Craig Smith - Christmas Eve (A Weary World Rejoices)
And God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you." And Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of a greeting this might be.
The first thing that always grabs my attention about the beginning of Mary’s story is her reaction to the angel’s greeting. It says she was greatly troubled, which is not a strange thing to say. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was greatly troubled to the fact that there was an angel there, right? But that’s not what she reacts to. She reacts to what he said to her. It’s his words that greatly troubled her. And I think really to understand that we probably have to understand that the first word he said to her was kind of strange.
Most English translations translate it as “greetings” or “hail” or something like that, but literally, in the original Greek this was written in, what the angel said to her is a command. He says, “Rejoice.” He says, “Rejoice, you who are highly favored.” It’s not really hello that he’s saying. He’s telling her that she’s supposed to have joy. It’s a command. And maybe Mary is a little bit like me. I don’t know if you’re like this, but when somebody tells me, “Hey, you know, buck up,” I’m a little suspicious at what’s coming next. Probably isn’t the kind of thing I would naturally get excited about. It almost feels like I need to brace myself, and maybe she feels a little bit that way.
But I’m actually really grateful for what the angel said to Mary here, because it’s an incredibly important reminder of something that I forget so, so easily, which is that joy is a choice. Joy is a choice. If the angel can command her to rejoice, then what that means is that joy is something that’s under her control, it’s something she can choose to do, regardless of what’s happening around her. It’s not something that happens to her. It’s something that she chooses herself. Joy is a choice and that’s good and its bad news, right? The good news is this, if joy is a choice, then joy is always an option. That’s good news, right? Joy is always an option. It’s not a matter of being at the mercy of whatever moment we happen to find ourselves in. Joy is not dependent upon what’s going on around us, good or bad. It’s a choice that we make. And that means that joy is always an option, no matter what’s going on and that’s great news.
The bad news though is this, is that if joy is a choice, that means that my joy is my responsibility. My joy is actually my responsibility. It’s not my wife’s responsibility. It’s not my boss’s responsibility. It’s not my kid’s responsibility and my employee’s responsibility. It’s not my boyfriend or my girlfriend’s responsibility or my teachers or my coaches or my neighbors or the government. It’s not even God’s responsibility. God has actually done everything that we need to be able to choose joy, but ultimately picking it up is up to us. My joy is my responsibility.
Now, I know this might seem a little bit of a strange way to talk about joy. And I think that’s because we tend to think that joy is kind of like happiness on steroids, right? Like, if I get a bonus at the end of the year, I’m happy. If I win the lottery, I have joy, right? It’s kind of an over-the-top version of happiness. But in fact, the Bible actually says that joy and happiness are not really the same thing at all. Happiness is an emotion. It’s what we feel. It’s really, it’s the pleasure we feel when our circumstances are pleasant. And there’s nothing wrong with happiness. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have pleasant circumstances that give us pleasure. God actually wants us to be happy.
There’s nothing wrong with happiness, but this is so important to understand, we can never let our desire for happiness trip us up in our pursuit of joy, because joy is powerful in a way that happiness never can be. Joy has the power to make a difference in a way that happiness doesn’t. The more I study the Bible and the more I study what God has to say about joy, the more I realize joy isn’t a product of our circumstances. It’s the power that carries us through them. Do you hear me? It’s not what we feel because of our circumstances. It’s actually the power to carry us through our circumstances, both good and bad.
And I know it might seem strange to think about being powered through good things, but the reality is that sometimes we have a moment that makes us happy and we’re just like, that’s good enough. I like this moment. I’m happy in this moment. So I’m gonna cling with everything I can in this moment, I’m gonna hold onto it. And the reality is that we’re never able to move forward into much better things that God has for us because we’re clinging to happy rather than joy. And of course, if our circumstances are bad and we don’t wanna stay there, joy is the power that gets us through those to the better things that God has for us. Joy isn’t the caboose at the end of the train. It’s the engine at the front, that’s pulling the whole along.
Okay. So if joy is so powerful, how do we choose it? How do we do what the angel told Mary to do, which is to rejoice? Well, the first thing we probably pay attention to is the very next thing that he said to her. He said, “Rejoice, you are highly favored. The Lord is with you.” And that’s the foundation for being able to rejoice. It’s that she’s not alone. It’s that God is with her. There’s an incredibly important truth that we celebrate at Christmas, maybe more than any other time in the year, and yet at Christmas, what we really should just be doing is remembering something that we have forgotten so much of the year, which is that joy is always an option because God is always with us.
Joy is always an option because we are not alone. God is with us. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. And the reality is there’s no circumstance so bad that it can’t be made worse by facing it alone, right? And there’s no circumstance so good that it can’t be made a little bit better if it’s shared with the right person. Being alone is a really hard thing. And I think honestly, in 2020, some of what has made this year so difficult for so many people is that there’ve been a lot of people feeling very much isolated and alone. But the reality is is that we are never truly alone because God is with us.
