***The following is a message I preached at Seed Church on December 16, 2018. You can listen right here.
Christmas time is getting closer to us. The holiday that inspires and awe and reverence within us as we believe that the God who formed the universe and earth from nothing took on human flesh and became a helpless infant. A crying baby completely reliant and dependent upon his human parents. Born into poverty and raised in a fairly rural town, Nazareth. Being Jewish, the Word that took on human flesh was a part of an oppressed people group. The Roman Empire occupied and had conquered the territory that the Living Word was born into. From His throne in heaven to being under the boot of a King’s political power and a violent civilization where the murder of babies was not out of the question by a despotic and sociopathic King, the light of the world entered human history.
The man of sorrows and acquainted with grief would go on to die a bloody death on the cross in front of his mother Mary who had once cradled that child in a humble manger.
The deep and unbelievable irony of the living Word’s life was that this God who broke into human history came to show us how to attain a lasting experience with joy. A homeless guy who was under constant threat from religious leaders, had nowhere to lay his head and died in such a terrible fashion is literally the source of experiencing joy.
Our third advent message is ‘experience joy’. Advent meaning to come. We look forward to the celebration of the coming of the Christ who takes away the sins of the world.
So, what is joy? What does it look like to experience joy in your life? Is having a consistent lifestyle of joy possible? Does this mean I have to always act like that one person I know who is always smiling and happy but inside, I really suspect that this person is faking this whole constant happiness thing?
I have felt moments of happiness in my life. When I beat ‘The Legend of Zelda’ on the original Nintendo as a kid. When my parents took me to Disneyland also when I was a kid. A day filled with fun times. When I went white water rafting on the Rogue River in Oregon as a teenager. I felt an elation after I was baptized at 15. Joy when I got a game winning hit in baseball while I was in high school. Joy came when I knew the Seahawks were going to win their first Super Bowl in 2013 in, what, the second quarter? (Despair is also being a Mariners fan).
All of these moments make me happy when I remember them and there are many more. I’m thankful. But is joy these things necessarily? They are great things and important things and I think I had a genuine joyous mood but these moments always end. And as time moves us along, some of the specific memories become a little hazy.
Can we experience a lasting joy? Although it sounds like an oxymoron, can we even have joy during times of pain and grief? Can we have joy when we are thrust into the sad valleys by circumstances beyond our control?
Let’s continue this morning with Advent and looking at the gospel of John. What does this man, Jesus of Nazareth, have to do with a potential lasting joy for us?
Let’s turn to John 1:9-13.
Verse 1:9- ‘The True light, which gives light to everyone was coming into the world.’
The word for ‘true’ here is alethinos and it translates as true or real. The real light as opposed to phony or counterfeit light. Light we are all familiar with as a concept. It provides an illumination and is a guide through darkness. Try driving your car at night without your headlights on. OK, don’t do that but you know what I’m saying? True light helps to guide us and navigate us through potentially dangerous terrain or maybe deadly.
Christ’s light is for everyone. All people, all tribes, all nations, all races…every single person born in the world, Christ came to be a light. What is Christ illuminating? The Father for one. Jesus is the face of God. He calls Himself God in this very gospel. He illuminates the Father, the truth and His gospel.
World in this verse is translated ‘kosmos’ which is extremely common for that word in the Greek New Testament. The meaning is the ordered universe however, in the Johannine writings, the context often has the word mean the disordered fallen world.
Jesus as the light was coming into the world. John, as the author of this gospel, was perhaps mimicking the beginning of Genesis. The gospel starts out in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God. Genesis obviously starts with, ‘in the beginning, God created.’ So Jesus was breaking into human history having already been present at the creation of the universe. And not just present but active in shaping and for,8ng the earth from a lifeless void. We notice in Genesis that light was present before the sun which was created on day 4. That is because God is light and Jesus was the light as God, as the divine. Now, John says, He was being incarnated. He was coming into the world.
Verse 1:10- ‘He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.’
Jesus was in the disordered fallen world. Remember John’s contextual take on kosmos. The world was made through Jesus. Think about this for a second. Jesus was there at the beginning of this entire thing. Some of you have been Christians for a long time. You have heard all this before and heard lots of sermons and messages. Ok, stop for a second and think about this. The historical Jesus, this Jewish and homeless guy who lived in Palestine under Roman rule who had a crazy cousin who ate locusts and honey whose mother was pregnant with Him out of wedlock and who grew up in Nazareth. He was there at the beginning of the kosmos. Obviously we know a lot more about the universe right now then we did back then. Still seems like we don’t know a lot. Our universe is expanding based on the red shift of stars. There are billions and billions of planets and who knows how many stars. We live on earth, this pale blue dot (what Carl Sagan called our planet in his book) that is three back from the sun in just the right zone-not too hot and not to cold. Bigger planets like Jupiter and Saturn shield us from a lot of meteors and other debris flying around. All of this, was made through Jesus. The historic Jesus who existed in history was there at the beginning and not only that, has existed from eternity past.
