Topic: JOY Scripture: Luke 2:2–2:14
What is the greatest moment of your life? This is an odd question, isn’t it? I mean, how can someone really select a single moment or event out of a lifetime? I was thinking about this question because I try and ask both my boys, every day, what the best part of their day was. With Isaac in kindergarten and Levi in his first year here at Playmates, I want to know what my kids are experiencing. Sometimes the responses I get are a little less than helpful. Levi, for instance, might say something about bubbles even though I’m pretty sure they haven’t blown bubbles in class for several weeks. Sometimes he’ll just say the word “waffles” as if that’s a simple open and shut case. Hard to argue with that. But, almost always, when I ask Levi about his day, he’ll tell me a name. It might be mommy, or a teacher, or his brother. But it’s clear to me that Levi gets a lot of joy out of people. Isaac is a little different. When I ask him about the best part of his day his answers normally revolve around an activity or accomplishment. He’ll show me an art project he created or tell me about something he learned or share a worksheet he completed. Isaac gets a lot of joy out of accomplishments, out of trying new things and feeling the thrill of mastering something new.
Every time I ask that question of my kids or of Caitlin, I think of my own response. And sometimes I let my mind wander and I think further out. Hence, my question: What is the greatest moment of your life? For me, there’s one moment that always ends up on top. A little disclaimer here. No, this is not some silly, veiled way for me to talk about the Eagles winning the Super Bowl. That was great, literally brought me to tears, but that is not the greatest moment of my life. Also, just to get it out of the way, I’m not going to play the pastor card here and say my greatest moment is the day I became a Christian. That’s not because my faith isn’t important to me. It’s more because I did not have a set and defined conversion experience that some have been blessed with. My following after Jesus felt more akin to someone who slowly wakes up from a deep sleep. So, my greatest moment isn’t sports-related. It’s not the starting point of my Christian journey. And boo me all you like but it’s not even either of the days that my sons were born. Or my wedding day. Truth be told, I can’t remember the exact date. But it was an afternoon in January in 2006. And it was the day Caitlin first asked me out.
I had just walked into our dorm building after finishing an afternoon class. As I walked through one of the common lounges to get to my hall, Caitlin came up to me. She had been sitting there when I walked in. She asked me if I would go with her to our Spring Banquet, sort of our college prom. I don’t know how much of an idiot I might have looked like but I know I blanked out for a second. I thought to myself that there was no way this girl was actually asking me out. After realizing I probably looked like a fool, I managed to stammer out a “yes” and we went our separate ways. I literally danced down my hall, once I was sure the door was closed, all the way to my room. A few short weeks later we started dating, and as they say, the rest is history.
So why is that the greatest moment of my life? Well, it’s because it’s the moment that brought me the Greatest Joy. It came out of nowhere and was a complete surprise, which only made it all the better. And it was a moment that, more so than virtually any other in my life, fundamentally changed the course and direction of my story. And this morning I want us to look at a moment of Joy that is nestled within our preparation and celebration of Christmas. All through this liturgical season of Advent, we have been highlighting a specific virtue of this season each week. We’ve reflected on Hope, Peace, and this morning, we turn to Joy. And as we have done in the previous weeks, we’re going to use a portion of Luke’s gospel account to give us some perspective, some framing for understanding and exploring the truth and power behind and within Joy. And this part of the story is likely the most well-known to us. We’re in Luke 2:4-14.
As I said, this is not some small or obscure part of the Christmas story. Virtually any person could tell you most of these details. The account of Jesus’ birth is one known by almost everyone, even those who claim no faith or religion. And yet, it’s not as if a near-universal awareness of this event has been enough for this truth to change every heart. Because, as we are told in the book of James, knowing about God is not the same thing as having that truth change your life. But the angel told the shepherds this event would mean joy for all people, that it would be the Greatest Joy. And how true that is.
