The Joy of Jesus’ Arrival

A sermon based on Luke Matthew 1:18-25, 2:1-2, 2:7-10 (KJV)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 15, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The past two weeks of Advent we have considered some of Luke’s Christmas narrative and we will look at some more of Luke next week. But I also wanted to make sure we heard some of Matthew’s Christmas narrative in Advent– if we did not get to your favorite Christmas part in either Matthew or Luke, we will pretty much cover them both on Christmas Eve in an array of voices and music.
Matthew and Luke have the only two Christmas Nativity stories in the Bible and many people are surprised when it is pointed out they are different. We tend to weave the stories together but they are separate and distinct. In Luke Mary hears about Jesus first. In Matthew it is Joseph who first hears. There’s only a census and ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem to a manger in Luke. The shepherds and the heavenly host are also only in that Gospel account of Jesus’ birth. Matthew may not have those Christmas images but he alone has Joseph hearing the news, and the Holy family already living in Bethlehem. And Matthew only he has the murderous Herod chase after Jesus and then has the Magi find Jesus and Mary in a house that a star led them to.
I chose Matthew’s story for today because the theme and candle we light for this Sunday in Advent is “joy.” Joy is mentioned a little bit more in the Luke Christmas narrative but, in Matthew “joy” is mentioned only once when the star stops for the Magi over Jesus pointing to where can find him. Matthew tells us
and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. (Mat 2:9-11 KJV)
Up to this point in Matthew the news that Jesus is arriving is not said to be received joyfully. In fact we are told that when Joseph first found out that Mary was pregnant with a child not biologically his own he was fearfully planning a quiet divorce. Joseph seems to calm down once he gets the heavenly message to
“fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. ” (Mat 1:20-21 KJV).
In response Joseph obeys, and weds Mary. And while we can imagine and wish joy in that marriage, joy is not an expressly stated response.
Joy is not mentioned in Matthew’s Christmas story until Jesus actually arrives and his location is signaled to the Magi through a mystical star: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
A few weeks ago I was prayerfully considering this text in preparation for today’s sermon. I have read the text countless times, but this way the first time I noticed that joy is not a stated response until Jesus arrives and a heavenly light in a dark night sky points to his location.
“Joy” is defined in my Westminister Dictionary of Theological terms as
A sense of extreme happiness and well being related in Scripture to knowing God and God’s actions, specifically in Jesus Christ.
Advent and Christmas seasons present that sort of joy and many of us do personally. We anticipate and like the season because there is joy in the Advent and Christmas images and stories, the sights and sounds, and Jesus and the love that abounds for him. The promise of peace on earth. And because people provide more love and kindness good will toward all which can and does makes many of us joyful.
But at this time of year some of us may not always experience personal joy during Advent or Christmas. Some of us may even experience sorrow in the season. Even when we do not personally feel joy, however, most of us know and understand that joy is a part of the story, and a part of the season’s experience– if not for us, then for others now and in the past and THE promise of it for everyone (including us!) in the future. In other words, most of us, understand that quintessential joy is connected to Christmas. In the darkness of winter, in the great darkness of humankind’s actions in Jesus day a great Light nonetheless arrived. So good and right a Light that just a small celestial object pointing to it, hinting at its presence provides a sense of extreme happiness and well being related in Scripture– and we know God and God’s actions, through that Light, even as the baby Jesus. That sense is joy.
Two thousand years later at this time of year, winter, it is still dark and there is still great darkness in some of humankind’s actions . . . and yet that great Light of Christ still shines. Even the promise of it in darkness gives us joy. We can still sense joy in that personally or we at least know it is there and the promise that it can be sought and found . . . even in darkness.
I admit it is still true that personal joy can be elusive for during Advent. Some of us experience a feeling of sadness during the Holidays. It is prevalent enough that it’s been given a name: Blue Christmas. Some of us are blue this time of year because of missed loved ones. The wonderful family gathering and loving giving part of the Holidays can create emptiness and sorrow when we have to face it without the special person we shared it with in the past and ache to share it with still. The stress of the Holidays can also mount to the point of diminishing, masking or even snuffing out sense of personal joy. And that stress sometimes even leads to elevated intoxication which can cause harm and sadnesses triggered by the season.
