A few weeks ago I heard on the news that there were impossibly huge lines leading up to the so-called black Friday.
Two St. Petersburg ladies even pitched a tent outside of a Best Buy on November 19. I will let you do the math on that one and how many days before Thanksgiving that was! What were they trying to buy? They made headlines around the nation for being the first people to line up for Black Friday. What were they hoping to find? Did they think a few pieces of electronics would make them happy? Did they think they would find contentment?
Is there a difference between happiness and joy? Of course there is. Happiness is about enjoying or doing something you like. When we speak of joy we are talking about the “joy of the Lord.”
“Joy is tuning in to what God is doing around you, seeing the world through his eyes, picking up on his delight in us as his children. Anyone can find happiness for a while… Happiness depends on what is happening to you. Joy is different; joy goes deeper. Joy is when your whole being sings because you have caught a glimpse of God at work. Joy can creep up on you and surprise you in unexpected places.” Tasting the Fruit
We are talking about a joy that is said in the Bible to be a fruit of the Holy Spirit. We are also told in the Bible that the joy of the Lord is our strength. So happiness vs. joy. I like to be happy (who doesn’t?), but I’d rather have joy any day. Joy lasts even in the midst of the trials of life. Joy isn’t dependent on circumstances. Joy is strength. Joy is internal. Joy is eternal.
I want to talk about joy—about what for Mary and for Elizabeth must have seemed an impossible joy. Our story begins with two pregnant women who, really, cannot logically be pregnant. The babies in their wombs are not there naturally—this is God at work. This is the stuff of miracles. And miracles, when received with the openness of Mary and Elizabeth, are also the stuff of joy.
For this sermon you can reference Luke 1. In this chapter we find the story of Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus. They are related. They are both pregnant. They have both been told that God has chosen them for a task but it does not come without some real challenges.
Regardless, the joy they experience is a gift from God.
Real joy is a gift from God
Mary travels to see Elizabeth once she learns that they are both pregnant. No doubt Mary feels that Elizabeth can relate to her situation—and she definitely needs the support! Perhaps this is part of the reason Gabriel told her about Elizabeth. Our text says “Mary set out and went with haste.” She didn’t want to waste any time.
And so she arrives at Elizabeth’s house, greets her, and, then, what happens? Our story tells us that when “Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.” As Elizabeth tells Mary, “When I heard your greeting, the child in my womb jumped for joy.”
Elizabeth’s child, John, leaped for joy at Mary’s greeting—what one scholar calls “a miraculous expression of the emotion of the unborn child.” It was a joy given to Elizabeth.
And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, receives prophetic inspiration: “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed.” The Spirit also appears to reveal to her that Mary is indeed, as she says, “the mother of my Lord.” She is humbled that Mary, her relative and the mother of her Lord, would visit her. Shouldn’t any of us feel humbled and joyful that the Lord would visit us also?
The joy begins here with two women in impossible circumstances—both of them are miraculously pregnant. One was barren and past child-bearing years; and like Sarah and Hannah in the OT God provides a child despite her age and physical condition. The child would be the last of the old covenant style prophets, heralding the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah. The other was a virgin and at the beginning of her child-bearing years; and yet God conceived in her a child without the help of a man. And the child would be the foundation of a new covenant, the Messiah that God had long ago promised.
All children are a gift, and there’s nothing quite like being at the birth of your child. Nothing quite prepares you. When a new child enters the world, it is cause for wonder and for joy. Many people call the birth of a new child a miracle—how infinitely more so here?
Both pregnancies were impossible. Both were miraculous. Both were part of God’s plan of salvation. And both brought—among many other emotions—joy to their recipients. God is making clear here that it is He that brings new things into the world—salvation is not the result of man’s effort, but of God’s hand reaching miraculously and mysteriously into our world.
The baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” when Mary greeted her. Something wondrous was at work. Miracles were in the air. God was moving. And through it all He was creating joy.
Joy is, ultimately, a gift of God. It is something that God brings about in the lives of those who are open and available and obedience to Him. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, was filled with joy. The child, John, was miraculously filled with joy. And Mary, if we were to keep reading, also rejoiced at what God was doing—“My spirit rejoices,” she says, “in God my Savior.” Rejoicing is simply our joy directed toward God in worship.
