to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is ALSO pregnant in her old age. Upon her arrival to Elizabeth’s house, the unborn son in Elizabeth’s womb, whom we come to know as John the Baptist, literal does a flip! Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses Mary and her unborn son. She expresses her joy this way: “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” In the recognition of God’s favor, Elizabeth is filled with JOY!
Likewise, when Mary heard and received the blessing, she burst into song: “Oh, how my soul praises [magnifies…makes large] the Lord. 47How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! Mary recognized the grace extended to her to carry in her womb the Savior of the world. And even with all the scandal and shame that an unwed mother-to-be might endure, Mary was filled with JOY!
Let’s stop and think about what God is asking of this young Jewish virgin. She’s nobody special, other than the fact that Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph, who was in the bloodline of King David. We can’t pick into what family we’re born (I bet some of us wish we could!). And, as a young Jewish girl in a patriarchal culture where marriages were often arranged, Mary probably didn’t even get a voice in who she would marry!
Despite all this, God found favor with her. And that’s an important point for everyone of us. It doesn’t matter what family we’ve been born into, or what we’ve done or not done, God loves us and wants to be in an intimate relationship with us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Mary was filled with joy and praise because she recognized the blessings she had in God. Jesus was not only IN her (literally) but the Second Person of the Godhead was WITH her and her people. Last week we said that because Christ is IN us (through the Spirit) we have PEACE. Well, we also have JOY!
Real joy comes from knowing that God dwells with you and IN you…that He has fellowship with YOU, regardless of your environment. Real joy comes from the assurance that we are completely forgiven of every sin and that—even NOW—God has prepared a place in heaven where you will spend eternity with Him. And NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. PTL!!!
Mary was excited to be pregnant with the Savior of the world, but she had to have been very troubled to be an unwed mother in that time and space. She would have been shunned by her community and COULD EVEN have been stoned to death because people would rightly have assumed that she and Joseph had not waited to be married before having sex, a capital offense in Jewish Law.
Mary would later have to travel a long distance nearly 9 months pregnant in order for Joseph’s family to be registered for tax purposes. She would give birth in less-than-preferred circumstances. She and Joseph would then have to flee King Herod’s wrath, causing hundreds of male children under age 3 to be murdered while Jesus finds safety in Egypt.
Years later, Mary would have to watch in the wings as she sees her first-born Son take on more and more of his intended role as Messiah. She would hear the powerful teachings and see the great miracles, but she would also watch as Jesus was constantly rejected by the very men SHE had been taught to revere as religious leaders. How conflicting!
Finally, Mary would have to watch in horror as her boy was arrested by her Jewish brothers, tortured at the hands of Roman soldiers, stripped naked, and hung on a cross with three nails for three hours until death. Along with other women, Mary would take responsibility for seeing that Jesus had a proper burial.
It would not be until three days later that Mary’s soul would find the pinnacle of her joy when she discovered the empty tomb! Her baby boy truly WAS and IS the Savior of the world…the King of kings and Lord of lords!
Joy is NOT denial of difficult circumstances. Mary surely knew that. Oswald Chambers once wrote, “A saint does not know the joy of the Lord “in spite” of tribulation but “because of it.” This requires faith in the middle of adversity.
I like how the New Living Translation gives us Paul’s word of hope and joy in the midst of adversity found in Romans 5:1-5: 1Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. 2Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.
3We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
It’s interesting that in this passage we find all three aspects of the Christian life we’ve talked about during Advent: Hope, Peace, and Joy. We rejoice not because we are suffering, but we find joy through our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, which produces strength of character, which produces the kind of hope that does not disappoint.
Hope is “certain anticipation” and is born out of a profound faith. Because of the work of Christ and the certain glory that awaits every believer, we can remain steadfast in our joy even during hard times.
I know you know this, but it’s worth repeating. Joy and happiness are NOT the same thing. While there is happiness in a joyful person, a person of joy is NOT always happy. Let me give you an example within our church family.
As you know, Mary Hollowell’s daughter (Robyn) is facing imminent death from cancer barring a divine miracle. Some of you have experienced what Mary is going through. You can identify with losing a son or daughter—whether slowly through cancer, or quickly through some catastrophic event. I have so much compassion for each of you and wish with all my heart I could change those circumstances; but I can’t.
