Rediscover Christmas
Advent Week 3: Finding Joy in Our Discouragements
Joy is the trait we’re exploring today on this third Sunday of Advent. If you’ve been journeying with us the past few weeks toward Christmas, you know that we have been celebrating Advent. As a quick recap, the word Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and the season is marked by expectation, waiting, anticipation, and longing. Advent is not just an extension of Christmas—it is a season that links the past, present, and future. Advent offers us the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, to celebrate His birth, and to be alert for His second coming. Advent looks back in celebration at the hope fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s coming, while at the same time looking forward in hopeful and eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when He returns for His people. During Advent we wait for both—it’s an active, assured, and hopeful waiting. And each week, we are focusing on a different attribute of God represented in the coming of Jesus: hope, peace, joy, and love. Through these traits, we are learning how we can rediscover Christmas, despite the challenges, hardships, pains, and difficulties we might be experiencing. Because Christ has come to be God With Us, we can experience joy no matter what discouragement we may be going through.
Elizabeth and Mary: Mothers’ Joy
There’s a lot of joy throughout the biblical Christmas story, especially early in the story. But it’s important to note that this joy isn’t separate from pain and disappointment. In fact, much of this joy is born out of long disappointment and grief. We’re going to look more closely at this as we explore the stories and experiences of Elizabeth and Mary.
Luke’s Christmas story begins a little earlier than Mary and Joseph and Jesus, with a prophet named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. Luke begins: “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old” (Luke 1:5-7, NIV).
This short paragraph would have spoken volumes of information to Luke’s original audience. We’ve got Herod, the Roman king keeping the Jews under harsh Roman control. These are difficult times. And here we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, both of priestly lineage. And in a day with a lot of religious corruption and power plays by the Pharisees and Sadducees, Zechariah and Elizabeth are a stark contrast. They are described as righteous, blameless, faithful. This is especially important in light of what Luke tells us next. Zechariah and Elizabeth are old but have never been able to have children.
That changes suddenly and miraculously when the archangel Gabriel shows up and tells Zechariah that his wife is going to have a son, a powerful prophetic son who will prepare the way for the coming Messiah. As you know, Zechariah is so overwhelmed he can hardly believe this news and when he questions the news, the angel says, “OK, here’s your sign. You won’t be able to speak until the child is born.” And the prophet is left writing and signing to everyone to explain what’s happened.
It seems Elizabeth is quicker to believe the news, and when she becomes pregnant, she says, “The Lord has done this for me…. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (Luke 1:25, NIV).
And there’s an odd note in the previous verse that tells us that Elizabeth went into seclusion for the first five months of her pregnancy. Maybe this has something to do with Elizabeth’s disgrace that she mentioned. For her, the inability to have children would have been a lifelong source of pain and sorrow and shame. It was a big deal in that culture. The great hopes of the young couple Elizabeth and Zechariah would have eventually faded through the years as they tried repeatedly to have a child. The young Jewish woman would have questioned herself and probably asked questions of the other women. And they probably would have questioned her—unfairly—casting suspicion or unfounded blame on her. Perhaps there were pregnancies to spark new hope and miscarriages to dash those hopes with grief and loss. Elizabeth’s self-worth probably sunk as the years passed and hope dimmed. At some point, she and everyone around her would have declared Elizabeth barren and branded her with this lifelong stigma.
Maybe that’s why she stayed in seclusion for five months, keeping to herself to let her hope blossom into joy personally. Or to ensure that this pregnancy was indeed going to last. Maybe she was simply savoring these days of gestation on her own terms.
If we were watching the movie, this is where we’d get some kind of subtitle message like, “Meanwhile, in Galilee…” When Elizabeth is six months pregnant, Gabriel makes another earthly appearance, this time to Mary. And he’s delivering the most miraculous pregnancy announcement of all.
