Advent: The Greatest Joy

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

James 1: 2-4

I am going to share with you a personal wrestling match with the topic of joy as I sought to write about it this week. In an earlier post, I talked about a friend who was diagnosed with sarcoma cancer. All cancer is bad, but this type of cancer is typically incurable. I was talking to her on the phone this week, and she was describing some symptoms that were causing her a great deal of discomfort. She also talked about taking a girls trip, going to the beach with her daughters, and making memories. When our conversation was over, a wave of sorrow billowed over me. I cried out to the Lord saying, “how do you have joy in the midst of sorrow?”

The dictionary defines joy as a state of happiness evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune. Certainly we have all experienced this kind of joy. It’s quite easy to be filled with joy when things are going our way, but do we have this sense of joy when it is going all wrong?

I like John Piper’s definition of joy. He says, “Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.”

The Lord took me on a journey through Scripture, seeing the beauty of Christ in the word, showing me that it is in Jesus that I have joy, even in the midst of my sorrow. Let me take you on this journey, too and allow God to speak to you this Advent Sunday about the true definition of joy.

In Christ Alone

There is a proclamation of joy that comes with the arrival of Jesus, “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” (Luke 2:10).

At the triumphal entry of Jesus the crowd expressed joyful praise when He entered Jerusalem a week before He would be crucified, “When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen,” (Luke 19:37).

The height of joy is seen at Resurrection Sunday, when the disciples of Jesus were filled with grief and confusion. It was the faithful women who made the journey to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ, who wouldn’t find Him lifeless and lying in the tomb, but instead they would find joy.

“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to view the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, because an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and approached the tomb. He rolled back the stone and was sitting on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. The guards were so shaken by fear of him that they became like dead men.

The angel told the women, “Don’t be afraid, because I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. For he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there.’ Listen, I have told you.”

So, departing quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, they ran to tell his disciples the news. Just then Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” They came up, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there,” (Matthew 28:1-10, emphasis mine).

In the fourth gospel, we hear the word “joy” from Jesus Himself, “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete,” (John 15:11), and “So you also have sorrow now. But I will see you again. Your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy from you,” (John 16:22).

Fruit of the Spirit

Joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things,” (Galatians 5:22-23).

In 2 Corinthians 6, the apostle, Paul, goes into great detail to describe the character of his ministry. It is the stuff of life:

  • “Great endurance”
  • “Afflictions…hardships…difficulties”
  • “Beatings…imprisonments…riots”
  • “Labors…sleepless nights…times of hunger”
  • “Purity…knowledge…patience”
  • “Kindness…the Holy Spirit…sincere love”
  • “The word of truth…the power of God”
  • “Glory and dishonor…slander and good report”
  • “As unknown, yet recognized…as dying, yet see—we live”

And “as grieving, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet enriching many; as having nothing, yet possessing everything,” (v. 10). He experienced highs and lows, and everything that this world sees as well-being, success, and good fortune. His gains and great losses could have stunted or even prevented the fruit of the Spirit in his life, but instead Paul’s perspective was shaped by the Spirit.  Paul saw it this way:

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead,”

Philippians  3:7-11

Joy In the Midst of Sorrow

When I look back to the dictionary definition of joy and think about “well-being, success, and good fortune,” it’s really all about perspective. Piper correctly points out that our perspective is through the Holy Spirit. Well-being, success, and good fortune are not the words I would use to describe my friend battling cancer. You probably wouldn’t use those words to describe the dark times you have experienced either. It is only because of Jesus, through the lens of the Holy Spirit, that we can experience all of the difficulty, and “consider it a great joy,” to consider it well-being, success, and good fortune.

“Bear your sorrows bravely, for they are appointed of your Heavenly Father in supreme wisdom. Bear them joyfully, for they will bring forth to you the peaceable fruits of righteousness.”

C. H. Spurgeon

Instead, we face our difficulties with joy, despite our difficulties, not on our own, but because we have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit cultivates joy in us through our knowledge of Christ in the word, but also seeing the works of Christ in the world. We feel a sense of joy in the beauty of the sunrise, the birth of a child, the laughter with friends, or cheering on our children at a game or a band concert. But also in loss, pain, struggle, and trials, because we know that God is working all of this into something for our good (Romans 8:28). We have Someone who is worth it all…Jesus. Do you have the surpassing worth of knowing Christ as your Lord?

Let me leave you with these words from my friend, when I asked her the question that I asked God, “how do you find joy in the midst of sorrow?” She told me, “Relying on Jesus – moment by moment. Putting my faith and hope in Him alone because without Him there is no joy.”

Light the candle of joy, and rejoice in Christ alone! 

Advent: Clarity is Overrated

For we walk by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7

I am on an Advent journey of slowing down in the midst of the rushed and stressful Christmas season. Looking back to look forward is what I’m calling it. If you are just starting this journey with me this week, I am so glad you are here!

Last week we looked at the story of hope through the lives of Abraham and Sarah.  This week’s focus is looking back with eyes of faith at the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Luke 1:26-38.