In the Gospel of John Jesus tells Nicodemus that a person must be born again or born from above, that they must be born of both water and Spirit. Images of birth surround the message of salvation—the births of John and Jesus and, eventually, the new birth of those who submit to Jesus and his message. Both tell us that something new is happening and to get in on it is to know joy, a joy that can only come from God Himself.
So joy has its source in God; and here the source of joy is specifically the coming of the Messiah into the world, and the joy in being a part of the events that surround this coming. Being in on the good news that God wants to save and redeem is a cause for joy.
Do you have that joy in your life?
Have you allowed God into your life this Christmas season so that the candle of joy can be lit in your heart?
Real joy is accompanied by challenges and grace
Joy never reaches us, however, completely unadulterated. Joy is always mixed with adversity, struggle, and difficulty. To truly understand joy one has to understand sorrow.
Mary certainly knew the joy of being used by God. But she also knew, more than likely, a degree of social stigma. Having an illegitimate child was not cause for celebration in Jewish culture; rather, it was often cause for stoning. And no doubt Mary was unsure of what having to raise and rear the Messiah would be like. But yet she willingly followed God’s call and was obedient.
To know joy we too have to be willing to sacrifice as Mary did, to obey as she did, and to submit herself to God as she did. Sometimes God calls us to do things that we never would imagine would bring joy into our lives. Someone has said that joy is the by-product of obedience, and it certainly was for Mary and Elizabeth.
Joy is usually accompanied by challenges but with the challenges God offers His grace. If joy is first and foremost something that we receive from God’s gracious hand because we are available and prepared (even if we don’t realize it!) like Mary, then when God calls to something that will elicit joy in our hearts we can be sure that we will face challenges just as Mary did. Joy is the by-product of obedience? Joy is also the by-product of successfully facing challenges that God’s call involves.
When God calls us to do something, and we do it and obey and face challenges as a result, that is a cause for joy. It’s a joy deeper than what the world gives—whether it’s a tree stacked with presents, money or a job promotion—because it enables us to face life and sustains us through challenges we face. It is a joy with the grace of God embedded in it.
Helen Barnhart’s phone rings dozens of times a day in her office but nothing prepared her for the phone call that transformed her life forever. She writes, “It didn’t sink in at first. Someone I didn’t know was trying to tell me terrible, unthinkable things about my husband. Couth they possibly be true? Could they be talking about the man with whom I had lived for twenty-six years? The father of our children and the head of our household – our primary provider? My husband stood accused of unspeakable crimes, I’ll never forget the feeling of those cold, merciless words sliding from the phone into my ear.
The youngest of our three children was in high school and living at home. He had to be taken away – that’s how severe the accusations against my husband were. He was placed in the custody of his married sisters.
It was Christmastime when these things happened.
I found I had become the sole occupant of an empty, silent house. I spent the holiday season alone within its walls as the legal machinery worked through its customary functions. A court date had yet to be determined, so the law required that I could have no contact with my and, by extension, with my daughters because they were his caregivers. I didn’t even have the luxury of work to keep my mind occupied, because our office was closed for the holidays. I was a prisoner of grief in my own home.
I had one great prayer request and I prayed it constantly. I asked God to reveal to everyone that the whole nightmarish crisis was simply a mistake, that my husband was innocent, that nothing had really happened. With God, all things are possible. So I prayed fervently, passionately, unceasingly for God to simply change everything back – to turn my world right side up again in the cozy order that I found so comfortable for so long. But it became clear I wasn’t going to be granted that prayer request. The situation was genuine. The changes weren’t going away, and sooner or later I was going to have to face facts.
I began to confront the stark new realities of my life. I watched all my hopes and dreams for the future drain away during endless empty nights, and the loss of those cherished dreams left a void deep in my soul.
My husband’s prison term might has well have been a life sentence. As for my son, the court system was considering not returning him to my shattered home. The meant a sentence of my own. How could I endure all of this? How could I face the loss of my life partner and be deprived of the comfort of my own child? How could I explain the situation to my family and friends? What would be the effect on our son – on all our children? Or their children?
I was familiar with all the comfortable platitudes that are offered as substitutes for true comfort. I read through the Psalms again and again, seeking any stray shred of relief. I told myself, “the clue will turn up in the Scriptures. This will be the moment when God works His magic and show me that everything’s going to be all right.”
