Experiencing God's Joy

Original Date: 
Sunday, December 13, 2015

Luke 2:8-20 The Christmas Experience: Experiencing God’s Joy

Letters to Santa
Since we had the kids singing today, I thought I would start this message by exploring the connection between kids and Christmas. Then I came across this post on Mom.me (because I spend a lot of time checking in on the Mom blogs) that collects real letters to Santa from real kids. And I thought they were sweet, precious, and hilarious. So, let’s look at a few of them:

First:

Dear Santa,
We think you might be poisened by the cookies, so don't eat them. Mom went wrong somewere. This is our first year with Callie, our new cat, please put her presents in the stocking with the dog in it. As you might know Maddie died. So please don't try to remind mom or she will break out sobbing. We have all been very good this year. We hope you don't have a bad ride.
Signed,
Alex, Anna, Katherina, Bryan

Or this one:

To Santa
I have been a good boy. On my list I have got a DS, DS games, Indianajones lego, and Wii games and 20 packs of Matchattar.
Mummy said you are fat.
From Archie
Or this one:
Dear Santa,
You are a very nice man. What are you getting for my sisters? How was your year. Is my friend Carter on the nice lists. Did you stick the gifts in the basment because there was no room in the sleigh?
Your friend,
Cullen
P.S. How tall is the average elf? And is Rudolph red?
Or this one, looking for some hard evidence:
Dear Santa,
Hi I'm Deaven I would like to know are you real. I believe, but my friends don't. So can you give me a signed picture of you and Ms. Claus or somthing else. Please please send back a bell from you sled / and your picture. Ohh besides are you relly fat!! Or do you diet. Please anser all the reqests above. Right me a letter back.
And finally, this one, that gets in a little dig at his brother:

Dear Santa,
How are you and the reindeer doing? I am doing fine. I want a new football game and a football because my little brother always trys to steal mine he may look sweet but he is the devil. I also want a remote control truck.
Love, Evan
P.S. How do you get in to my house on Christmas?

Angelic Announcement
Those letters remind us that Christmas is about gifts. One of the best things about Christmas, of course, is opening the presents under the tree. It’s a great chance to show you love someone, and to get that something special you’ve been hoping for.

But as Christians, we are quick to point out that the most important gift at Christmas is Jesus. That’s what the kids were getting across in their program. It’s what the angels said to the shepherds.

Let’s take a look at our text, Luke 2:8-12:

8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

The kids did a great job of imagining what it might have been like for these shepherds. Here they are, out in the pasture with their sheep, minding their own business, when all of a sudden the sky is ripped open and angels are shining before them with the brilliance of the sun.

And the angel is there to announce a gift. Notice those words in verse 11: “to you.”

You know how you can buy those Christmas gift stickers? The ones with a Santa face or a sprig of mistletoe and they always have the words “To:” and “From:” on them? It’s a gift, and it’s “to” someone. That’s how you remember that this gift is for Tim and that one is for Sally.

Well, the angel’s announcement is like the gift sticker on the first Christmas. It’s “to you.”

Who is the “you”? Well, obviously, it’s the shepherds. But I think the shepherds are representative of a larger group. The angels have in mind not just the sheep herders before them, but the whole nation of Israel. And I think we can go bigger than that, because I think when Luke writes these words down he has in mind not just the shepherds or the people of Israel, but everyone who reads his book. So you are included in this “you”, and so am I. Jesus is the gift of Christmas, and He is given to all of us.

And what can we say about this gift? The angel’s announcement contains four bits of information.

First, this gift is a Savior. This gift hasn’t come for himself. He came for a purpose. He hasn’t come just to be a teacher, though He will teach the most important things. He hasn’t come just to be an example, though He will be the best example imaginable. He has come to save. And not just salvation from Rome or salvation from earthly enemies, He has come to bring full salvation. Salvation from sin!

Second, this gift is the Christ. That’s the Greek word for Messiah. That’s not a last name for Jesus; it’s more like a title. Israel was expecting a hero, a divinely chosen descendant of David who would restore Israel’s fortunes. The Old Testament is filled with promises of this coming hero. And now, the angel is announcing that these prophecies have found their fulfillment!

Third, this gift is the Lord. That means this is one who is in charge, one who is to be obeyed, one who has authority. The word “Lord” is actually the word the Jews would use whenever the name of God was written in Scripture. They didn’t want to use God’s name in vain, so whenever they saw God’s name written (Y-H-W-H) they would say the word “Lord.” So using this title here, the angel is saying that this gift is actually God!

