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“If you have the Joy of the Lord, someone should tell your face!”
That’s a phrase that I’ve heard many times before, and I believe it may be the thing that was said to Jesus Christ immediately before he started flipping over tables. That or something about money-changing… it’s been a while since I’ve read that part.
I can see him having that kind of reaction, though, because it’s become one of the most pervasive of the plethora of profoundly puerile platitudes in the Christianese vocabulary (that means a bunch of really dumb sayings, but I used words that start with the same letter so that people might believe that I’m a pastor… it’s in the handbook).
The four weeks leading up to Christmas, the Christian church has traditionally marked a season of “Advent” – a time of preparation that reminds us of the darkness that comes before dawn and the pain of waiting for a promised saviour that seems to be taking his sweet time about getting here. And in that darkness, we light candles of hope, peace, joy and love – the glow that beats back the long night as we wait for the Christ child.
This week, the third week, we light the candle of joy. And as we do, we acknowledge that there are people who need Jesus because their life is hard. It hurts. This season of “laughter and bright” for some is a season of loneliness for others or conflict or sorrowed remembrance. The idea that if you’re a Christian, if you have a relationship with God, if you’ve been saved from your sins, that somehow means you’re supposed to be happy all the time isn’t just stupid, it’s unbiblical.
In the Advent season we love to focus on the journey from Heaven to the manger but tend to skip right by the fact that the manger was a pit-stop on the Son of God’s road to the cross. In Isaiah 53, the prophet tells everyone that the messiah would be a “man of sorrows.” Baby Jesus grows up to sweat blood as he weeps in the Garden of Gethsemane. What a terrible example. If he had the joy of the Lord, he should have told his face.
Really, we only have two options here. We can believe that Jesus got it wrong and we need to do better than he did or we can look at his bloodshot eyes and realize that maybe having the joy of the Lord doesn’t mean being happy all the time. You are going to go through hard times. You’re going to feel hurt and betrayed. You’re going to feel lonely and abandoned. You are going to suffer. And you don’t have to plaster a fake smile over that. Jesus doesn’t expect you to.
Because Jesus gets it.
Hebrews 12:2 tells us that for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross. That’s why the candle of Joy may be the most important candle in the Advent wreath. In the night, in the time of waiting, in the darkness, there are “tidings of great joy that will be for all people.”
That means the light is coming. That means something more is set before you. We are people of a promise kept, and thanks to a man of sorrows, we have an eternal joy to look forward to. So, we endure, not always with a smile, but holding the candle of joy. Not just for ourselves, but joy that will be for all people.
Hold on. The messiah is coming.
Aaron Reimer is with Hampton Wesleyan Church. A guest sermon runs regularly in Saturday’s Guardian and is provided through Christian Communications.