Over the past five years, Mary and Robyn have been through the range of emotions multiple times—from anger and confusion to hope and happiness when her cancer seemed to be in remission. But through it all, they have ALWAYS had joy!
Why? Because they love Jesus. They trust Jesus. Robyn has certain hope of her future with our Lord forever. She surrendered her life to his lordship many years ago. She is obedient to Christ in the way she lives out her life. Death, as terrible and unfair as it is, does NOT have the last word for Robyn, nor her mother, Mary.
I love how Mary put it earlier this week. “Stephen, it’s not our story anyway. It’s always been HIS story that He’s writing us into.” How profound! As Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
True joy is living with the assurance that YOU are written into God’s story. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was written in as a principle character of the birth narrative…the one chosen to raise the lad into manhood. And it was only THEN that the Holy Spirit filled him after baptism and led into his earthly ministry. What a great and challenging part of God’s story Mary had!
I wonder, where are YOU in God’s story? How is God using YOU to make His name great in this world SO THAT others may know, believe, and follow Jesus? Are you filled with joy because of His presence in your lives?
Or…do you feel like others have stolen your joy. Of course, no one can “steal” your joy, but you can certainly give it away…squander it for things of this world that don’t last…momentary pleasures and cheap thrills. You can “feel” joy-less because of where you put yourself. Ignoring your relationship with God is one way to experience loss of joy.
If joy is awareness of God’s favor, then why not put yourself in a position to be aware how much God loves you? Get in His Presence. Spend time in prayer thanking God for who He is and what He has done. Circumstances don’t have to determine whether you have joy or not.
Last Wednesday during our “Experiencing God” LifeGroup, it hit me about a key component of joy—OBEDIENCE. Mary was obedient to God’s purposes for her life. She was faithful even when it hurt. In the confession we sometimes use during Communion, we find these words: “free us for joyful obedience.”
This implies that there is another form of obedience. It comes from seeing yourself as a slave to something or someone. Maybe you’re currently in—or have been in—a job you hated. You did the work only because they paid you to, NOT because you wanted to. Or maybe you have been a marriage or some other relationship like that. You didn’t feel loved, nor did you sacrificially love, the other person. So, whatever you did for that person felt like a chore.
Religion can also be a chore and drudgery. The Pharisees and other religious leaders were making the relationship with God more of a chore than a joy. The eldest son in Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son (Loving Father) illustrates this point.
Sometimes our religious activity is performed from a place of unhealthy fear. “I have to do ‘such-in-such’ so God won’t punish me.” Honestly, do you really think that’s the kind of abundant life Jesus promises us?
No. Jesus is promising an intimate, eternal, loving relationship with Himself. And it comes from a deep abiding relationship Jesus had with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And because of such great love, he was joyfully willing to endure the cross and all its shame.
The writer of Hebrews tells us in chapter 12 that…Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. 3Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. 4After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin. As a result, we should keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.
We cannot find joy…real joy…in external circumstances or things. No, Joy is in a Person. When we encounter the living Lord, we encounter joy, no matter what our circumstances. In John 15, Jesus tells his followers to remain in Him, the True Vine. This is where we blossom and flourish. Otherwise we wither, are useless to God, and are cut off from Him forever. He tells us that if we keep his command of Love, we will remain in his love. Then he says something very hopeful: I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
Later in John 17, Jesus did not pray that we merely would be happy or that we would escape grief. Rather, he prayed that we would have the same joy that the Father had given him: divine joy…it comes from a deep, abiding, unwavering relationship with God. No change in your circumstances can ever shake it.
It is the abiding presence of God in Christ Jesus that fills our hearts with a peace and joy that passes all understanding, as Paul puts it in Philippians 4. Paul wished for all God’s people to have such joy. In the opening lines of his letter to the church of Colossae, he not only offers that joy, but gives the reason why we out to have it. Listen:
11We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, 12always thanking the Father. He has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light. 13For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, 14who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.(Colossians 1:11-14)
Christ has endured the cross for the joy of what followed, the resurrection and defeat of sin and death. He purchased our freedom through the forgiveness of our sins. Result? We are a thankful people, filled with the joy of the Lord. Christ within EQUALS joy within!
Oh, how my soul magnifies…makes large…praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! How about you?