Tag  |  joy

Christmas at MacPherson

About 230 families and individuals live at Macpherson Gardens, Block 72 in my neighborhood. Each person has his or her own life story. On the tenth floor resides an elderly woman whose children have grown up, gotten married, and moved out. She lives by herself now. Just a few doors away from her is a young couple with two kids—a boy and a girl. And a few floors below lives a young man serving in the army. He has been to church before; maybe he will visit again on Christmas Day. I met these people last Christmas when our church went caroling in the neighborhood to spread Christmas cheer.

Every Christmas—as on the first Christmas—many people do not know that God has entered into our world as a baby whose name is Jesus (Luke 1:68; 2:11). Or they do not know the significance of that event—that it is “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (2:10). Yes, all people! Regardless of our nationality, race, gender, or status, Jesus came to die for us and offer us complete forgiveness so that we can be reconciled with Him and enjoy His love, joy, peace, and hope. Indeed, all people, from the woman next door to the colleagues we have lunch with, need to hear this wonderful news!

On the first Christmas, the angels were the bearers of this joyous news. Today, God desires to work through us to take the story to others.

The Last Will Be First

Recently I was among the last in line to board a large passenger jet with unassigned seating. I located a middle seat beside the wing, but the only spot for my bag was the overhead compartment by the very last row. This meant I had to wait for everyone to leave before I could go back and retrieve it.

I laughed as I settled into my seat and a thought occurred that seemed to be from the Lord: “It really won’t hurt you to wait. It will actually do you good.” So I resolved to enjoy the extra time, helping other passengers lower their luggage after we landed and assisting a flight attendant with cleaning. By the time I was able to retrieve my bag, I laughed again when someone thought I worked for the airline.

That day’s experience made me ponder Jesus’s words to His disciples: "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35).

I waited because I had to, but in Jesus’s “upside down” Kingdom, there’s a place of honor for those who voluntarily set themselves aside to attend to others’ needs.

Jesus came into our hurried, me-first world not “to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). We serve Him best by serving others. The lower we bend, the closer we are to Him.

Make a Joyful Noise

Back when I was searching for a church to attend regularly, a friend invited me to a service at her church. The worship leaders led the congregation in a song I particularly loved. So I sang with gusto, remembering my college choir director’s advice to “Project!”

After the song, my friend’s husband turned to me and said, “You really sang loud.” This remark was not intended as a compliment! After that, I self-consciously monitored my singing, making sure I sang softer than those around me, and always wondering if the people around me judged my singing.

But one Sunday, I noticed the singing of a woman in the pew beside me. She seemed to sing with adoration, without a trace of self-consciousness. Her worship reminded me of the enthusiastic, spontaneous worship that David demonstrated in his life. In Psalm 98, in fact, David suggests that “all the earth” should “burst into jubilant song” in worship (v. 4).  

Verse one of Psalm 98 tells us why we should worship joyfully, reminding us that “[God] has done marvelous things.” Throughout the psalm, David recounts these marvelous things: God’s faithfulness and justice to all nations, His mercy, and salvation. Dwelling on who God is and what He’s done can fill our hearts with praise.

What “marvelous things” has God done in your life? Thanksgiving is the perfect time to recall His wondrous works and give God thanks. Lift your voice and sing!

A Good Ending

As the lights dimmed and we prepared to watch Apollo 13, my friend said under his breath, “Shame they all died.” I watched the movie about the 1970 spaceflight with apprehension, waiting for tragedy to strike, and only near the closing credits did I realize I’d been duped. I hadn’t known or remembered the end of the true story—that although the astronauts faced many hardships, they made it home alive. 

In Christ, we can know the end of the story—that we too will make it home alive. By that I mean we will live forever with our heavenly Father, as we see in the book of Revelation. The Lord will create a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) as He makes all things new (vv. 1, 5). In the new city, the Lord God will welcome His people to live with Him, without fear and without the night. We have hope in knowing the end of the story.

What difference does this make? It can transform times of extreme difficulty, such as when people face the loss of a loved one or even death themselves. Though we recoil at the thought of dying, yet we can embrace the joy of the promise of eternity. We long for the city where no longer will there be any curse, where we’ll live forever by God’s light (22:5).

Joy and Justice

At a conference in Asia, I had two eye-opening conversations in the span of a few hours. First, a pastor told of spending 11 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction before he was cleared. Then, a group of families shared how they had spent a fortune to escape religious persecution in their homeland, only to be betrayed by the very people they had paid to bring about their rescue. Now, after years in a refugee camp, they wonder if they will ever find a home.

In both cases, victimization was compounded by an absence of justice—just one evidence of our world’s brokenness. But this vacuum of justice is not a permanent condition.

