Finding Places of Joy

The Third Week of Advent always stands out to me. On Sunday, we will light the pink candle of Advent as it is Gaudete Sunday.

Gaudete Sunday refers to the Latin translation for the word “rejoice.” The pink candle of Advent is lit to represent the places where we can find joy in our relationship with Christ and how our souls rejoice in the Lord. It stands out in a sea of purple candles.

Just as joy stands out in our world today. We don’t always see places filled with joy. What we often find instead are places of frustration, anger, and sadness.

That is what we easily focus upon when we look back on the year. Our end-of-the-year reflections are often geared towards the struggles and hardships that we have faced or the disruptive forces in the world. When we think of 2018, we might think of the chaotic and anger-filled midterm election. We might think of the disruptive political atmosphere and the divisions we are experiencing as a nation. We might, even, look at it a little closer to home and think about lower offerings and church attendance.

I think we focus on these things – these challenges – because our hearts are often set to a posture of fear and disharmony than it is to live with joy. In reality, to feel and express joy is counter to our natural inclinations and desires. Fear is a natural emotion for us, but joy is not. Fear leads to agony, which leads to distrust, which leads to separation, and, then, anger.

Joy does just the opposite. Joy is about an inner sense of hope and longing for the Lord and having that desire be at the core of our response for the world. Paul writes in Philippians 4:4 that we are to “rejoice in the Lord always.” We are to live with an uncommon joy that is found in knowing God and living for God.

It is a joy that is filled with inner peace. When we rejoice in the Lord, we are able to recognize that our sense of self-worth comes in knowing God’s redeeming and eternal love for us. It does not come from a posture of living up to people’s expectations, filling our calendar with too many things, or even trying to do it all. It comes in knowing that we are a child of God and a person of sacred and holy worth. That joy of knowing a peace that leads to wholeness and connection.

We are able to rejoice in God, because we know God’s love for us is not measured upon what we do. Our reactions to love are often based upon what we get out of the experience. We will love someone only if they return those same affections to us. That is not how God’s love works. God’s love is based upon the primary characteristic of who God is: love. We cannot earn God’s love. We cannot get God to love us more than the Lord already does. God’s love is there for us regardless of how we may respond. That leads us to an experience of true joy.

Let’s be clear, though, that joy is not an empty emotion. What often hinders us is we think that if we are to be people of joy then we should never get upset or angry. We may even think we will never experience challenges or sorrows.

That is nowhere near the truth. I often remind people that Jesus experienced the fullness of life, which means that he got angry (read John 2 and the story of Jesus turning the tables over), got upset (at religious leaders), and experiences challenges (to his authority and disciples not living up to expectations).

What living with joy means, though, is an acknowledgement that when those moments happen, we are not going to allow it to affect our desire for God. That deep sense of joy in knowing God’s love, then, affects how we respond to these challenges and difficulties. We may not respond as the world would, but we are motivated to be guided by the love of Christ and the joy of our heart.

That might mean that our joy for the Lord leads us to fight for justice and equal treatment of all people. It might mean that our joy for the Lord will lead us to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It might mean, too, that our joy for the Lord will lead us to offer care to people who have experienced the same sorrows we have experienced.

Joy truly stands out. In a world of self-focused living joy reminds that as we are connected to God, we are able to make a deep and impactful difference in the world.

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Expect the Unexpected

A high school friend of mine, yesterday, made an interesting observation on Facebook about this time of year. She said she wanted a bumper sticker that proclaimed to fellow drivers how she survived shopping at Wal-Mart the Saturday before Christmas.

That is a bumper sticker we all want by this point in December. We have arrived at the moment in the Advent season where we start to echo the motto of “survive and advance.” Survive all the rushing around, the frustrated shoppers, the overcrowded parking lots, in order to advance to the celebration of Christmas morning. After a month of hustle and bustle we’re just ready for things to slow down and to move on to the celebrations.

To be honest, however, there might be some among us who might have a different view about at this time in December. You might not be thinking about simply surviving to Christmas morning or wishing for things to slow down. You are thinking about something else. You are just ready for Christmas to be over. Continue reading

A Reason to Rejoice

It stands out a little bit, does it not? The pink candle that is. It brightly burns as it is encircled by the Advent wreath’s three purple candles.

On this third Sunday of Advent, it is not just that solitary pink candle that stands out. The message it represents also stands out. It represents joy. A sense of happiness that can be unlike many of the emotions of experiences that we tend to focus upon. Continue reading

Worth the Wait

At our church’s altar sits the Nativity set. A collection of sheep, camels, cows, and a donkey, as well as Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, and a Shepherd. Each have a part in telling the story about Jesus’ birth.

There is one element to the Nativity that is not there … yet. That is the Baby Jesus. His arrival to the Nativity set is a few days away (Dec. 24 to be exact). Many of us, myself included, want to go ahead and put Jesus there in his place at the Nativity, but we cannot. Not yet at least.

