“The Joy of Christmas” (Luke 1:39-56; 2:1-14)
Our theme for our midweek Lenten services this year is “A Little Lenten Lukan Joy.” What we’re doing is going through the Gospel of Luke and tracing the motif of joy that runs through the book. Now a series on joy may seem odd to do during Lent, but really it’s not. Lent is a penitential season, yes, but, as we noted last week, repentance leads to joy. They’re two sides of the same coin, really. That is the premise for this whole series, namely, that when God calls us to repent–as he does particularly during this penitential season of Lent–he does so in order to lead us to joy, the joy of the gospel, the joy of sins forgiven, the joy of our salvation.
And so last week on Ash Wednesday, we began with a message on “The Joy of Repentance,” looking at Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Repentance means being found by Jesus and being brought back home, and that is a thing of rejoicing for all concerned.
That Lukan text was from Luke 15, and we chose it because it fit so well with the Ash Wednesday emphasis on repentance. But now tonight we go back to the beginning of Luke, and we will work our way forward, through this gospel, over the coming weeks, stopping to take note of those places where the theme of joy fairly leaps off the page.
And that would mean starting with Luke’s so-called “Infancy Narrative,” the first two chapters of his gospel, which deal with the events surrounding the birth of Christ. Thus our message tonight: “The Joy of Christmas.”
Luke’s opening chapters take sort of a two-track approach. They go back and forth between the story of the birth of John the Baptist and the story of the birth of Christ. John prepares the way for Jesus even in his birth.
And these first two chapters of Luke are jam-packed with joy! Joy permeates and saturates the story of Christmas. Even in the lead-up to the birth of John, we find joy. Already at the beginning of chapter 1, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, will give birth to a son, and they are to name him John–and, Gabriel adds, “you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” Well, that’s what happens. Zechariah and Elizabeth certainly are happy to have a son, since they had never been able to have children. But even more so, they rejoice because of the great things God was doing that were being set in motion with the birth of John. And then when John is born, many do rejoice at his birth, as we read at the end of the chapter, where it says that Elizabeth’s “neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.”
Now that’s just the joy associated with the birth of John. When we come to the birth of Jesus, we’ve got to notch up the joy by several levels. Even baby John, while he is still in his mother’s womb–John rejoices when Mary, who is carrying Jesus in her womb, walks into the room. As Elizabeth tells Mary: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” The joy of Christmas is starting early.
Mary senses it. While she is there visiting Elizabeth, Mary breaks into song, a joyful canticle we know as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary says, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
“My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Right on, Mary! You go, girl! Mary is telling it like it is. God had done great things for her, in giving her the great privilege and honor of bearing the Christ child. And at the same time, God was doing great things for everybody else, who would benefit from the birth of this child. And that’s us. God was showing mercy to us in sending the Savior into the world. In and through the birth of Christ–as Mary goes on to say–God “exalts those of humble estate” and “fills the hungry with good things.”
The humble and the hungry. That’s us–I hope. The humble. You and I have a lot to be humble about. The knowledge of our sinfulness should humble us. We have nothing to brag about before God. I know how shot through I am with sin. I’ve been at this being-a-Christian business a long time. I’ve had lots and lots and lots of exposure to God’s Word. I should know better. I should do better. But still I stumble and fall, all too often. Good news, though, if you’re a sinner like me and you know it: God exalts those of humble estate.
The hungry. Man, I know what I’m hungry for! I need God’s righteousness, as a gift, served up on a platter. I can’t muster it up on my own. God must give it to me. And the good news is, he does: He fills the hungry with good things. And those good things come in the form of this baby, Jesus. He is God’s gift of righteousness and everything that goes with it–God’s great Christmas present, so to speak, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Open at any time.
So Mary rejoices in God her Savior. Her Savior is our Savior, too, and so we rejoice also.
Now all this joy was even before Jesus was born. Next, when we come to the birth itself, this is such great news that the whole sky lights up with joy!
Shepherds were out in the fields–they were outfielders, I guess–and they were out doing their shepherd thing that night, when an angel of the Lord shows up to do his angel thing, which is to bring a message from God: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” Good news, great joy. What is it, angel? Tell us! “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
There is the great joy–over in Bethlehem, the city of David the king, where David’s royal descendant has just been born, the long-prophesied Messiah, the Christ. The Son of David, who would reign over an everlasting kingdom, God’s great end-time rule of grace and blessing. The one long expected now has arrived. Good news of great joy indeed!
Now, how to find him? You won’t find him in a king’s palace. No bed of gold, encrusted with jewels. No, not even an ordinary crib or cradle. Instead, you’ll find him in a cattle stall, lying in a manger. Odd place for a king, especially for one as mighty as he.
As is a cross. That’s no place to find a king, either. Especially for a good and righteous king–the sinless Son of God, in fact. But that’s where we will find him. The Son of God comes in the flesh as a baby so he can die in our place on the cross. This is the route that the great joy must go through–through great sorrow, through suffering and death. For there is no other way to get us to the joy. Sin must be dealt with–removed, atoned for, by the sacrifice of Christ’s precious blood. Death must be defeated, overcome–it is, at Christ’s resurrection. That’s where Christmas will lead to. But it is, ultimately, the only way to joy.
And now the good news of great joy is announced to us. The news comes to us, still, through God’s appointed messengers. We’re no angels, but we preachers do have the same good news to announce to you. That Savior born in the city of David? He’s your Savior, too. Where to find him? Not in the palaces and pleasure-domes of this world. But in a little church out in the sticks. Not in gold or jewels or a burgeoning bank account. But in the waters of Holy Baptism. Not in a rich repast at some ritzy restaurant. But in the bread and the wine that are Christ’s Body and Blood, for you, for the forgiveness of sins. The Word and the Sacraments–that’s where you can find this Jesus, your Savior.
So this is the great joy of Christmas: Christ the Savior is born, and his birth sets off and signals all the joy that follows, all the joy to come.
Our Lenten journey of joy is just beginning, my friends. Next week: “The Joy of Persecution.” Say what?? Stay tuned.