And fourth, this gift is a baby. Verse 12: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” All that the angel has just said--a Savior, the Christ, the Lord--is now contained in a tiny little baby, probably smaller than any child here today. All of this: salvation, the fulfillment of the promises, God in human flesh, is found in a tiny newborn child.

And this, the angel says, is “good news of great joy.” This is my favorite phrase from the Christmas story. I’ve probably preached 4 or 5 sermons on it, including last year’s Christmas Eve service. All that the angel says about this child born to us, all that He is and all that He represents, is good news of great joy. The Greek word is “mega”. This is good news of mega joy. The best possible news ever. A reason for great rejoicing. An occasion for tremendous joy.

If it makes you happy to get up on Christmas morning and find that top item from your Christmas list under the tree, this should make you even happier. God has sent a savior, the Christ, the Lord, into the world as a tiny baby, and He did so for you. He did it so that you can experience true joy.

How Do You Experience this Joy?
I’m guessing that not much of this is new to you. Luke 2 is probably one of the most familiar passages in all the Bible—right up there with John 3:16 and Genesis 1:1. We’ve all heard Linus reading these words in the classic Peanuts Christmas special.

So it’s tempting to just sort of shrug our shoulders, say “that’s nice”, and move on. It fills us with about as much joy as hearing the national anthem—we’re so used to it that it doesn’t do much for us anymore. You know: we play the national anthem so that we can get on to the basketball game. We read the Christmas story so that we can get on to the gift giving.

So how can we make this Christmas different? How can we experience the joy of Christmas in a fresh way?

We have a little less than two weeks until Christmas, and in these two weeks I’d like to challenge you to prepare for Christmas in a way that will help you experience the joy of Christmas anew.

What I want to do is look at the end of the shepherd story—Luke 2:16-20—to see how they responded to the good news of great joy. I want you to see how they experienced joy, and then I want to challenge you to follow their example. Here’s what the Bible says:

16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

There are three things here that can help us experience the joy of Christmas anew. In the next week and half I’d like to challenge you to do these three things:

Ponder
First, I challenge you to ponder. That’s what Mary did. Verse 19:

19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

At the beginning of this book, Luke tells us that he “carefully investigated everything” about Jesus from the beginning (1:3). Luke, himself, was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ life, but he was a careful historian who talked to many people who were. It’s likely that he even sat down with Mary, and that she was his main source for the story of the annunciation, the trip to Bethlehem, and the visit of the angels to the shepherds. So, when Luke says that Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” he probably knows that because this part of his book is a direct result of her treasuring up these stories.

And that word, “ponder”, is a word that means “to think about (something) carefully, especially before making a decision or reaching a conclusion.” Synonyms for “ponder” are words like: think about, contemplate, consider, review, reflect upon, mull over, meditate on, muse on, deliberate about, cogitate on, dwell on, brood on, ruminate on, chew over, puzzle over, or turn over in one’s mind.

In other words: Mary thought about all these things long and hard. She went over it again and again in her mind. She couldn’t get over everything that happened, what God had done.

And that’s what I want to challenge you to do in these next 10 days: take some time to ponder the Christmas story. Take some time to chew over in your mind this Biblical declaration that God has come to earth as a tiny baby.

There is a danger that familiarity can lead, not to contempt, but to indifference. We become so familiar with the story, it becomes so commonplace to us, that we just stop thinking about it. We think we know it so well that we think we can stop paying attention.

How much do we do that with the Christmas story? We know all the basics: Mary and Joseph? Check. Crowded inn and manger for a cradle? Check. Shepherds in the field and angels singing about peace on earth? Got it. God in the flesh? Familiar story.

So it loses its power. It loses its wonder.

So what I want to challenge you to do sometime in the next 10 days is to take some time just to ponder. Set aside some time where you can be alone and uninterrupted, and just think about what it means for God to come to earth. Chew over what it means for a Savior to be born. Mull upon the lengths God went through to show His love for us.

Here are some Bible passages that you can read. Write these down. Then go off by yourself, bring your Bible, and meditate on these verses: John 1:1-18. These are the verses that talk about the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Hebrews 1:1-4. These verses describe Jesus as the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Isaiah 9:2-7. These are the verses that contain the prophetic titles of “wonderful counselor” and “almighty God.” And, of course, Luke 2:1-20.

Ponder this story again. C.S. Lewis once said: “We don’t need to be told new ideas so much as we need to be reminded of old truths.” I challenge you to ponder the story and rediscover the good news of great joy.