Mary received the news gracefully and willingly, but at some point early on, Mary must have known that her challenges and disgrace were just about to begin. The scorn and shame she would face—and her family and her fiancé as well—would be tremendous when it became obvious she was pregnant and unmarried. How do you make people believe the baby in your womb is God’s Son? Even Joseph couldn’t believe this news at first, and as Matthew’s narrative tells us, Joseph planned to break off their engagement in what would have been a divorce in that culture. Mary’s journey would not be an easy one.
Maybe that’s why, as Luke tells us, Mary “hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea” (Luke 1:39, NIV). Mary must have heard about her relative Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy. “If anyone will understand, it has to be Elizabeth,” she might have thought. If so, she was right.
This is where the joy erupts. Against the past backdrop of discouragement, disgrace, grief, and shame, the joy comes bursting through for these two mothers-to-be.
Luke tells us, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!’” (Luke 1:41-45, NIV).
What a relief this must have been to Mary. She didn’t have to explain herself. She didn’t have to worry anymore about being understood. All she had to do was say hello, and Elizabeth knew. Even her developing baby knew and leaped within her. This was just the affirmation and encouragement Mary needed.
Her joy came bursting through as well, and she sang and praised and thanked God:
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)
This is a beautiful passage of Scripture. On one level it’s a celebration and connection in the midst of miraculous events. But on another level, it’s two expectant mothers sharing a deep understanding and affirmation that foster the flow of joy no matter what has happened before and what is going to come in the days ahead.
There is much we can take away from this story, but I’d like to focus on three points that we can apply to our own experience with joy.
1. It’s OK to be joyful—and happy.
For some of you, this is a no-brainer, no-duh kind of statement. For others of you, this is a subversive kind of statement that might make you a little uncomfortable if you really think about it. A lot of where you fall on that spectrum probably depends on your personal past and your spiritual history.
We’ve probably all heard joy described in contrast to happiness. I’ve probably even described the emotions in a dichotomy that divides the two basically along these lines: Happiness is fleeting and temporary. Joy is deeper and more fulfilling. Often in our Christian culture, the two get split into happiness as secular and less valuable or fulfilling, and joy as spiritual and more important or fulfilling. Is this ringing a bell?
In actuality, the Bible doesn’t make any distinction between joy and happiness. They are essentially different words for the same thing. They may have slightly different nuances like many synonyms do, but those are often cultural and shifting. They’ve been translated somewhat differently in our different English translations of the Bible, but the original Hebrew and Greek terms used in the Bible to describe joy and happiness are essentially interchangeable.
This is one of the premises of a book called Happiness by theologian Randy Alcorn. I’m simplifying because he actually wrote an entire book about the subject. But I raise this point because it’s something some of us need to hear and be reminded of. It’s OK to want to be happy and joyful, and it’s OK to enjoy those emotions.
There is great joy in the Christmas season, and it’s good to embrace and celebrate that joy. It is certainly hard to find the right balance in our lives to savor and experience that joy. But to those of you who find yourselves driven by obligation and busyness and guilt in this season, it’s OK to stop, and say no, and pause and embrace a part of the season that brings you personal happiness. And to those of you who find Christmas to be a painful, difficult season; to those of you who are hurting or grieving personally or feeling discouraged by this tumultuous last year we’ve been going through; and to those of you who are happy to revel in this season—it’s OK to feel and to embrace joy. God sees you no matter where you are on the emotional spectrum of happiness.
My point here is that our longing for happiness and joy is a natural desire that God has placed within us as a reflection of His own joyful nature. Whatever term we want to call it, the most important part is our source of joy and happiness.
2. Joy is our strength.
There’s a great example of this principle in the story of Nehemiah. You remember Nehemiah was the Old Testament leader who got permission from King Artaxerxes to return from exile in Babylon and rebuild Jerusalem, starting with its walls.
The process was more than just a return to the physical city, it was a spiritual reawakening for the people. In chapter eight of the book of Nehemiah, he brings all the people together and they bring out the Law of Moses and read it. Nehemiah is calling the people to remember and return to their relationship with God. As he does this, the people are weeping. Maybe there are some tears of joy from some of the people who remember God’s words from years past, but most of them weep from sadness as they recognize their guilt and drifting from God.
