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The Joyful Gospel

Advent 2016: The Joyful Gospel - Sermon #03 - Joy
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Dec 11, 2016 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor

 

Advent Introduction

Today is the third Sunday in Advent. Advent is a part of the liturgical calendar where Christians around the world set aside the four Sundays and weeks leading up to Christmas Eve to prepare themselves to receive new hope, peace, joy, and love come to us.

 

Immanuel–God with us.

 

Last week, we considered that peace isn’t the absence of conflict, but that peace is “the ability to discover joy, laughter, and life in the midst of adversity and conflict.”

 

Today, we consider the theme of joy.

Before we get to joy, let’s talk a bit about the difference between happiness and joy.

 

Oops! Happiness is not joy.

Happiness we expect. Happiness, we can even plan for. Happiness turns up more or less, where it should, and, most importantly, we can control and manufacture happiness – a good relationship, a satisfying and rewarding job, a well-prepared meal, a well-planned vacation.

The marketers tell us that happiness can be purchased, and they provide every way possible for us to do so. The self-help gurus tell us to “channel happy thoughts” and they extoll the benefits of our “positive thinking.” Because good friends are the key to happiness, we are invited to surround ourselves with happy people in the hope that we will absorb their happiness by osmosis. Certain food makes us happy too because food often evokes wonderful memories–times when we were happy, satisfied, content. And happiness is so key to our identity, we consider it an unalienable right, and the pursuit of it was enshrined in our Declaration of Independence.

 

“Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it” as Fredrick Buechner puts it.

 

Ugh! Joy can’t be manufactured, only happiness can. Joy is a relationship word.

Happiness depends on the circumstances of our life. If my life follows the plan I have it for it, and the things in my life happen the way I want them to happen, then I am happy.

Happiness is a fleeting emotion that’s under our control, but joy surprises us.

 

Joy knows no rules.

Joy has no boundaries.

Joy transforms the way we see ourselves.

Joy transforms the world we inhabit.

Joy transforms our lives and our situations.

 

Let me try to explain what I mean.

Have you ever encountered someone who was joyful, even through their world seems to be falling apart all around them? Well, I have. On the surface, you just think that the person isn’t being realistic. They aren’t confronting reality. They seem to be “faking it, in order to make it.” Right? And while that might be the case for some people, there are those who seem to have discovered the secret of life because they have figured out how to follow Paul’s commandment in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18,

 

16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

 

It’s an echo of something I heard the church mothers say when I was growing up in the Black church,

 

“This joy that I have, the world didn’t give it, so the world can’t take it away.”

 

In this way, joy is otherworldly. It’s a gift from God.

 

See, joy is rooted in gratefulness.  It’s not that joy makes us grateful, it’s that gratitude makes us joyful. Our joy springs up from our gratefulness. You can be the most successful person in world, but if you take your success for granted, your success will not make your joyful. Joy is that extraordinary happiness that is independent of what happens to us. It’s way of seeing ourselves with our prophetic imagination, invoking a way of seeing ourselves, not as we are, but as we are in Christ, being transformed in the presence of God.

 

Joy can’t be manipulated because it is a gift from God and a product of our relationship and dependence on God. Joy is a relationship word. Let’s pause together, and use one of the blue cards in the seat pocket in front of you to reflect on a recent experience of joy you had. Use the space for gratitude.

 

We worship a loving Father who is ready to bless us in so many different ways, and when we are open to Him, waiting in a posture of openness and surrender, it is so much easier for Him to work in our lives, to transform our hearts, to surprise us with joy.

 

We experience joy when we surrender to God, to His will, when we orient ourselves fully towards God, and welcome his spirit. Remember that joy is a gift of the spirit’s work within us.

 

Aha! Joy springs up from gratitude.

I want to reflect on the “great joy” that was announced by the Angel of the Lord to the shepherds who were out tending to their flocks:

 

10“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 the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10)

 

Luke’s Gospel is a carefully crafted presentation and interpretation. In the birth announcement, we immediately discover something about God that can be easily overlooked, God comes to us in humility and love, what the Empire would label weakness, yet it is from this lowly place or position that Jesus reveals exactly who God is and how his power works.

 

Isn’t interesting that the angel opens with, “Do not be afraid?” This statement or some variation is the most repeated command in all of scripture.

 

“Do not be afraid.”

 

At one level, we read that command as a reaction to the sudden appearance of angels, but what if it was that, and more than just that. What if the angels were speaking prophetically. In their declaration of, “Do not be afriad.” They were also saying, “There’s no need fear There’s no need to be afraid.” The angels were saying to the shepherds and to us today,

 

“You have not been abandoned.

God sees you.

God loves you.

God has heard your cry.

God has heard your plea for peace.

God is coming.

God is coming to rescue you.”

 

Friends, Do you need this kind of word today?

 

But the shepherds, like us, reply both internally and externally,

“But we have so much to fear.”

 

We fear that we are all alone.

We fear that this is as good as it gets.

We fear that we have been abandoned by our God and that he won’t fulfill his promises.

