Advent: Joy

Every November I have the great privilege of hunting with a group of friends on a farm/ranch in South Dakota.  I took this picture of a sunset – sun coming through that old barn.  Isn’t that cool?  Here’s another one of the road.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  I took those with my phone.  If Ansel Adams was alive today he would just slap me right in the face. (Ansel Adams Jokes)

And it’s so fun to drive all over the prairie – until that is – we come to a gate.  And the pickup stops and the driver says – who’s going to open that gate – and since it’s often a hassle – we take turns and eventually – I’m going to have to take a turn trying to open these stupid gates – 

And let me tell you something – unless you grew up on a farm – it’s hard to open these stupid gates!  You gotta like, Get out there and hug the thing – and there’s barbed wire – and you’re like squeezing these two posts together and you’re trying to get the top loop over the post – and the whole time your buddies are just roasting you for being too weak or too much of a city boy to figure it out.

But eventually – if I’m lucky- I’ll pop that gate and it opens and in we drive!  And the only worse words to hear – is – now you have to close that gate.  Ugh!  

Now the reason I bring that up us because – I want us to understand what Christmas is all about – Christmas is about God hopping out of the truck and opening a gate.   Jesus left heaven – hopped out of the truck in my illustration – he left heaven and became a baby.  Why?  In order to open a gate.  What on the other side of the gate?  Where does it lead?  It leads to a lifetime eof adventure.  

It’s a gate that leads us to the “with God” life.

Because of Christmas – you and I can live in the Garden of Eden again.  Now I know we aren’t living in the garden of Eden.  A tornado will quickly remind us that this world is still very broken and groans to be made right – but – here’s the one way that Gretna is just like the garden of Eden – As God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – God will walk with you.  This is the life that Jesus came from heaven to deliver to us.

This is the gate that has been opened for us by Jesus.  And you know what?  That is why the Christmas season is a season of joy.  

Joy is stamped all over the Christmas story.  You aren’t going to read the Christmas story very long before you find joy popping up.  For instance, You’ve got the Magi – people who have been looking for signs of the birth of the savior in the sky – it says- 

And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! Matthew 2:10 NLT

Upon hearing Mary’s voice, Luke tells us that her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, said, Luke 1:44 When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.  

Mary’s song that she sings in response to being pregnant with Jesus?  The first words out of her mouth as she sings, Luke 1:46,47“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.  How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!

And of course, the night that Jesus was born, Luke 2That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!

Joy is stamped all over the Christmas Story.  And why wouldn’t it be?  The birth of Jesus initiates God’s great plan to throw open the gates that lead into the Kingdom of Heaven.  

Christmas is stamped with joy.  Now this morning we are focusing on the theme of joy – and we could zoom in on the joy of Mary – or the joy of the Magi, or the joy of the shepherds – but instead, let’s zoom in on the another joyful character-  and that is God himself.

God is a joyful God.    

And if we’re going to light a candle to celebrate joy this morning, then we have to begin with the source of all Joy.  We have to start with the realization that all joy, flows from the one who created joy.  God has within him, a vast ocean of joy and that joy flows from him to us.

God is joyful.  Do you believe that?  Or do you have an image of God being some kind of cranky curmudgeon who is hard to please?

In 1956, on the day after Christmas, author Ted Geisel told a reporter one day that as he looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw.  At 53 years old, instead of being full of joy about the day before, he saw in the mirror the face of a grumpy curmudgeon of a man.  Christmas had become a joyless endeavor, and he didn’t like it – so he set out to write a book about transforming from a grump to a joyful person.

He said it was at that moment that an idea for a book came into his mind, and he sat down and wrote a Christmas book you are probably all familiar with.  Because Ted Geisel’s pen name is Dr. Seuss. And the book he wrote was How the grinch stole Christmas.

The Grinch is the image of a joyless human being.  And the reason I bring this up is because – I wonder if there aren’t those who are listening today who might think of God himself as a grump.  A Grinch.  A curmudgeon.  A joyless entity.

Maybe it’s because there are so many pictures of Jesus and he seems to look like this many times.  I grew up in a home and I didn’t go to church as a kid but my mom grew up in a religious home and for whatever reason we had a picture of Jesus on the wall at the bottom of the stairs and he looked like this.  And my brothers and I all had to walk past this picture of Jesus every day – and I’d see that picture and all I can think is that Jesus is saying, “Now, Now!”  Now now boys.  Knock it off.  Now now!  

Is that how you think God is?  Well then – if so – who can blame you for not wanting to follow him.  Come follow Jesus – he’s joyless and will make you joyless too.  But here’s the thing.  That’s not the God of the Bible!  

But nothing can be further from the truth.  God is eternally Joyful.  For instance – For instance in Genesis 1 we see that after God created each of the elements in the universe, God says, “It is good.” Hmm!  And you know what – he was saying it was good long before he created humans to hear it.  He’s talking to himself – to the angels – Hmm!  Come check this out.  It’s an elephant.  Kisses finger!  Smack!