So here’s the beauty in the midst of this scene. The Bible tells us, “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength’” (Nehemiah 8:10, NIV).
“Celebrate! Enjoy it!” Nehemiah says. Why? Because this is a time for happiness that God has brought us back and is restoring our city and our hearts—and because our source of strength is the very joy of the Lord. It’s what fuels us and sustains us.
Our true source of happiness, joy, and fulfillment comes from Christ. Christmas is a season of joy because the Messiah has brought joy into the world and provided us the way of ultimate fulfillment and life. Peter describes it like this: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9, NIV).
An inexpressible and glorious joy sounds like deep stuff, the kind that finds its source even deeper than our pain and sorrow and the problems that can bury us. It’s a deep well that we draw upon, no matter what we are facing.
I’m not suggesting that this is a don’t worry, be happy, put on a plastic smile and fake it kind of joy. Sometimes this joy is a rushing fountain erupting from our spirits, and sometimes it is a thick, slow bubble to the surface. Wherever you find yourself today, let me encourage you that the joy of the Lord can be felt no matter what we are facing. And that leads us to our final point.
3. We can choose joy.
There are a lot of uses of the word rejoice in the Bible. It’s not a word that we use very often in our culture, but maybe we should. Rejoice is the verb form of joy. It’s the action of feeling or expressing joy and delight.
And if you look a little more closely at the word, you’ll notice that it begins with the prefix re-. Think back to grammar class or just think of other English words that start with re-, and you’ll re-member that this prefix means once more, or again, or a return to. So to rejoice is to return to joy. It’s a choice and an action we can take to return to joy. I’d like to add that for us, it is a return to our source of joy; it’s a return to Jesus.
Friends, I believe this is the only way we can find true delight and satisfaction. And I believe the process is the same for all of us, whether we are feeling the happiness and joy of this season or not. Whether we are buried in discouragement or everything is going our way, none of us can conjure an unending supply of feel-good happiness all the time, no matter how optimistic or positive our natural disposition is. Sooner or later, we all have one of those days, or weeks, or years. And in reality, we all have them way more often than we’d like.
That’s where the re- comes in. That’s where we must return regularly, daily, constantly to Jesus, our source of joy. It’s why rejoicing is our process of refueling our tank, restoring our strength, and renewing our spirits. It’s reconnecting with our Savior. And it’s in this process that the apostle James’s words make sense, when he encourages us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4, NIV).
I’ve got to admit, sometimes that’s the last thing we want to hear when we’re hurting. Joy can feel so far away when we’re grieving or depressed or afraid, as our pain and problems loom. But let me encourage you that James isn’t necessarily saying be happy about our trials and problems. He’s saying we can find joy in them when we see the bigger picture beyond them. The bigger picture that God is working for our good in every situation. That bigger picture starts at our source in Jesus.
In the difficult times, there’s much encouragement to be found in the “rejoices” of the Psalms. Psalms 13 is a great example. It begins with the painful cry, “How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1, NIV). It ends with the reminder and declaration, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation” (Psalm 13:5, NIV).
It’s just one of many similar examples. The Psalms are honest and raw as the writers pour out their feelings in these prayer-like poems and songs. Then we see them transition through the process of remembering and stirring themselves to rejoice and find strength in and from God. This is where and how we find authentic joy. This is how we can celebrate in this season as we remember and turn to Jesus, who is come to be with us and to give us joy.
Friends, let’s rediscover Christmas this year by embracing joy, no matter what we’re going through. Let’s remember each day the source of our joy. Let’s seek our happiness, not in the seasonal trappings and traditions around us, but in returning constantly to our source of joy. Let’s choose to continue the process of rejoicing, despite the pain and challenges we are facing. Let’s heed the good news of the angels that will bring great joy to all of us: A Savior has been born, our Messiah, the Lord, and He will carry us through and complete His work in us no matter what.