Dec. 24 – Christmas Eve Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:16
Dear Friends in Christ,
Charles Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol is about Ebenezer Scrooge and how his heart was changed one Christmas. It’s a feel good story because they all lived happily ever after. But lines from another Dickens novel more accurately describes the way Christmas feels for most. He begins A Tale Of Two Cities with these words:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light; it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”
Christmas is a time of contrasts. Prosperity and poverty. Good will and ugly greed. Family togetherness and excruciating loneliness. Light and darkness. Spring of hope and winter of acute despair.
We all want Christmas to be the best of times. It is the reason we do all the things we do – decorate, send cards, shop, bake, attend parties. Sometimes though it can be the worst of times because of the expectation of a holly, jolly Christmas.
Some of you may have spent too much again this year. Maybe it is your health or the health of loved one on your mind tonight. Do you have old hurts that won’t heal? New wounds that won’t go away?
That is why our text from 1 Thessalonians seems so strange, so out of place, so artificial.
Really now Paul, what is there to rejoice about? Isn’t Christmas just a fantasy season of sugar plum fairies and old St. Nick?
And if Christmas is real, it is real for other people. I’ve got problems no one can relate to. My parents passed all there hang-ups to me. My siblings? We don’t get along. My job is a hassle. The marriage has lost its excitement. It’s too late to do anything with this mess I call my life. How dare Paul say, “Rejoice always.” How could he write this candy cane coated concoction?
I’ll tell you why. Paul knew the angelic announcement, “I bring you good news of great joy.” (Luke 2:10) Not for some people. Not for good people. Not for religious people. This is good news for everyone. Joy is the gift Christ gives to everyone. He gives it especially to you.
Please hear this. There is a difference between happiness and joy. External gifts like health and wealth and children are great blessings from God. They make us happy. But they are not essential for joy. Why? Because happiness is determined by what is going on around me. I can’t control that. Joy is determined by what is going on inside of me. And God has taken control of that. He sent Jesus.
Jesus didn’t have a lot of reasons for earthly happiness. Born in a trough to a blue-collar father and teenage mother. As an adult he had no home. Jesus was an itinerant preacher and washed feet. Not the path to making it big.
And then this, “Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8) Death on a cross was reserved for the lowest of the low. They ripped his skin, burst his arteries and severed his nerves. It brought unimaginable pain.
In spite of it all, though, Jesus, exuded joy. Poverty and disappointment and rejection couldn’t take it away. Even death on a cross couldn’t take away the joy. Hebrews 12:2 says as much, “…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame.”
What does it all mean? No matter where your life is right now, this truth makes it worthwhile: Jesus Christ was born to die for you. From his cross He gives unlimited joy. It is for you. “I bring good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Jesus once said, “No one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:22) Why is that? Remember? Happiness is determined by what is going on around me. I can’t control that. Joy is determined by what is going on inside of me. And God has taken control of that by sending Jesus who is the doorway to deliverance, the pathway to peace, and the gateway to glory. His goodness is limitless. His loves never changes. His grace is sufficient. His Word is enough. No one will take this joy from you.
Joy stems the tide of gloom and despair. It brings confidence in the midst of confusion. Hope when there is uncertainty. Calm in the midst of life’s storms.
Please don’t confuse happiness and joy. They are not the same thing. There are happy Christmases and there are sad Christmases. It all depends on what is happening around us.
Joy, on the other hand, is dependent upon what is happening in us. And the birth of Jesus is God’s commitment to send the Holy Spirit who comes inside to heal our hurts, forgive our filth and redeem our wretchedness.
Whether tonight is for you the best of times or the worst of times, the birth of Jesus – announced by the angels, witnessed by the shepherds and marveled at by the magi – leaves us finally with only one response. And what would that be? Paul wrote it. They are the words of our text. 1 Thessalonians 5:16. “Rejoice always!”