You don’t think God – who created that prairie I showed earlier – you don’t think he digs that?  That’s good stuff!  He’d say.  Does it sound like I’m not being respectful of God?  Why? 

Let’s not rob God of his joy.  Let’s not turn God into something less than who he is –  The fact is that this is a world that is inconceivably beautiful and good because of God and because God is always in it. It is a world in which God is continually at play and over which he constantly rejoices. 

In his book, the Divine Conspiracy, in one of the most memorable chapters in the book deals with the joy of God.  And Author Dallas Willard writes,

It is a great and important task to come to terms with what we really think when we think of God.  We should, to begin with, think that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. 

Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe. The abundance of his love and generosity is inseparable from his infinite joy. 

All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.  Great tidal waves of joy must constantly wash through his being.

Jesus – in the book of John, prays a prayer for his believers – and one of the things that Jesus tells his followers he is praying for them about – is that we would live joyful lives.  11 I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!

The reason Christmas is a time of joy is because we serve a happy God – And Christmas is a joyful season, when we celebrate a God who has come to earth in order to throw open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven for all to walk through.  

Christmas is a time of Joy because God is a God of Joy.

And do you know what makes God happiest?  Don’t you love it when you nail the gift giving – when you give a gift to someone and they are overjoyed!  Wow! How did you know!

Well, there is one thing that makes God happiest.  God is most joyful when we place our faith in Jesus – when we walk through the gate – cross the line of faith.  It thrills God.  And I can say that with complete confidence because I am virtually quoting Jesus himself.  In Luke 15 – Jesus tells us three stories – about lost things.

There’s a story of a shepherd who has lost a sheep someone didn’t close the gate well!  So the shepherd goes searching for the lost sheep – Finds the lost sheep!  Comes back home – calls the neighbors- ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!

There’s the story of an old woman who loses a coin.  She turns the house upside down searching for the coin!  She finds the coin and calls the neighbor and invites them to a party – 

Luke 15:9,10 ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”

Finally – Luke tells us about the story of a lost son – we call it the parable of the prodigal son – son goes away- squanders his wealth – ends up stealing food from pigs – comes back home on his knees begging for a job – 

Instead of rubbing it in – instead of kicking his son when he’s down – the father says – We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

Luke 15 is three stories back to back describing to us how God feels when we turn to him in faith – and all three stories end the same way!  Rejoice with me!  Rejoice with me!  Let the party begin!

Can you bring yourself to believe that God would throw a party in your honor?  If not – why not?  Could it be that your perception of God is wrong?  Would you let Jesus reshape your thoughts about God?  He knows him better than any of us and He says – yeah, that’s how my father is.  Is rejoices when people turn to him.    

God is a God of joy and nothing brings him more joy than when someone places their faith in Jesus – and crosses over the threshold of faith.  The gates into the kingdom of Heaven has been thrown open for you – and the way in is through faith in Jesus.  Faith is when we think highly enough of Jesus that we feel safe surrendering every aspect of our life to His care.  

God delights – he rejoices when you turn to him?  Want to know why?  It’s because of what it cost God to rescue you.

See – sometime this week you will probably see a beautiful sunset – or a startling sunrise – you will see something that will make you want to take a picture of it.  

What did it cost God to create the spectacular sights of the billions of galaxies out there?  Perhaps time, and energy and creativity – he is an artist – and it brings him joy to create.  

But the reason why it brings God the greatest joy when we turn to him is because we cost him the most!  It cost him his life.  

I began by talking about how hard it was to open the gates in my friends South Dakota field – how difficult and painful it was to push against the wooden beams – sometimes the barbed wires catch you and ouch!

Do you know what it cost Jesus to open that gate for you?  He was nailed to the beams.  Cynical soldiers placed a crown of thorns on his head and it’s barbs punctured the scalp of Jesus.  

He could have called on ten thousand angels to put a stop to it – I’m quite sure the angels were practically begging Jesus to let them bring the judgment of God upon his assailants – and yet Jesus willingly died on that cross.  

He took the judgment of God that should have fallen upon his assailants, and us – upon himself – That we might not be condemned but be saved.    And he did so – not begrudgingly – but willingly and joyfully.  

Hebrews 12:2  For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

The joy?  The joy of opening that gate into the “With God” life for all who would believe.  Because of all creation – of all of the art that God has created – he loves you the most.

I know it’s Christmas and maybe your thinking – why are we talking about the cross – it’s Christmas!  Save that for Easter – but without Christmas there is no cross.  And without the cross there is no joy for you and me.

Won’t you place your faith in Jesus today?  Is today the day you cross that line and say – I’m yours Lord.  No turning back.  You can pray a prayer in your heart – thank God for finding you and rescuing you and throwing open the gate that brought you into the with God life.

Christian – do you lack joy today?  I pray that God will restore to you the joy of your salvation.  I pray that the next time you see a sunrise or a sunset that makes you want to grab your phone and snap a picture if it – I want you to remember that you are far more beautiful – that you are far more precious to God than what you are seeing.  

May you know that God delights in you every bit as much as you delight in that sky you are snapping a picture of.  And like the Apostle Paul,  I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Romans 15:13