Luke 1:26-38. In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
2:8-11 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
You Shall Surely Celebrate!
This sermon was adapted from “Refusing Joy” (www.homileticsonline.com, December 22, 2002)
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, in our house, the eating that happened around Christmas time wasn’t much different than Thanksgiving. I think we even had turkey most years! It’s a rule – between the end of November and the end of December, special food must be made and eaten. You know what I mean.
Back in the day (up to the beginning of the 20th century), most people, even in our country, didn’t have consistent access to really good food as we think of it – and a lot of people in the world still don’t. So, it seems to me that this might be the sort of thing God had in mind when the orders were given to have feasts in ancient times. Share the special food, especially with those who can’t afford it. Throw a banquet in my honor, says God!
A feast would be a combination of food and music and fellowship done in a way to remind people of the goodness of God, of ways in which God has saved the people – and is saving people. There was the Passover feast and other feasts to celebrate, say, the first harvest and last harvest of the year. There might also be rite of passage feasts for events like weddings, and most of these feasts lasted for several days. The special food was really special; most people couldn’t have that food very often. But during a feast, people could eat really well, so everyone had good reason to look forward to those times. Our culture has learned to take good food for granted; it’s not special. So, I’ve begun to think that people of long ago threw better parties than we do, and God was all about making the moment special, about having a good time.
I don’t know if you remember this from a few weeks ago: God’s first words to Pharaoh when he wanted Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people from slavery were, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” (Exodus 5:1)
Later on, as the Hebrew people are on a long walk toward the Promised Land, God starts giving more explicit instructions:
“Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows resident in your towns. Seven days you shall keep the festival for the LORD your God at the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all your undertakings, and you shall surely celebrate.” (Deuteronomy 16:14-15)
It seems to me that God is very serious about celebrating and rejoicing. Too many people think of God as a killjoy. And it’s not true! The people of God are commanded to have joy, to have fun. “You shall surely celebrate!” Don’t you want to be part of a group that has that purpose, that’s been told to celebrate?
Christmas is a time of celebration, and an important part of the fun is food. The food we eat between Thanksgiving and Christmas adds a few pounds and gives us reasons to have New Year’s resolutions. There’s nothing wrong with dropping the excess holiday weight in a healthy way, but dieting can become an unhealthy obsession. It’s possible to cause yourself more harm from the stress over extra weight than the extra weight itself might cause. God wants to remove stress and replace it with joy. Did I just say eat as much as you want?
There is a time for everything. Gluttony happens when you eat too much all the time – and binge eating especially. The bible also talks about times when the people of God fasted so that they could have a deeper experience of the presence of God. When you fast, you deny yourself food so that you can concentrate on prayer and devotional thought. This is mostly something you would do on your own, by yourself. What’s interested to me is that in the bible, God doesn’t command people to fast. But it is a spiritual way to clear the mind and heart.
There is a balance between feasting and fasting, a balance between quiet meditation, and enthusiastic joy. Jesus fasted – and Jesus went to feasts. But God never commands us to have stress – that’s our choice. God said, “You shall surely celebrate!” Joy is the response that God wants from us.
Sing the first verse of “Joy to the World.” Is that how you feel?
I was reading an article on holiday stress that went this way:
“You do realize, that if you stand in front of the pastry case at the coffee shop and calculate calories in your head, trying to figure out if a chocolate chip cookie is going to show up on your hips, you are actually doing more damage to your heart from the stress than if you simply ate the d**n cookie and allowed yourself to experience the joy of it, right? You do realize that happiness and personal acceptance are hundreds of times better for you than stressful self-denial, right?”
The truth of the matter is that you can eat right, drink your bottled water, take your vitamins, get plenty of sleep, and still get hit by a bus. And looking out the windows at the ambulance taking you away will be a bunch of gluttons who didn’t think twice about eating the chocolate chip cookie that you just denied yourself.”
“Refusing Joy” (www.homileticsonline.com, December 22, 2002)
“You shall surely celebrate!” God commands you to enjoy the holiday season. I have always believed that the church should be one place, one group of people, where joy could be found, no matter what was going on in the world, or in our lives.
