Back in 1999, I read a report suggesting that not all the Y2K problems were the result of technology. There was a problem with expired headstones. Someone had calculated that in the USA there could be as many as 250,000 headstones with the surviving spouse’s name together with the digits "19__", because they just didn’t expect to reach the year 2000.
Our view of time is so limited by minutes and hours and days and years. That’s how we measure our life, our tasks, our circumstances... That’s how life comes to us, and our emotions tend to be regulated by what is happening to us.
Two weeks ago we were thinking about the "millennial" love of God. Of course, God’s love isn’t restricted to 1000 years really. But I used this term because that eternal love has been revealed in our human history. Around 2000 years BC God called Abraham and promised that through his descendants all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12.1-3). Then 2000 years later, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3.16). And now, another 2000 years on, the gift of God’s love is still available to all who believe in him.
In Genesis 1 we are told that "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (v. 31) – the Good News Bible says God was "very pleased" with what he had made. Jesus said there is rejoicing in heaven over every sinner who repents (Lk. 15). The faithful servants were to share their master’s happiness (Mt. 25.21,23) – to "enter into the joy" of their Lord as the King James Version put it.
Of course, joy isn’t like having a big laugh. It isn’t dependent on circumstances. Very often it is present in spite of an adverse situation. We are told in Hebrews 12 that Jesus "for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame" (v. 2) – hardly what we would call a happy situation, yet full of joy. Similarly, Peter wrote, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something unusual were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed" (1 Pet. 4.12-13).
For us, happiness is having everything go right for us, a sense of contented pleasure with our circumstances – perhaps with a joke thrown in for good measure. But joy isn’t circumstance-dependent – it is the gift of God.
But, consider for a moment about what was happening two thousand years ago, where is the joy?
Think of Mary’s situation – the privilege of being chosen to be the mother of the Messiah. We can understand her saying, "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant" (Lk. 1.46-48). But pregnant and unmarried in Nazareth? True, Joseph went ahead with the wedding to make it better for her. But the gossips of Nazareth could count – do you think it was all joy?
Then a census was being taken. Why? Our best information is that it had to do with more efficient collection of taxes throughout the Roman Empire (see Josephus, Ant. 18.1). You call that joy?
Because of the census, Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth in the Galilean north to Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem – a distance of some 110 kilometres as the crow flies. That’s an easy journey with our modern transport. But how did they make the journey? We aren’t told. Artistic imagination has been kind to Mary and given her a donkey to ride. But she was almost full-term. Was this a welcome journey at such a time?
The descendants of David had gathered in the ancestral home-town for the census. "There was no room for them in the inn" – so much for all those distant "rellies"! And you call that joy?
We love to sing that delightful and popular Christmas carol –
Somehow we have glamorised and idealised the beautiful story. In reality, the whole situation seems to have been far from ideal.
And yet... an angel appeared to the shepherds with the message, "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 Saviour was born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped cloths and lying in a manger" (Lk 2.10-12).
Great joy – because your Saviour has been born. Great joy – because God’s promise of a Messiah is now fulfilled. Great joy – because the Lord himself has come. Good news indeed! Good news of great joy!
Amid the limits of our frame,
by deed and word,
the life of love,
the word of life
for all who heard –
the gift of joy!
Aloft in public view and shame,
on cruel cross
to bear the loss
for you and me –
the gift of joy!
Jesus lives! Now hear the Name,
the cot too small,
the nails too weak.
To all who seek
he gives his all –
the gift of joy!
Christmas is rushing upon us, and what should we say? If we greet one another, "Merry Christmas!", we might need to add, "But don’t overdo it!" And to say, "Happy Christmas!" could be insensitive to the personal struggles we may be facing – and uncaring about the Afghanis and Israelis and Iraqis of this world.
Rather, let’s wish one another Christmas joy – the joy that flows from the good news of what God did when his Son Jesus Christ came into this world two millennia ago. Christmas joy – in trusting him and knowing him as our Saviour Christ the Lord. Christmas joy – a joy that no circumstance and no person can ever take from us.