Theme: Bringing Joy to the World (Sunday 29 November, 2020)
Series: Advent 2020
Bible Reading: Luke 2:1-21
Preacher: Phil Swain
Advent is here
… and that means that Christmas is nearly here
… and that means that 2020 is nearly finished… YEAH!!!
A few years ago, I used as one of my Advent illustrations the Dr Suess story of how the Grinch stole Christmas. You remember the story don’t you? In a nutshell, there is the Grinch who, due to a bad childhood memory, hates Christmas – he hates the noise, the celebration, the feast, the singing … the Grinch hates everything about Christmas. So, one Christmas Eve after everyone is asleep, he decides to steal Christmas away … he steals all the presents, the food, the decorations even the Christmas trees and takes them all up to the highest point of the nearby mountains to dump them off.
I am not sure if this year the Grinch has stolen Christmas … rather, it feels like the Grinch has stolen 2020 from us. At this time last year, I had such great hopes for 2020 here at TUC.
We have just completed a very successful “Imaging Hope” program where we set a big audacious goal of increasing our giving and being able to hire additional ministry staff. Then in February, we cast an exciting vision for 2020 for our church which would build on the momentum and growth that we had. It was looking great and then it was like COVID came along and stole away our momentum, our opportunities, our plans … even stole away our ability to meet together, to hug each other, to sing together … it was like the 2020 Grinch stole all of that, wrapped it up in a ball and was ready to dump it off a cliff. And what has happened in the church has happened in people’s lives. What do you think? Did the Grinch steal 2020?
It has been a tough year. I remember a quote from a journalist I was reading that said that 2020 has been a year of disruption – a disruption of the way of living that we had gotten used to – and that dealing and adapting with all this disruption has been exhausting.
A couple of months ago, I was in a meeting with some of with a bunch of the young adults talking and we were talking about how we could run Christmas Eve Worship this year with all the COVID restrictions, and at that time, the short answer was that we couldn’t. As we went around in circles on what we might do instead, one of young adults said, “I just feel like after the year that we had we need to focus on joy. We really need joy at the moment” (Which is where the joy events have come from). I remember them joking that for Advent – instead of having the themes – Hope, Peace, Joy and Love – we should have Joy, Joy, Joy and Joy. I do thank Clare and Jonty and Ellen and Will because they inspired me to really explore this more and yes … the main focus that we as a church will have this Christmas is JOY.
Sounds great does it … but lets talk about the elephant in the stable … we are already exhausted from 2020 and all the disruption we have had to deal with and now Advent and Christmas is upon us and they are demanding our time, energy, focus and investment. How are we supposed to cope with 2020 AND be doing the things we need to do to prepare for Christmas AND finding time to do the things we need to do to find hope, peace, love and particularly JOY this Christmas?
Before deciding that it is all too hard and opt out of Christmas this year … I think that even in the disruption that 2020 has been, Christmas can speak to us this year and can bless us.
Let’s have a look at our Bible reading for today. The problem with the Christmas story is that it is so familiar that we sometimes tune out from it … but let’s have a closer look from a 2020 perspective … and from this perspective of disruption.
Because when you think about it … most of the Christmas story is about disruption.
- Zachariah’s work at the temple being disrupted by angel with news of answered prayer.
- Mary’s normal life being disrupted by another angel with news of a divine pregnancy.
And then we get to our Bible reading for today and everyone’s life is disrupted because Caesar Augustus issued a decree that everyone had put their normal life on hold and return to their ancestral home to be registered and counted in the census.
AD 0 was not too different from 2020. Sure, there was no mention of social distancing but certainly people’s jobs, schooling, other plans would have all been affected by this census decree. It would have been disruption on mass. And it was amid this disruption, in the middle of this chaotic societal upheaval that … Jesus was born.
As Isaiah predicted 600 years earlier … Those who are living in darkness have seen a great light … a light is dawning on them. (Isaiah 9:2). Yes, this disruption was difficult but at the same time God was at work … a light was dawning.
But where does the joy come into this? Hope maybe … God is at work, a light is dawning … definitely hope … but Joy in the disruption and chaos? We just can’t see how it can be joyful.
Then we get to the story of the shepherds. A shepherds life is not that exciting. Their whole is basically groundhog day… every day is the same. They are out in the fields looking after the sheep, day after day, night after night. Except for these particular shepherds who were on the hills of Bethlehem on that particular night. They were in for one huge disruption.