Since September 11, 2001, we’ve heard a lot about comfort food, and after that day, we needed comfort. But how about joyful food – food that makes you happy? Think back to your childhood (Kids, I need this moment with your parents). Do you remember what used to be at the candy counter? Life’s little pleasure – the 10-cent – or 25-cent – Snickers bar. A lot of those candies are still around, including M & Ms. And I’d like you to share in my joy.
The ushers will come forward, and we will distribute the M & Ms of joy (Pretzel and Chocolate Mint). Please hold your M & M until all are served.
With “Joy to the World” playing in the background… “Eat the M & M of joy.”
Yes, we ate M&Ms in worship. God commanded us to celebrate and we obeyed.
In everyday life, the trick is to find the balance between deliberate, serious thought on difficult issues and joy – allowing yourself to be immersed in happiness for all God has done for you. Happiness produces endorphins that keep you healthy. And even if laughter isn’t the best medicine, wouldn’t you rather live 10 years eating ice cream than 100 years eating rice cakes?
God wants us to experience joy! It’s not like we’re supposed to sing “Stress to the world, the Lord has come.” Or, “Fret, worry, and be anxious, the Lord has come.” It’s not like the archangel burst in on the shepherds and said, “Fear not, for today I bring you tidings of great stress -which shall be to all people.” That’s usually the way it works: When we’re stressed, we bring our stress to all people – husband, wife, children, the family pet, friends and co-workers. Instead, the good news was: “I bring you tidings of great joy that will be for all people.”
Backing up a little, the angel comes to Mary and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:26-28). The story doesn’t start out very joyfully. Mary is troubled or “perplexed.” That word, troubled, clearly doesn’t translate the moment. How would you feel if an angel appeared to you and said those words? “Right at the moment, angel, it doesn’t feel like the Lord is with me.”
The angel is giving Mary a shot at huge, amazing joy: the chance to be the mother of God. How big is that?! It’s an offer. A choice. She has a choice to take the joy – as we all do. But for Mary, this choice brings with it the knowledge that she will soon be visibly pregnant. And when that happens, there goes her reputation. In that culture, according to the law, she could be executed for becoming pregnant by anyone but Joseph, or punished in some other humiliating way. The joy is on the other side of very real stress. Sometimes, it’s possible to be so caught in the valley of the shadow of death that you think you’ll never see sunshine again. But God has made a promise to give you joy.
2014 was a hard year for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. Lately, I’ve been talking about what a struggle it is for some folks to make their way through the holiday season. This morning, if you’re in that place, I’d like to challenge you to let it go, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Leave the door open for some joy.
It’s Christmas. Eat. Enjoy. Think about the diet in January. But true Christmas joy, true Christian joy, is not about eating cream puffs without guilt. The joy we refuse more often has nothing to do with food. The happiness we so often avoid is spiritual, not physical … it involves believing, not bingeing. The joy that we are guilty of leaving behind is the joy that comes from opening our hearts to the presence of Christ, the joy that comes from letting God bless us, the joy that comes from giving ourselves over to God’s care. That’s what Mary did, after all. She gave herself over to the God that does the impossible.
In the middle of our stressful lives, God wants us to have joy. God wants us to know that we are favored – like Mary, that God loves us, and that God will not fail us. God wants us to find a way to include others in our joy.
Greetings, favored one. God says that to you! God sends Jesus to remind us that we are not alone, that God is with us in the very center of the pains and problems of life. The joy of God is an offer you can refuse. But why would you?
God, send your Spirit to clear the path for us, clear the way to joy. Remove those things in our lives that stand between us and you, the things that keep us from having joy. Help us celebrate. And as we celebrate, help us all to find the balance between denial and fulfillment. Give us the gift of self-control, but most of all, help us enjoy you, help us enjoy the fellowship of your people, and give us the joy that comes from a filling, eternal relationship with you at the center of our lives. In the name of your son living Jesus, whose birth we celebrate. Amen.