Although Jesus had this status, immense fame and glory, the world did not know Him.
Verse 1:11- ‘He came to His own, and His people did not receive Him.’
Jesus was born to Jewish parents and grew up Jewish. He came from a human tribe. Many scholars believe that the denomination of Judaism that Jesus came from was the Essenes. Both Jesus and John the Baptist. The Essenes were smaller in number then the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were focused on an apocalyptic strain of Jewish thought. The Dead Sea scrolls we discovered in the 1940s was from an Essene Sect. Now, I say all of this but Jesus as God (as John refers to Him here in the opening chapter of this gospel) obviously transcends any one tribe or race or ethnicity as He is God. However, He also was incarnated as a man and so came from a specific place in the world.
‘He came to His own’ but His people did not receive Him. Are you familiar with those passages in the gospel where His own family had extreme doubts that Jesus was the Messiah? I mean, Jesus performed miracles, raised the dead, fed hungry people, turned water into wine, and His people (referring to other Jews) did not receive Him. Ultimately some of them conspired in His death.
Verse 1:12-13- ‘But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’
There is a pivot in this verse where Israel was God’s chosen nation in the Old Testament to reflect His glory, revelation and values among the rest of the nation’s, the good news gospel is now that any person from any nation, race, ethnicity on earth can come to Jesus and be a part of His Kingdom which is a spiritual kingdom existing in the hearts of people.
‘Believed in His name’ the Greek word for believe is pisteuo and it means to have faith or could also mean within the context to declare allegiance too. And by doing this, people have a right to become children of God because of Jesus (Jew and Gentile alike). John here begins the concept in his gospel which will come up all the way through and especially with Nicodemus in chapter 3, being born again. People born not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man but of God. God being a spirit, we are talking about being being spiritually born. Becoming awake and alive in their spirit because of the work of Jesus Christ.
How you are perceived by God or known by God has nothing to do with your bloodline or what family you are from. See, in the first century, blood line was a big deal. What family you were from…what your family name is…the reputation of your family…wealth or lack of…socio-economic status and so on. In our time, it still means some of those things but without as much as tribe or lineage. Mostly, we are just focused on the wealth and inheritance. But God is not.
God gives the right for people to become children of God. We don’t naturally belong to God’s family because of the Fall but God desires to redeem us and mold us into His family via spiritual regeneration.
What a reason to experience joy.
What is joy and how can we experience it? What is the difference between joy and mere happiness? Is it possible to live a life that is joy filled?
Joy is defined as a deeper happiness and contentment. A richness in a person’s soul that knows God and fully trusts the Lord.
Being happy is wonderful but sometimes this is a more fleeting emotion. I’m happy when I eat pizza. I’m happy when the Seahawks win but that may only be a week until the opposite result happens.
So therefore, joy is a condition that is longer lasting then happiness and has to be something that is rooted deep in our souls. It is a feeling but it is not just that. Joy is a perspective and one that can impact every facet of our lives as it emanates from the core of our soul.
Aren’t most people looking for joy? Or do some people get distracted in looking for lesser conditions? Most people want to be happy and find meaning and satisfaction in life. Blaise Pascal wrote: ‘All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.’
We are built as people to pursue happiness and more then that, there is a longing in our souls for a deeper meaning and contentment.
As different as we are in this room. As diverse as our stories can be or the places we have come from, there is one thing that I’m willing to wager that we all have in common. There is a yearning or a longing for something more. For some of us, this sense or feeling was present in our lives at one point. For many of us, that feeling is present right now.
So this yearning takes over our thoughts when we aren’t distracted by life or other things? Is there something more and better? Some of us have an idea on what would make our lives feel more complete. Is it the so-called perfect job? The beautiful house and place to live? Maybe it is a whirlwind romance or the perfect spouse who we think is going to Jerry Maguire us (remember you complete me)? A certain salary or compensation level?
Some of us may get a taste of these things at different points in our lives and then we come to realize that attaining these things doesn’t necessarily satisfy those yearnings or longings on a deeper level?
Many of us when we feel these things, we think we are alone. That no one else feels the way. We check into social media and see people doing fun things, we see their home remodels, we see their new boyfriend or girlfriends or we see happy families with smiling kids and cute moments. And when you are looking at your friends over the internet having these experiences, at that moment, perhaps you are just living in the normal and things look great for everyone else. So, when we have longings for something more, we feel alone.
Here is a little secret. If you feel alone with these longings and yearnings, you are not alone. Bono of U2 wrote an entire song about this back in the 1980s, right? ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.’ Yearning and longing for deeper meaning, contentment, peace in your soul is built into the human condition.