Psalm 67 calls on God’s people to make Him known to our hurting world. The result will be joy, not as a response to God’s love but because of His justice. “May the nations be glad and sing for joy,” says the psalmist, “for you rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth” (v. 4).

Although the Bible writers understood that “equity” (fairness and justice) is a key component of God’s love, they also knew that it will only be fully realized in the future. Until then, in our world of injustice, we can serve to point others to our God’s divine justice. His coming will see “justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). 

That Famous Smile

After my wife and I had the privilege of visiting the Louvre in Paris, I called our eleven-year-old granddaughter Addie on the phone. When I mentioned seeing da Vinci’s famous painting Mona Lisa, Addie asked, “Is she smiling?”

Isn’t that the big question surrounding this painting? More than 600 years after Leonardo captured this subject in oil, we still don’t know if the lady was smiling or not. Though enraptured by the painting’s beauty, we are unsure about Mona Lisa’s demeanor.

The “smile” is part of the intrigue of the painting. But how important is this anyway? Is smiling something the Bible mentions? In reality, the word appears less than five times in Scripture, and never as something we are told to do. However, the Bible does suggest for us an attitude that leads to smiles—and that is the word joy. Nearly 250 times we read about joy: “My heart leaps for joy,” David says as he thinks about the Lord (Ps. 28:7). We are to “sing joyfully to the Lord” (Ps. 33:1); God’s statutes are “the joy of [our] heart” (Ps. 119:111); and we are “filled with joy” because “the Lord has done great things for us” (Ps. 126:3).

Clearly, the joy God provides us through everything He has done for us can bring a smile to our face.

 

The One Who Understands

John Babler is the chaplain for the police and fire departments in his Texas community. During a 22-week sabbatical from his job, he attended police academy training so that he could better understand the situations law enforcement officers face. Through spending time with the other cadets and learning about the intense challenges of the profession, Babler gained a new sense of humility and empathy. In the future, he hopes to be more effective as he counsels police officers who struggle with emotional stress, fatigue, and loss.

We know that God understands the situations we face because He made us and sees everything that happens to us. We also know He understands because He has been to earth and experienced life as a human being. “He became flesh and dwelt among us” as the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14).

Jesus’s earthly life included a wide range of difficulty. He felt the searing heat of the sun, the pain of an empty stomach, and the uncertainty of homelessness. Emotionally, He endured the tension of disagreements, the burn of betrayal, and the ongoing threat of violence.

Jesus experienced the joys of friendship and family love, as well as the worst problems that we face here on earth. He provides hope. He is the Wonderful Counselor who patiently listens to our concerns with insight and care (Isaiah 9:6). He is the One who can say, “I’ve been through that. I understand.”

The Turn

As the minister spoke at a funeral for an old military veteran, he mused about where the deceased might be. But then, instead of telling the people how they could know God, he speculated about things not found anywhere in Scripture. Where is the hope? I thought.

At last he asked us to turn to a closing hymn. And as we rose to sing “How Great Thou Art,” people began to praise God from the depths of their souls. Within moments, the spirit of the entire room had changed. Suddenly, surprisingly, in the middle of the third verse my emotions overwhelmed my voice.

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing,

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;

That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,

He bled and died to take away my sin.

Until we sang that great hymn, I had wondered if God was going to show up at that funeral. In reality, He never leaves. A look at the book of Esther reveals this truth. The Jews were in exile, and powerful people wanted to kill them. Yet at the darkest moment, a godless king granted the right to the enslaved Israelites to defend themselves against those who sought their demise (Est. 8:11–13). A successful defense and a celebration ensued (9:17–19).

It should be no surprise when God shows up in the words of a hymn at a funeral. After all, He turned an attempted genocide into a celebration and a crucifixion into resurrection and salvation!

From Grief to Joy

Kelly’s pregnancy brought complications, and doctors were concerned. During her long labor, they decided to whisk her away for a cesarean section. But despite the ordeal, Kelly quickly forgot her pain when she held her newborn son. Joy had replaced anguish.

Scripture affirms this truth: “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world” (John 16:21). Jesus used this illustration with His disciples to emphasize that though they would grieve because He would be leaving soon, that grief would turn to joy when they saw Him again (vv. 20–22).

Jesus was referring to His death and resurrection—and what followed. After His resurrection, to the disciples’ joy, Jesus spent another 40 days walking with and teaching them before ascending and leaving them once again (Acts 1:3). Yet Jesus did not leave them grief-stricken. The Holy Spirit would fill them with joy (John 16:7–15; Acts 13:52).

Though we have never seen Jesus face-to-face, as believers we have the assurance that one day we will. In that day, the anguish we face in this earth will be forgotten. But until then, the Lord has not left us without joy—He has given us His Spirit (Rom. 15:13; 1 Peter 1:8–9).