In Just One Word

December 21, 2010

By Lance Johnson

If you could describe the Christmas season in just one word, what would that word be? I put this question indirectly to my congregation last Lord’s Day during our evening worship. I was curious how they would answer and they answered about as expected. The answers included such things as ‘stars’, ‘lights’, ‘humble shepherds’, ‘gifts’, ‘Baby Jesus’, ‘food’, ‘busyness’, and quite a few more. All are valid descriptions of the Christmas season in our culture. I was, however, a bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing them one bit. My congregation is a group of really great people with a strong faith and understanding of the importance of the Incarnation of the Lord, but they have a handicap–they’re human. It’s a common affliction. It has afflicted everyone of every generation since Adam’s (even Christ), and it causes us to concentrate on the physical or concrete–that which we can experience with our five senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell– rather than on the spiritual or abstract. With a little direction and encouragement they quickly thought about the less physical descriptions of the Christmas season. Unfortunately, these more spiritual aspects of the season are often spoken of, often seen on Christmas cards and banners, but not so often truly experienced. Today I want to look at just one of those spiritual characteristics of the Incarnation. There are others, but let’s simply look at one I believe to be crucial to the season and to the truth of the gospel. One that is easily lost when our eyes fall on the physical during the Christmas season. The reason for celebrating the season is that Christ came to bring to his people great JOY.

The concept of joy as a primary characteristic of the Christmas season is almost so obvious that it goes unnoticed, but we must not let that happen. Every element of the biblical account of the Incarnation reflects the joy of the occasion–the angelic announcement to the shepherds, the finding of the Christ child by both the shepherds and the Wise Men, and even Isaiah’s various accounts of the coming Messiah, which include the prophecies about the Suffering Servant, are filled with a joyful anticipation of the coming of the Redeemer. For the sake of time, both yours and mine, let’s look at just one passage from the Scripture, Luke 1:39-56.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.  (Luke 1:39-56 ESV)

Of all those connected with the birth of the Messiah in the first century, perhaps no one felt more joy than Mary, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist. When Mary entered her house, Elizabeth expressed her great joy that the expectant mother of the Lord would be in her home. Her own unborn child, who we know as John the Baptist, leaped with joy in the presence of the unborn Savior. Their joy is absolutely incredible, and even more profound, because it came from the Lord himself. We don’t often think about how children experience spiritual truth, much less how unborn children experience it, but remember that God’s people are “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:13)” Even as an unborn child, John knew the joy of the presence of God. That is indeed a great joy.  Elizabeth understood the profound importance and experienced the profound joy of the coming Messiah because it was revealed to her by the Holy Spirit. This, too, is a profound truth. We safely can assume that Elizabeth knew at least something about the Messiah, about why he was coming and what he would do. While it is unlikely she had any formal education, much less a theological education, she did grow up in a Jewish household and was the wife of a priest. If she were at all aware of what was happening around her she had some understanding of the Messiah and his role in their faith. In spite of that, it was only by the Holy Spirit that she truly understood the joy the Incarnation would bring. This is an important thought. The problem with our traditional celebration of Christmas (the reason I am somewhat of a Scrooge this time of the year) is more than anything else that it too often lacks the revelation, or illumination, of the Holy Spirit. No wonder the joy of the season seems so fleeting.

We don’t often list Mary as one of the great theologians of history, but we should. She understood many things about the Incarnation that simply never enter most of our minds. Mary’s joyous response to the coming of her child, the Messiah, is profound because she expresses a great truth that is central to the Incarnation. Our joy is based on the mercy and grace of God. Notice her words in the Magnificat or Song of Mary. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. (Luke 1:46-47)” She magnified, exalted, worshiped the Lord from the depths of her soul and rejoiced in her Savior because she too knew the great truth the angel announced to Joseph, that we all need salvation from our sin.

Notice her recognition of God’s mercy. She knew she had in no way earned the privilege of giving birth to the Messiah and it was only by God’s mercy that she found favor in his eyes. Notice her words of worship as she proclaims God’s mercy and his holiness, two inseparable concepts. She had not earned anything from God, but he chose her anyway.  She goes on to expound on this great truth. She elaborates on how God’s deals mercifully with us. Those who have reason to be proud are scattered. The mighty are brought down from their thrones. Their good deeds and accomplishments are worthless. The proud are humiliated; the mighty are defeated. On the other hand, the humble are exalted and the hungry are filled. This, of course, has nothing to do with economic status, but rather in a condition of their hearts. The humble are those who recognize their own inadequacies and the hungry are those who seek more than anything else the presence of the Lord. They are the ones that understand that Christ came to do for them what they can in no way do for themselves. He came to pay for them their debt they can never pay. He came to atone for their sin, which they could never, ever do for themselves. To them God shows mercy and grace. To them God gives great joy. To them God gives the true spirit of the season, which can be described in just one word. “Joy!”

    Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
    Let earth receive her King.
    Let every heart prepare him room,
    And heaven and nature sing,
    And heaven and nature sing,
    And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.
                (Isaac Watts)

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