This matters more then anything else. This is the big existential thing in our lives. This passage in the gospel of John can point us to a thing that is more true then the yearning of our human condition.
Thesis: That Truth is that God, the Creator of all, broke into this world 2000 years ago to show us how to become children of God which correlated with experiencing joy.
As good as joy is and sounds to us and as much as we know that joy is a satisfying answer to many things that ail us, there are many struggles we have in experiencing joy.
- Distractions. There are many things in our world which distract us from pursuing important things that are going to lead to greater peace with God and a deeper meaning in life to hold on to. Many of our lives are busy. We are moving at supersonic speeds between work, and volunteer work and family responsibilities and hobbies that we always feel time crunched. We are distracted away from healthy spiritual disciplines where we will here from God. And we hate that word discipline don’t we? It is good to desire to do something, like John Piper has his ‘Desiring God’ ministry, but some of the time (if we are really honest) we don’t really desire God. This is where discipline comes in. Prayer and Bible reading/ study. A common application but one we need. Your first thought be: it doesn’t sound very joyful to create a discipline where I carve out time intentionally to read the Bible and pray but you know what…sometimes to experience joy, we need to create the good habits in our lives so we can open our hearts to God speaking to us.
Distraction is a real thing and Holy Spirit inspired discipline is needed to combat it. Just this past week, I was trying to pray and I closed my eyes and there in the dark my mind was still racing. Even though my eyes were closed, there was like a ping pong ball literally being bonked around. I know this sounds crazy but true story. I’m so distracted by so many things that it is hard to focus on God and pray.
2) The been There and done that feel with the Christian life. I’m willing to bet that for many of you, you have heard lots of sermons before. You have been to Bible studies. Maybe some of you went to Bible college or seminary even. During the week, you might listen to a lot of sermons from preachers around the country. Maybe you listen to Christian music on the radio. Christian stuff is always around you and you have probably heard messages and quotes on joy before. You have heard it constantly but you don’t feel anything. It is all old hat. Cliches. You have heard it all before. And how to break out of this? There is a shell around. No freshness anymore. Nothing feels new related to faith. Maybe we can’t even remember what joy feels like.
3) Tempting to say that a struggle with joy may come from a lack of faith in God. I have heard many say that. Seems to rationally make sense, right? If I have doubts or a lack of faith that God can do something, seems like that may rob me of joy. Certainly possible but I want to take a different track on this that is inspired from a book I recently read by Austin Fischer called ‘Faith in the Shadows’. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that these three remain: faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love. Maybe when we feel like we are struggling to experience joy in our lives, we have a love problem rather then a faith problem. Are we still passionate about loving God and loving our neighbor? Is the Greatest commandment that was articulated by Jesus at the forefront of our minds regularly? Do we pray about that in our interactions with others, at our work, with our families?
I’ve gone this long without quoting the famous CS Lewis quote but it is such a good quote…I have to throw it in here. This is from his ‘Weight of Glory” sermon in 1941, ‘It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’
The big hang up with not having joy is often looking in the wrong places. John says He came into the world but the world did not know Him. He was the true Light and His own people did not receive Him. But He gave the right for anyone to become a child of God, to become a part of God’s family.
Christmas time celebrates that initial coming. The King of the universe lying in a manger. Is a helpless infant really the key to understanding joy?
The gospel of John starts off with a line that sounds like Genesis 1:1. ‘In the beginning was the Word…’. John ties Jesus coming to earth up in language similar to the creation of the universe. The realization of John and other disciples as they hung out with Jesus, travelled around, listened to His sermons, ate, drank wine, burped that this guy was there at the beginning of everything and not only that, had existed in holy Trinity from eternity past. The three members of the Trinity in endless and eternal celebration of joy with one another. Probably a few minds blown and post-resurrection especially so.
Since we all had a beginning, we could never be on the same plane as God. Impossible. And we cannot attain the status of God, as many religions teach, because God exists in this other plane as uncreated and eternal. How do we access the joy that exists in the godhead, the divine pleasure that God received when He created the universe? We can’t on our own. We are dependent on God coming to us!
So the all powerful, eternal King of the universe became this helpless infant whose only language as a baby to communicate would have been crying. Completely reliant on human parents to clothe, shelter, feed him and keep Him safe. Bask in this wild paradox.
When Jesus was incarnated, the message He brought from His kingdom beyond was the gospel. A gospel to bring joy to the nations. That God loves you unconditionally. That Christ, the helpless baby, would grow up and go to the cross for our sins. That God would raise Christ from the dead on that third day defeating humanity’s oldest and most feared foe.
The gospel message is that we can have peace with God because of Christ and the joy that comes along with that status regardless of our life circumstances.
If this has been a hard year for you and there have been family difficulties, losses, physical pain, disillusionment, political worries, or doubts…Christmas is the time to be consumed with that holy child in the manger. The Creator and source of joy.