That didn’t happen. Everything wasn’t going to be all right. And everything hasn’t become all right since. And yet. . .
God never left – not for a moment. He’s been with me all along, and I can truly say that, in the midst of the worst I could have ever imagined life dishing out, the Lords presence was powerful. The picture of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in a fiery furnace came to my mind many times during those days. Someone was walking with them in the flames, and they weren’t burned. And I knew that same Someone was with me, not for personal comfort, but for protection and grace.
In Helen’s story, friends were there with practical help for the details of life that in her words,
“don’t brake for crises.” A new judge was assigned to her son’s case and her son came home. Again and again things happened to demonstrate the evidence of God’s walking with her through the darkness. For Helen the words, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” became personal. At the end of her strength she found the beginning of God’s provision and grace.
Through it all she found a sense of God’s joy that never left her.
Some of you are longing for this gift of joy because of the road you are walking today. I encourage you to put your life into God’s hands. Enter into a relationship with Him that is filled with faith and you will know His joy.
How has facing certain challenges in following God brought you joy? How has your joy in Christ sustained you through the challenges of life?
Real joy is something we share and giveaway
Isn’t it interesting that God chose Mary and Elizabeth to bear these children? Isn’t it interesting that he chose two women who were related? As we said before, no doubt this would make it easier on each of them. They could share their experiences and go through this together. It meant that neither of them was alone with their unusual circumstances.
It also meant that they could experience joy—there is a joy when you know that you are not alone, a deep-seated joy that comes from friendship and fellowship. And there is also joy when we know that we are a part of God’s plan and fulfilling the purpose he has for us. Both Elizabeth and Mary had unique and specific roles in God’s plan.
Both would give birth to a son, each of whom had a destiny and a call on their lives. One was infinitely greater than the other, but God chose both of them. Elizabeth and Mary would ultimately be called to share the joy of having these sons with others. They passed on the joy they found in their sons that we might share in this unspeakable joy.
Ultimately, both sons would be killed because of the role they would fulfill in God’s plan. John would be beheaded for speaking the truth; Jesus would be crucified for being the Truth.
Neither Mary nor Elizabeth could contain the joy they felt. Both had to share it with one another. And ultimately they would have to share and give it to the whole world. The same is true of us. The joy we know is a joy we share. And the funny thing is, sharing the joy doesn’t mean we have less but more. Joy increases the more you give it away.
So, if you do know the joy of the Lord, know also that when you share it, when you give it away, that this will only increase your joy. Have you shared your joy recently? Have you asked the Lord to help you light a candle of joy in someone else’s heart?
When was the last time you leapt for joy? When the last time you heard news so wonderful, so incredible, that you couldn’t contain the joy you felt and it burst out of you?
In the Christmas story when the angel appeared to the shepherds. The angel said to them: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Good news of great joy. That’s what this season is all about, and that is why John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. Joy. Great joy.
Does the good news of Jesus Christ still bring you great joy—does the Holy Spirit fill you with joy? Have you, like Mary and Elizabeth made yourself available for joy through a life of devotion and obedience? Are you willing to face the challenges that a life with God will bring if it means knowing an impossible joy, a joy that only God can bring into your life, just as He brought that child, His Son, into the world two thousand years ago?
I hope that you do know the joy of the Lord this season “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” I hope that your joy isn’t limited to what you find in your stocking and under the tree. I hope that your joy amounts to more than all the good food you eat. I hope your joy is deeper than even the joy we know with family and friends.
And if this seems impossible, just remember the words of the angel to Mary when he visited her: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And that is my prayer for all of us this Christmas: that we will all know an impossible joy, for that is the joy that only God can bring.
It’s a story that I have told once before but it is a favorite of mine. Charles Simpson’s son’s baby’s birth.
The problem is that joy is not a commodity that can be produced, bought, sold or stolen. You can't get joy on discount at J.C. Penny's or Kohls. You can't buy joy in a mug at the local watering hole. You can't download joy. You can't lobby for it. You can’t legislate it. You can't win it in a lawsuit. You can't seduce it. We can't turn it on with a remote control. We can't earn it. And we can't inherit it.
Like all expressions of the grace of God, joy is a gift that we can only receive. Joy, is an expression of God's free grace.