Praise
Then, second, I challenge you to praise. That’s what the shepherds did. Verse 20:

20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Can we even imagine what that must have been like for the shepherds? They saw angels! They were given very specific instructions to find a baby placed in a manger (I mean, who looks for a baby in a feeding trough?), and then they found things just as they had been told. Can you imagine the way they must have praised God? Can you imagine the songs they must have sung?

I would guess that was a life changing experience. I would guess it confirmed their belief in God and made them more receptive to His guidance in their lives. And I would guess that it led them to worship Him in a whole new way, one that recognized His glory and His grace and His care for them, and caused them to serve Him with all their hearts.

And that’s what I want to challenge you to do in the next 10 days, take some time to humble yourself before this great, loving God and worship Him. Sing His praise with all your heart. Surrender yourself to His service. Become undone by His glory.

450 years ago John Calvin said: “We should consider it the great end of our existence to be found numbered among the worshipers of God.” When he uses the word “end” he means something like “purpose” or “reason for being.” Our great purpose in being on earth is to bring glory to God. To be worshippers.

I don’t know what this will look like for you. Maybe it will mean worshipping Him when you hear a Christmas carol playing while you shop at the mall. Maybe it will mean singing along at the top of your lungs in your car, while the people at the stoplight look at you crooked. Maybe it will mean sitting in silent awe, while you ponder what Christ has done. Maybe it will mean being here next Sunday, and again on Christmas Eve, praising God with the rest of the congregation.

But let me give you a specific challenge, and an opportunity to praise God in a fun way: This Thursday we are going Christmas Caroling as a church. This is open to everybody. Young and old, families and singles. We’re just going to go out and sing familiar Christmas carols and spread some good cheer to the local nursing homes. But it is also an opportunity for you to praise God. To spend some time just singing in worship and honor of Him.

Proclaim
And then, third, I challenge you to proclaim. That’s the other thing the shepherds did. Verse 17:

17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

After they saw the angels, and when they found the baby in the manger just as they had been told, the shepherds couldn’t stop talking about it. Their joy was so complete that they had to tell anyone they could find about what had happened.

Have you ever noticed that when you are excited about something you want to tell others about it? I tend to do this with books. This summer Beth and I spent a day in Sioux Falls, and we went to a matinee and they played a trailer for a movie called The Martian. The movie looked really good. So later that day, when Beth went shopping and dropped me off at Barnes and Noble (because that’s how we shop: she goes to the mall and browses for as long as she wants, just as long as I can sit at the bookstore with all the books) and right when I walked in I saw a display for the book, The Martian. So I picked it up and read it in about 2 days. And it was so good, I gave it to Milan. And he read it in a night. Then he gave it to Eric, and he read it (I don’t know how long it took Eric). And then Eric and I made a pact that when the movie came out, we’d go see it together. And we did. And I couldn’t stop talking about it, and telling everybody they should read the book. And now I’ve just told all of you.

Well, that’s how joy should work. When you have something good, you share it. And what could be better than the good news of great joy of the Savior’s birth?

You know, God could have had the angels show up to everybody in Bethlehem. For that matter, he could have sent the angels to everyone in Israel, or even everyone in the whole world. But that’s not what He did. He chose to start with the shepherds, and then have them spread the word. God has always preferred word of mouth to tell His story. He’s always looked for those of us who know Jesus to be the primary way He is introduced to others.

And so, that’s what I want to challenge you to do in the next 10 days, share your joy over Jesus with someone else. Proclaim the good news.

Have you ever noticed that when you share something you love with someone else, it increases your appreciation for it as well? Say you like to fish, and know a great spot where the fish always bite. Isn’t it more fun when you take out a novice fisher and see them get all excited as the fish come into the boat? Or, if you have a favorite place to watch the sunset, don’t you love to bring someone out there and then watch their face as they take in the view? The best part about sharing that book with Milan and Eric is that when they read it, we could talk about it.

Well, it’s the same way with Jesus. As you share His story with someone who doesn’t know Him, you’ll find your love and joy increases as you see them come to know Him like you do.

So here’s my specific challenge: invite someone to Christmas Eve services. Again, we have posters and postcards if that will help. But the best thing you can do is just personally invite, offer to pick them up, make arrangements to meet at the lobby at a certain time, and help them experience the joy of the Christmas story.

Jesus is the best Christmas present of all. I know that’s a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less true. His birth is good news of great joy. And as these final days before Christmas melt away I challenge you to ponder the meaning of His birth, praise Him for the things He has done, and proclaim His story to as many as you can.