 

This is the same fear that the people of God had at the time of Jesus’ birth. They had much to fear. In one sense they were afraid that they had been abandoned by God in their own land, left alone to liberate themselves. They feared those who were established to rule over them, like Herod, the Great, the so-called king of the Jews who was cruel and capricious. They feared him because he seemed willing to put to death anyone who he disfavored including members of his own family. They feared the Romans too. While the Romans promise peace, the Pax Roma came with the steep price of violence, intimidation, and subjugation. War was happening all around them stroking their fears–will we finally be overrun by the Romans. There was uncertainty in the economy as well. So it seemed that all that they had were there fears.

 

All of their fears.

 

Whee! God is the giver of joy.

As modern readers, we can understand the fear that the shepherds experienced because we have our own fears to add, don’t we? Fears we express and those we hide in our hearts like, “Will my life have purpose and meaning? Will I get into grad school? Will I ever conceive? Will someone love me? Will I be alone?”

 

But into fear, uncertainty, and doubt, God speaks through his messengers.

 

10“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 the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10)

 

The long-awaited birth of God’s promised redeemer, his messiah was coming into a dark, weary, and exhausted world.

 

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. 2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness

a light has dawned. 3You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest... 6For to us a child is born to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

 

The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:1-7)

 

The angelic messengers announce good news because it’s a message about God doing what he promised he would, rescue his people.

 

10“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 the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10)

 

This, the angels say, “is good news of great joy” because a savior has been born. The people might have heard the traditional way that the word, savior, was being used, which was in a military sense. “Finally, God is sending a warrior [baby] to defeat our enemies.” Yes, God saves his people from their enemies, and certainly God will do that, but here the rescue and salvation was more significant than just overcoming some military power, especially since those powers rise and fall. Maybe God was signaling that he was going to do something else, something better even, because in the coming of Jesus, we were being rescued from our fears. Jesus being born was God entering human history to demonstrate his faithfulness to his promises.

 

How could a baby born in poverty without the resources or connections to raise an army going to help deliver the people from their fears? Because this baby, Jesus, would grow in obedience, faithfulness, and trust and reveal a loving Father who calls us to follow him into life through death.

 

There’s an invitation right here because Jesus invites us to surrender our fears and trust him instead. This requires us to place ourselves in a posture of surrender trusting that Jesus really reveals a good and beautiful God who sees us, loves us, and calls us to life. There are folks who are getting baptized today as a public declaration that they have decided to trust Jesus with their lives. You can join them this morning.

 

It’s good news for great joy for all people because when you realize that you belong to God, there really isn’t anything to fear. God’s got it. God holds your life in his hands. This isn’t an escapist reaction, it’s the truth, friends.

 

It’s good news for great joy for all people because the rulers of this world who are cruel and capricious will have to answer to God.

 

It’s good news for great joy for all people because the God we serve is the God of justice.

 

It’s good news for great joy for all people because God can make way because God is able.

 

It’s good news for great joy for all people because the story isn’t over until God says it’s over.

 

It’s good news for great joy for all people because there’s nothing in all of creation that separate us from the love of God.

 

It’s good news for great joy for all people because God is bigger, he’s bigger than any situation in our lives, including being held in captivity in your own land, seemingly abandoned by God because whether you can see or not, God is at work. He has always been at work and will continue to be at work.

 

Yeah! The more I’m open to God’s presence, the more I am able to experience joy.

After hearing the message, the shepherds decide to go and see what was announced.

 

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.  20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:16–20)

 

After seeing the promise, they were certainly filled with joy in their heart, grateful that God was fulfilling his promise. But did the circumstances of their lives immediately change or improve because of this announcement? Nope! After seeing the baby that was promised, they were still financially poor. They were still under occupation by Rome. They were still being ruled by Herod, the Great. Their sheep still smelled and required constant care. Yet they were filled with great joy. Because God is faithful. God is able. God will accomplish what he sets out to do. Because God can be trusted.

 

I want to invite you to stand with me, and open your hands a sign of your consent to God’s presence in this space. If you have never surrendered and given your life to Jesus. A declaration that you are willing to trust Jesus with your life. Would you join me in a prayer this morning. If you’re here and have already decided to trust Jesus but you haven’t been actively following him, then I want you to join me in a prayer in a moment. For the rest of us, I want you to join the prayer too because following Jesus is an active act of surrender.

 

Practicals tip:

Let joy break free in you this advent, get started by activating gratitude.

 

Participate in Advent, there are still two weeks to go! I’ve been so encouraged by what Mary Buzzard, our CM director came up with for Advent.

 

Create a daily gratitude list everyday for next 20 days.

1.) Try using a pen/pencil and paper. The process of writing using a pen/pencil creates a bit of space to contemplate. Try starting your gratitude with, “I’m grateful for...” or “I’m grateful that...”

 

2.) Start small. No need to be an overachiever, you aren’t competing with anyone else. Note the things you are actually grateful for, avoid noting the things you should be grateful for.

 

3.) Do it every day for the next 20 days, acknowledging daily something that you are thankful for, something real.

 
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