Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
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Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, and Luke 3:7-18

 There are a lot of Christmas songs that prominently feature the theme of joy or happiness.  Joy to the World is the most obvious one, but there are others.  “Tidings of comfort and joy,” “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee,” “Good Christian Friends Rejoice,” “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,” “Joyful, all ye nations rise,” and the list goes on and on.  At least half of the Christmas songs I looked at mentioned joy in some way.  

 The clear implication is that we should all be joyful, happy at Christmas time.  But the truth is that Christmas is often one of the most difficult times of the year.  Long nights, short days, and cold weather don’t help.  But more than that, it’s just a difficult time of the year.  There is a lot of stress.  I’ve heard heart attacks are most common in December.  I’ve also heard suicide rates are higher.  And it can be a depressing time of the year, especially for those who have lost a loved one or who have family problems.  And of course, it can also be the most stressful time of the year financially, especially if we have overdone it.

 I think we feel the pressure to be happy.  We know we’re supposed to be happy.  And if we aren’t, then we think there’s something wrong with us.  And that just adds to the stress.  I don’t think our focus on material things helps.  We might feel depressed because we don’t have as much as others.  With all the commercialism and materialism around the secular celebration of Christmas, we feel the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses.”  And most of us can’t.  

 Compare that to Paul’s letter to the Philippian church.  Paul wrote that letter from a Roman jail.  He was awaiting trial on charges that carried a death penalty.  And yet Paul wrote of joy.  He said that as followers of Christ, we should always be filled with joy.  How could he say such a thing given his circumstances?  How could he say that to Christians in the first century who were likely to suffer persecution for their faith?

 The answer is that happiness and joy are not the same thing.  Happiness is a temporary response to present circumstances.  You get a new job or a raise; you’re happy.  You go out on the town and do something fun with friends; you’re happy.  Your team wins the championship; you’re happy.  

 But joy doesn’t depend on present circumstances.  Joy is a matter of internal perspective, not external circumstances.  Joy comes from what we know to be true in our hearts.  

 Be full of joy because the Lord is near, Paul says.  Now there is some debate about how that should be understood.  Does Paul mean that God is near, that he is always with us, a constant source of help and hope in the midst of life?  Or does he mean that the return of Christ is near?  More likely, it’s the first, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter.  Both are true.  Both are a source of joy.  

 God is near.  We are not alone.  God does care for us.  And Christ will return.  We know how the story ends.  No matter how hard the story is right now, it’s not the end of the story.  The end of the story is eternal life, a new creation, a resurrection life in a world free from mourning, crying, pain, and death.  Joy comes from having that inner perspective.  

 How do we have joy?  

 First, be considerate of others.  

 The Greek word here is EPIEIKES, and it’s one of those words that are difficult to translate from one language to another.  It has the sense of considerate, thinking of others before yourself.  It could also be translated as generous or magnanimous, willing to share with others.  It can also mean forgiving, willing to overlook the faults of others.  It can mean something along the lines of willing to yield one’s own rights for the good of others.  That’s certainly something we could use more of in our society; more concern for each other and less demanding our own rights!

 Some Bible scholars say the best way to translate it is “justice tempered with mercy.”  It’s the idea of doing what is right, but not just what is right, also what is gracious to others.  They point to the story of Jesus and woman caught in adultery as an example of EPIEIKES in action.  

 We should also notice that Paul tells us to show this consideration “to all.”  Not just our family and friends.  Not just those who think like us.  Not just to those we like.  But to all, even those who abuse us or dislike us.

 We see the same idea in Luke.  If you have two coats, share one.  If you have extra food, share that.

 Some tax collectors asked, “What should we do?”  Tax collectors officially were not allowed to collect extra to line their own pockets, but in practice, Rome overlooked it in most cases.  As long as people were angry at the tax collectors, they weren’t focused on how high the Roman taxes were.  But John the Baptist said, “Be honest and don’t cheat others.”

 The soldiers asked, “What about us?”  “Be content with your pay and don’t extort or make false accusations.”  Most likely these soldiers were not Roman legionnaires, but rather local soldiers hired by the Empire to help keep order.  There weren’t enough Roman legionnaires to keep peace through the Empire, so the job was farmed out.  Rome was notorious for paying low wages to soldiers.  And since there were no police, only soldiers to enforce the law, some found the way to supplement their income was by extorting money through taking bribes or making false accusations.  

 These ideas run contrary to the world’s idea of happiness, which is that we find happiness by having more, not less, and thinking of ourselves first.  And sometimes we see the worst of that mindset at Christmas time.  

 Paul goes on, instead of worrying, pray.  His words are reminiscent of Jesus in Matthew 6, where Jesus says, “Why do you worry? Your heavenly Father already knows your needs, and he will take care of you if you seek his Kingdom first.” 

 I don’t know about you, but I need to hear that.  I worry too much.  I need to be reminded that God will provide.  

 Instead of worrying, pray.  Prayer works because God loves us and wants what is best for us.  And God is wise, so he knows what is best for us.  And finally, God is powerful, so he is able to accomplish his purposes.

 Peace is the fruit that grows from the seed of prayer.  And God’s peace is beyond our ability to understand.  Paul had peace as he faced trial.  Stephen, in the Book of Acts, had peace enough to ask God to forgive his murderers as they were casting the stones.  That kind of peace doesn’t make sense.  It’s the kind of peace that can only come from God.  

 And finally, be thankful.  Discontented people always focus on what they don’t have, but gratitude focuses on what we do have.  And especially as followers of Christ, we know that the most important things cannot be taken away from us.  

 We can, and we should, have real joy this Christmas season.  But if your joy depends on the circumstances of your life, then it probably won’t happen.  We can always find some reason to be unhappy.  Some people even seem to go looking for reasons!  Instead, joy comes from knowing Jesus and knowing what God intends for you as his child.

 Years ago, I learned that the formula for joy, J-O-Y, is to think of Jesus first, to focus on what he has done for you and all that you enjoy because you belong to him.  Then think of others second, be considerate, gracious, and forgiving.  And think of yourself last.  

 So this Christmas season, pray more and worry less.  Want less and give more.  Think of others more and yourself less.  Be thankful more and do more for others.  Then, I think, you can find joy in more than just the words of a Christmas carol.  

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