But when you stop and really think about the series of events that make up this account, you can’t help but be a little shocked. Due to a civil obligation, Joseph and Mary are forced to travel right near the end of Mary’s pregnancy. Talk about stressful. And, sure, if you plugged in the directions from Nazareth to Bethlehem into your phone, you would find it was a trip of somewhere around 80-90 miles. That’s roughly the distance between here and Springfield. But it’s not the fairly easy trip we would experience. Between the rough terrain, the limited mode of transportation, and the need for a slower pace due to Mary’s pregnancy, this trip likely lasted a good bit longer than a week.
So, after what was likely an excruciatingly exhausting journey, Mary delivers the baby. Without an available room for our little family to occupy, this precious infant who would become our Savior is wrapped in clothes and placed in one of the feeding troughs for the animals nearby. This is our opportunity, once again, to look upon this familiar story with new eyes. Eyes that can see just how opposite this event was from some of the pristine and photogenic nativities we encounter every year around this time. This event that set into motion the very changing of our eternity was astoundingly, almost depressingly human and lackluster. It was tiring, dirty, frustrating, disappointing. But it was also private, beautiful, personal. And it produced something that only an angel could declare with the appropriate voice. It fostered the Greatest Joy this world has ever known.
We’re told that, nearby, a group of shepherds were keeping an eye on their sheep when an angel of the Lord appears before them in all the brilliance that can fill the night sky. The fact these poor herders are terrified isn’t an indication that they are cowards. It reminds us that these common folks are just like us. But the angel tries to dispel their fear and tells them of a baby that was born that night. A baby that, even at the very moment, was lying in a manger. And even though this little child occupies the quaintest of cribs, he is the very God of all things and the only salvation of the world that rests in that manger. In that manger rests the Greatest Joy the world will ever know.
As we’ve journeyed together through this Advent season, we’ve fixed our focus on the tenets and beauties of this liturgical season. Both with the lighting of our Advent candles and with the messages I have shared. And the past two weeks I was intentional to try and connect the realities of hope and peace directly and personally to our stories. How can we be the appearance of hope in the life of another? What peace are we in need of? And this morning we turn to joy. To the Greatest Joy. But the reason this joy is so reaching and so meaningful is because this Greatest Joy introduces us to the heart of the Good News.
The arrival of the bouncing baby Jesus and the angelic proclamation made across field and sky serve as the opening lines of the story of humanity’s salvation. God’s people, and really, all the world had existed within a rich but seemingly ceaseless prologue as they waited for the foretold Messiah. And now, with the cry of a newborn and the voice of an angel, a new age is ushered in. An age that would never end and has the power and intention of reaching and touching every heart.
Friends, we are 10 days away from Christmas. This is the fourth quarter, the home stretch. And I would say that it’s pretty customary for a text like ours this morning, one that specifically tells of Christ’s birth, to be saved for Christmas Eve. But the power behind this event should not be relegated or contained for any reason. It needs to be heard. It needs to be known. It needs to be shared. It brings me back to the greatest day of my life. That January afternoon with Caitlin seemed like a completely normal, even boring day for virtually everyone else. But that day’s greatness means everything to me. It was great because it surprised me. It came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting it. And it was great because of the series of events it would unfold, because of the rippling effect of transformation and love that it would sound out in my life.
The college version of me might disagree, but there’s really no comparison between me getting a girlfriend and the Son of God being born into this world. But the depth and richness of impact are much the same. The birth of Jesus surprised everybody. It surprised his two human parents. It surprised the shepherds going about their work. And the arrival of that life would only go on to shock and inspire countless more stories. And the reach of this event, the ramifications of the birth of Christ…it is truly something that cannot be quantified or fully known. That night, while others slept and went about their routines, a child was born that would mark the beginning of the end for sin and death. The cries of that child would be the sound of our own sorrow coming to an end. A new life came so that new life might be given. That, my friends, is something worth remembering. It’s something worth celebrating. It truly is the Greatest Joy.