There is a reason for this. Jesus’ present absence from the Nativity set teaches us something about this season of Advent and how we are to live today. It is a reminder that we are living in anticipation of the One who came to save.

Advent reminds us in a culture “I want it all now,” that there is value in waiting. In the waiting periods of life we are often molded and prepared for the next chapter or challenge that will come our way.

The same is true for Advent. It calls us to wait and get ready for Jesus to come and to come again. We cannot rush that. Advent is a counter-cultural reminder that we are to slow down and allow the joy of Christmas to truly change us. Every moment of Advent is an opportunity to prepare and, as well, to experience the excitement and anticipation of Jesus’ birth and arrival.

We would miss a lot if we just rushed to Christmas and not lived in this waiting moment. So, we’ll wait for a few more weeks for Jesus to arrive at our Nativity set. Until then, may we all experience this time as a chance for renewal and growth in our relationship with the Lord.

Preparing for Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas movies, if not one of my favorite movies of all time, is “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” It is my “must watch at least five times” movie during the Christmas season.

The movie follows Clark W. Griswold on his mission to have the perfect Christmas family gathering. He invites his entire family to his Chicago home, from in-laws to distant cousins, for a festive celebration. Of course, along the way Clark runs into a lot of hilarious obstacles.

I think that is why I love the movie so much. I can relate to Clark. For one, I’m a little bit of a klutz and can be a bit accident-prone. When Clark staples his shirt to the roof, I empathize with him, knowing that it is something I would likely do. I can also relate to Clark because I love to plan things and want every holiday gathering to be perfect. I spend all my time in the weeks leading up to a holiday thinking about what we will eat, what we will do, or what route we will take to get to our families. I plan for everything so that we will have the perfect celebration and have a hard time when something goes wrong, such as an unexpected traffic delay on the way home from a family gathering. Continue reading

A Hope That Never Fades

Today marks the beginning of the Advent season and the beginning of a new Christian year. For four weeks we will look ahead with anticipation to both the celebration of the birth of Christ and the Lord’s eventual return. It is a season of excitement, of busyness, and of magnificent colors and decorations. It is a season of hope.

That word, hope, is among the key words of Advent. It is one that we need today. Hope is something that seems to be absent in our lives and in our world this season. We approach this start to the Advent season wondering if hope exist today or may be felt in a world of tears, brokenness, and death. Continue reading

What’s in a Name?

One of the hardest decisions Abbi and I have made was what we would name Noah. It took us a long time to name him. So long, in fact, that I honestly thought that the name on his birth certificate would read “Little P.K.,” which was the nickname we used for him before his birth.

Eventually we settled on the name of Noah David. His name combines two of our favorite Old Testament characters. To paraphrase what a seminary professor told us after we told him of Noah’s birth, his name combines unabashed devotion to God in Noah with David’s worshipful and dedicated heart for the Lord.

Part of the reason it took us so long to come up with a name was our recognition that a person’s name is one of the first things someone knows about another person. A name stays with a person for their entire life. So, we wanted to get Noah’s name right. We thought. We debated. We considered everything from “Alexander” to naming him after favored athletes and coaches. In time, we came up with a name that we felt is right and suits our young boy well.

Our struggle with naming Noah might be familiar to many of you. Whether it was naming your own child or watching a family member or friend struggle over a long list of names, we likely all know what is involved in naming a child. There is a lot to consider. Sometimes we think about family names. Sometimes we look for names from our favorite pieces of literature, movies, or television shows. Sometimes we find a name that just comes to us.

The experiences we have in coming up with a name for our children helps us to something that transpires in our passage, this morning, from Matthew 1:18-25. This passage is one of two that focuses on the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Unlike the story we have from Luke’s gospel, Matthew’s version focuses entirely on the events from Joseph’s perspective. This isn’t completely unexpected. Matthew wrote to context that was influenced by the Jewish patriarchal heritage. Focusing on Joseph’s experiences helped to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to that context. By doing so, Matthew does us something interesting. He gives us the background to Jesus’ own name. This helps us to understand, in both our heart and mind, why Jesus came to the world at Christmas and the work he came to do.

First, however, before we can look at the names that Matthew gives us there is some work we need to do to understand this passage and all that took place with Joseph. We need to interact with Joseph, who would be given the task of being the earthly father to Jesus. Joseph was an ancestor to King David, who was the great king of Israel. Matthew produces an extensive genealogy in verses 1:1-17 that connects shows Jesus’ heritage tracing back, through Joseph, to David and Abraham.

There is a reason that Joseph’s heritage is important to understanding Jesus’ earthly ministry. It was expected that the Messiah would come through David’s lineage. Part of this expectation comes from 2 Samuel 7, where God promises to build a house for David. This idea of a house had two understandings. First, it was connected to a political dynasty coming from David’s ancestors. At the same time, it also fed into the hope of a Messiah to come who would be the heir to David’s throne. This promise of a long-awaited Messiah from David’s lineage would have been familiar to Joseph. He would’ve been among those holding onto to this hope for a Messiah.