Since my lawyering days – right up to the present– I have noticed, that as lovely as the season is for many of us, trouble can increase at home, at work, and on the streets. Some employers terminate positions as the New Year approaches. There are increased DUI arrests with all the parties going on. Parents are concerned about how to make Christmas work with meager budgets. Deaths and illnesses occur at Advent too. All year long life is messy, and the Holiday Season being a part of life has messiness too. So just as it is normal to have reasons for sorrow the rest of the year, it is not unusual to have them this time of year either.
We may want a perfect un-messy Holiday season but, really the point of joy in the Christmas story and songs is actually that the Light of Christ arrives in the darkness, the messiness of life. The mere promise of finding the light matters, but no one should feel forced to personally experience joy, or feel left out because they are not experiencing it.
Nor should any of us make the mistake of thinking that first Christmas happened when everything was hunky dory. Mary’s an unwed mother nearly divorced by Joseph. She could have been shunned or even executed for out of wedlock conception. Burdensome taxes loom, forcing poor people to migrate so Caesar can take their money. There’s no decent place for a poor mother to give birth, so an unsanitary stable must due. Herod the head of the local government seeks to kill the infant Jesus and while hunting him down kills others. Jesus and Holy family need to flee the country and become alien refugees.
The story has lots of darkness. But in all of it there is so much Light, Light that outshines each and every bit of the messes. That’s the point. A huge point of Christmas is to seek and move toward finding the light in the darkness, to spot its location and follow it and eventually be led to the light of Christ, God incarnate on earth. Christmas is full of joy because the promise of the Light in darkness exists and it matters– and it can be found! . . . Found in the messiness of life.
The joy that comes in Matthew comes like that. Magi are in the dark following a small pinprick of light in the dark, and they only rejoice when the star points to the promised incarnation of God in the infant Jesus. They understand it points to a Jesus not even fully matured. What matters at this point is only the promise he will become a Way to Light in their darkness. Darkness is still there. It still goes on in the rest of story. But Christ offers a light, a light that can be found in any situation. A light that can lead us alone and together to God–and when it is appropriate to do so we can rejoice in that.
This is true anytime of the year even if we are having a Blue Christmas. Even as we face difficult times, even if we have done dark things. Even if we are sick, hungry, alien or in prison Matthew 25 tells us Christ is with and in such folks too. Christ is a light so bright it cannot be overshadowed by darkness, any darkness. The Magi are so moved by finding the Light in the darkness, when they saw young Jesus they
fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. (Mat 2:8-11 KJV)
The promise of Light brings the presence of joy in Matthew.
As I said in Luke joy also shows up. Luke indicates there is joy in heaven when Mary agrees to bear Jesus. There is joy when Mary, pregnant, with the promise reaches Elizabeth. When shepherds hear the news Christ has arrived it is an occasion for great joy, not just for them but for all people, “the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luk 2:10 KJV).
In all these moments Jesus had not even done anything except arrive, Yet there is all this joy– for all these people too . . . for . . . all people. Darkness still existed. Jesus’ teachings had not occurred. Jesus’ life of love had not occurred. Easter and his ascension had not occurred. Yet there is joy. The joy exists not because the messiness of life has gone away or goes away, but because the promise of light in the mess is discovered. The messes still exist, many of them can make us blue. But in the dark of blueness the promise does exists, most especially exists! And it is meant to be, and can be, a source of rejoicing because it brings “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” The first Christmas brought us that promise and that Light.
And there’s more good news: Jesus the Light taught us to be Lights too. Our spirituality, our faith, is meant to offer the promise of light in the darkness too. Christmas is metaphorically like the star the Magi saw, it points to us as the promise of God incarnate in the world as we act as the hands and feet and voice of Jesus with all the love we share so well at Christmas.
See, the joy of Jesus’ arrival continues on in us. May it always be so. May it be so every Christmas and all year long. AMEN.