The Highly Favored – Luke 1:26-28

I heard someone say, “God has wired us for affirmation.” I have seen this truth not only in Scripture, but also in my own life. I believe it is wrapped up in our identity.

When I was a young, stay at home mom, I was sitting at a table with several women for an event with my church.  Most of these women were a few years ahead of me in age. As we began introducing ourselves, I encountered the question that is always asked, “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” I sheepishly answered, “I’m just a stay at home mom.” This woman, a pastor’s wife, then said to me, “Sharon, don’t say you are ‘just” a stay at home mom. What you are doing is the most important job you could ever have.” That completely shifted my perspective.

Years later, now I’ve come full circle back to staying at home, not as a mom, but as one who is on disability. And again, I’ve struggled with my identity, awkwardly answering the questions, “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” God has taken me a step further. His affirmation to me: my identity is not in what I do, but in who God is.  

The angel, Gabriel, came with just such an affirmation for Mary, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Here is Mary, a very young woman not much more than a girl, a virgin, engaged to be married. God saw her and favored her by His grace. It is what that pastor’s wife gave to me when she affirmed my calling as a stay at home mom, grace.

I find it very interesting, to see the same kind of affirmation was given to Gideon in the Old Testament book of Judges, “Then the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said: The Lord is with you, valiant warrior,” (6:12). Both Mary and Gideon would be called to face a situation that was beyond themselves.

What is even more interesting is that in their ordinary lives, God elevated them, “O favored one,” and “valiant warrior.” Mary was but a young, virgin girl, and Gideon the youngest in his family, who was hiding from the enemy. They were raised up by God’s grace as favored and valiant because of one truth, “The Lord is with you!”

Our identity is not in our accomplishments or lack of them, in our place in our family, our worst failures, our deepest desires, or our careers, but it is in the God who is with us, loves us, and sees us.

The Highly Favored Becomes the Greatly Troubled – Luke 1:29-36

God does not elevate Mary to puff her up and make her feel better about herself, but for a purpose, a calling for her. I believe she senses this, “But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”

The word Luke used for “greatly troubled,” describes a sense of being thoroughly stirred up, confused and perplexed. It wasn’t everyday that Mary was approached by angel, and this angel came with a very curious greeting. “What does this mean for me?” she is wondering.

At times in our lives we find ourselves feeling what Mary felt. For people that I know and love who have faced some truly troubling times, I have witnessed this deep sense of uncertainty and confusion.

When my dad passed away, my mom was left feeling, “what are we going to do now?” And in my own life about seven years ago, when I was very uncertain about what God was allowing to come into my life when a brain scan came back not very favorably. The diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which has brought me to staying at home, has been a real stirring up for me. What about you? I am sure you could add your own story here.

The angel gave Mary her “diagnosis,” when he told her that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” She was going to have a baby and not just any baby, but the Son of God! But how, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary asked. Not to mention that she was betrothed to Joseph.

Did you catch what Mary said, “Since I am a virgin?” That was her identity, but God takes her a step further. God lays out His plan for Mary in bringing the Savior of the world through a virgin birth. God knows what He is doing. He takes her identity as a virgin, and He is going to use what she sees as a weakness to accomplish His purpose.

When we are asked to do something or walk through something that is beyond us, God gives us assurance. When trials come, seasons of life change, or tragedy strikes, we need to know this: “The Lord is with you!”

The Greatly Troubled is Given Eyes of Faith – Luke 1:37

I feel like I could stop here with this faith-filled statement:  “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary came to this realization, and I believe this is why God chose her for this assignment.

What is God calling you to? God’s called you to ministry? To missions in Africa? To persevere through disability? Foster parenting? Rely on Him in widowhood? To invite a neighbor over for dinner? To trust Him in a devastating diagnosis? Have faith like Mary and know that nothing will be impossible with God. Allow Him to take your weakness, and use it for His purpose (Romans 8:28).

Speaking Words of Wisdom….Let It Be

“And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’”

Luke 1:38

Let me assure you with the truths we have learned from God’s Word:

  • You are highly favored by His grace.
  • The Lord is with you!
  • Nothing is impossible, nothing is too hard for God!
  • You are a servant of the Lord.
  • Say these words, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

Let me add, even if it doesn’t turn out the way you expected or want it to. If Mary can say, “let it be to me,” so can we.

Clarity is Overrated

Mary was given just enough light for her path. There was still the issue of her being pregnant, questions with how Joseph was going to receive this news, how her family would take the news. She was at risk, a very high risk, of her life being ruined.

But the Son of God, whom she would carry in her womb, would carry her through, one step at a time. He will do the same for you and me, giving us just enough light for our next step. Ultimately, it’s not about us or the clarity we want from God. It’s about giving God glory and making much of Jesus even while we are taking one shaky step after another. We walk by faith and not by sight.

Indeed this is a reminder that Christmas is an opportunity to magnify the wonder of Christ—fully human, fully God—born of a virgin to save the world.

Jesus came, Jesus is with us, and Jesus will come again!

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