We can forgive Joseph if this promise wasn’t on his mind when he met with Mary. She was his engaged wife and had told him that she was pregnant. This would not have been welcomed news for Joseph, because, in his eyes, it could have meant that she had been unfaithful. Mary’s pregnancy, then, would have been grounds for a divorce. In those days, to end an engagement, which was a legal relationship, meant that you had to get a divorce. Joseph did want to cause any harm to Mary, so he decided to divorce her privately before anyone could notice that she was pregnant.

It was likely after Joseph made this decision to divorce Mary that he was visited by an angel in his sleep. Matthew’s illustration of Joseph receiving an important visitation in his dreams brings to mind the dreams and visions that Joseph’s namesake had in Genesis while in Egypt. This particular angel comes to Joseph and says that he does not need to fear taking Mary as his wife. Everything that Mary told him was true, the angel said. She is pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit. This child is the One that they had been awaiting. Mary would give birth to the Messiah, who would rescue the people from their sins and bring about God’s kingdom on earth. Joseph was being asked to take Mary as his wife and to care for both her and this child. Joseph would be Jesus’ earthly father.

This isn’t the only thing that the angel asks of Joseph. The angel also asks Joseph to give the child a very specific name of Jesus. It was a name that is not found in his genealogy. In those days, the father would likely have chosen a name for his son, especially the first born, that has a history within the family. But, the name the angel gives to Joseph is important. It is a name that tells us something about why Jesus came to earth. Jesus came to save all people.

Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Joshua. The name of Jesus, and Joshua, means God saves. We see this in the story of Joshua, who followed after Moses and lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land. More importantly, we see this in how Jesus fulfills the very calling of his name. Jesus came with the specific purpose to fulfill the promises of salvation for all people. All of salvation history prepared for this moment where Jesus would enter the world. From the redemption in the Garden of Eden, to Noah and the ark, to Moses in Egypt, to the prophets of Judea, it all built up to this moment when the Son of God came to offer true hope, peace, joy, and love for all people.

Christmas looks forward to Jesus’ mission, because it was a mission that began in the most lowly of places of a manger. At his birth, Jesus began the work of making right what was wrong, and restoring hope in the world. The manger looks ahead to Jesus’ three-year ministry, to Good Friday and, especially, to Easter and his work offering himself for our wrongs.

That name given to Jesus is our promise today. As we await the celebration of Christmas morning, we celebrate not just this birth but the work Christ did and continues to do in each of us. Jesus came to do a work in us and our communities of redemption and restoration. That is the greatest expression of love. Jesus voluntarily came to show us the way to the Father and to offer himself for our acts of wrong. It is our faith that allows us to experience this hope and to truly surround ourselves in the joy of what took place at Christmas.

There is still one more name to consider and that is the name Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7:14. That passage included a promise from Isaiah to King Ahaz at a time when Israel was being threatened by Syria. The promise was a sign that said Israel would be out of a trouble by the time a child would be born and raised to maturity. Matthew takes this promise of a child and attaches it to Jesus. By doing so, Matthew says Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise of peace.

We see this in the second name attached to Jesus, which comes in this quotation from Isaiah. This child would be called “Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.” It is a word that signifies God’s presence. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the embodiment of God’s presence. He is God. God came and dwelt among the Lord’s people when the Son of God humbled himself to taking on humanity. This name reminds us that God is always with us. There is not a moment in our lives where God is not already there, already beside us, or there after a situation has ended. Wherever we are God’s presence is there.

That is the thing about Jesus. There is never a moment in our lives where God’s presence is not available. He never lets us go. Christmas is the message to the world that God is here and active in our lives and this world. Christmas announces to the world that we are never alone. God is present in our lives.

The name of Jesus is truly the name above all names. A name that signifies that Jesus came to save us from our pains, hurts, frustrations, doubts, fears, and sins. The name of Jesus reminds us that God came to redeem all of us to a deeper relationship with the Lord. At the same time, the name of Jesus is the promise that God is always with us. There is not a moment, a situation, or a day where God is not with us. It may not always feel like it, but we can trust that Jesus, our Immanuel, is always there.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, this is the message that we need to share with our friends, our neighbors, our community, and the entire world. The name of Jesus is the message that we need to share. A name that promises hope through faith. A name that promises a loving and peaceful presence. A name that promises that God is the way to a truly deep relationship with the Lord and true salvation. A name that promises a joy among all joys.

It is the name of Jesus that we will celebrate on Wednesday. A celebration that looks to the manger and looks forward to what this child would do: Save the world, redeem us all, and bring forth God’s presence and kingdom in our lives and in each other. Truly, no other name is above that of this child who is our King.