Angels appeared … and the glory of the Lord shone about … and they were terrified. Mainly because an angel appeared but also terrified because the disruption had come and maybe they just knew, things were not going to be the same again … and that is terrifying. And then the key verse of the day:
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
What is this good news that will bring great joy … not only for the shepherds but for all people? A saviour has been born.
The one who saves has come to save us. I just want to step through the angels words and show how this good news of a saviour can bring joy to the world!
- “Do not be afraid”.
God, through the angels, dispel our fears through the very fact that Jesus has come to us. I love the theological concept of the incarnation … that God is not watching us from a distance but has come to us, to become one of us in Jesus. My favourite Christmas word is “Emmanuel” which literally means “God is with us”. We do not have to fear anymore because Emmanuel … God is with us always … and that cause great JOY.
- “A Saviour has been born … to you”
The angels don’t waste time getting to the main point. This is good news that will cause great joy because the saviour … the one who will brings together love, forgiveness, grace and acceptance has come. The birth of Jesus is a critical step in the God’s relentless plan to bring us back into a loving relationship. The savour has come and that definitely can cause great JOY.
- “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”
In the same way that the angel gave the shepherds some guidance of what to do and what to look for … in Jesus was find a teacher, mentor, helper and guider through life too … and that can cause great JOY.
But as the shepherds showed … the key to experiencing Joy is not just hearing this good news, but responding to the Good News. The joy did not come from hearing the good news but from deciding to go and see this thing the angels told them about.
But responding to this news came with a whole lot of risk and inconvenience. If they went, what would they do with their sheep? What about their plans for the night? They might lose their job over this? It would have been much easier for the shepherds to decide that just knowing the saviour had been born was enough because it was quite inconvenient to leave their sheep and go to into Bethlehem. They never asked for this angelic news and now this disruption was causing a lot of problems. I wouldn’t have blamed them for just opting out.
We might feel the same way about 2020. We have been hugely disrupted by COVID and buffeted by all the complications and inconveniences that have come with that and maybe we also feel like opting out this Advent and Christmas and just re-emerging on New Years Day. But maybe we need a Grinch like epiphany.
Remember back to the Grinch. He had stolen Christmas … opted out … and was convinced that without presents and decorations and food etc, Christmas could not come. But as he stood on the cliff ready to dump Christmas, he looked back down over the town as people were emerging on Christmas morning and were singing … they were celebrating … Christmas still came … and the Grinch could not work out how? How could Christmas still be Christmas if it didn’t have any of the things that bring us joy? And then you have that great line
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
The Who’s in Whoville discovered joy in all the chaos and changes and maybe this is where we can find Joy this Christmas too. We know that Christmas is not going to feel the same, be the same this year. Even though in the last few days some restrictions have been lightened, there will still be people missing from the table, there may not be all the trimmings this year. I know here at the church it is not going to be the same without the CEW musical … but I know that it will still be special and magical and meaningful because … maybe Christmas is a little bit more. Maybe the joy is not in the trimmings but in … well, in drawing near to Jesus … the newborn King.
In verse 20 of our bible reading we read about the shepherds “returning” after going to see the Saviour. They returned to their fields, to their lives … they returned, but things did not return to normal. Not now, not after the experience they had.
After the year that we have had … we are slowly returning to something similar to what it was before … but I don’t think that we will ever return to normal. I think like the shepherds, we have been changed by our experience of COVID. I have heard that some people have changed their work patterns and are not interested in returning to the old ways of doing things. I know some people – after going without for months, they have a new appreciation of the blessing of community and being together. We have been changed by the process. We have a new perspective.
And maybe that is the lesson we can learn from the Shepherds. You see, when the bible says that they returned, they returned to their same lowly position, they returned to their same monotonous tasks, but they returned with a different perspective. They now knew that Saviour had been born. This child that they saw was the embodiment of love and grace. They glimpsed the profoundness of Emmanuel … God was now with them. Their perspective had changed and that brought them JOY.
This Advent, as we stumbled exhausted towards Christmas and long for a new year that is not 2020 …
May we have our perspectives challenged.
May we see that even in the difficulties … there is Good News to be heard, Good News to be experienced.
So let us not opt out of this Season
But rather, like the shepherds, let us draw near to Jesus.
And discover anew the Good news that is Jesus Emmanuel.
God is with us.
And may that bring us … and may that bring the whole world…