There’s power in someone, sometimes there’s power in anyone being with us. Years ago, we were kind of new to Colorado. I’d moved out to go to Denver Seminary. And it was late in the fall semester. It was coming up on Christmas. I think we only had a couple of days probably until we took a break for the Christmas season and there was a snowstorm coming and so they let us out of class early. And so I got on I25, was headed down the road to Castle Rock where we live. And I came up over Surrey Ridge. Some of you may know where that is. It’s kind of down around Castle Pines. And as I came up, I kind of entered into a fog bank in addition to the snow. And I really couldn’t see anything.
And I had just barely, kind of, crested that little peak there when I realized that there were cars all over the place in front of me. And I don’t just mean like a line of cars. I mean, like they were every which way. There were cars facing me. And there were cars sideways, and there were cars spinning as I watched in the ditches. And I realized what had happened was there was a semi-truck that had jack-knifed and then fallen over, and everybody was trying desperately to avoid it. And it was just this nightmare situation. I hit the brakes and I didn’t stop. It was icy enough, I just kept going, but I started spinning. I know I did at least one, 360. And I was like, Ooh. And I saw cars coming up.
And then by this, I don’t know what to call it other than miraculous, there was a car right in front of me and I came towards it. But as I did, I spun around it and I slipped into this spot between him and another car. And I didn’t hit either of them. And then a car behind me slid in and just, you know, missed me by a couple of feet and stopped and kind of like gave me a little pocket of protection. And I was looking around for angels, let me tell you. It was a crazy move. I was like, I can’t believe that happened. And then I heard the first of the sounds. I heard…just car after car after car began to pile up on the cars that were just behind me. It seemed like it went on forever.
I don’t remember how many, I think it was like 67, 70 cars, something like that. I know it was enough that it made the national news. My parents in Ohio heard about and called me to go, “Hey, did you hear about that crazy accident near you?” I was like, “Yeah, kind of.” And eventually, the sounds began to fade away or at least to get more distant. And I jumped out and I ran to the car behind me and that person seemed to be okay, but the car behind her, there was a woman, she was on the steering wheel and there was just blood everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like it.
And so, I rushed over and I opened the door and she wasn’t moving and I kind of reached in and she’s just beginning to stir. And I said…I said the dumbest thing, I said, “Are you okay?” And as I said it, I was like, she’s not okay, but what else do you say in a moment like that? Have you ever felt helpless? And I was like, “Are you okay?” Of course not, you’re not okay. And she couldn’t really answer. And so I put my hand on her shoulder and I said, “Stay here.” Also a dumb thing, right? She clearly wasn’t going anywhere. But I said, “Stay here, I’ll go get help.”
And she made a noise. She was like, “Huh?” And leaned and, I said, “I’m sorry, what was that?” She is like, “Huh.” And I said, “I’m sorry, what was that again?” And I realized what she was saying was, “Don’t.” Not don’t get help. It was don’t go. It was don’t leave me. She was hurt and she was scared and she did not wanna be alone. She wanted me to be with her. So I did. I held close and I was like, how do I get help? Because this was before everybody had cell phones, I didn’t have a cell phone. I had a pager. Do you guys remember pages? Anybody remember pagers? You know what you can do with a pager in a situation like that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So I had to call for somebody to go get help, to get some paramedics. And then I just stayed with her.
And I remember as I sat there with her feeling just so utterly useless, honestly. I mean, I could be close and that mattered to her obviously. Someone being with her was good. And I could certainly care. I could communicate that I cared. I just wasn’t very capable of doing anything beyond that. I didn’t know if I should move her. I did not know how to stop bleeding. I just didn’t know. I just felt so utterly useless. And eventually, the paramedics got there. And it’s interesting when the paramedics came in and they took her, she was happy to let me go. Like, as they took her away, she wasn’t like, “Come back.” No, she was like, “I’m good now.” Because see, in that moment, she had people who were close and who cared and who were capable of doing what I couldn’t do, what she couldn’t do.
And listen, close is great. Caring is awesome. But capable, capable of actually making things better, now that’s the best. And that’s what Christmas is. It’s God coming close because he cares, but it’s also the arrival of a God who is capable of doing something about the mess that we’ve made of things. It’s interesting. Almost 700 years before this moment, God gave a man named Isaiah a glimpse of this moment. I don’t know exactly what it looks like. Maybe he actually got to see 700 years in advance this moment in this young girl’s room, as this angel appeared and had this conversation with her. But as Isaiah records and he reflects on what God let him see, he wrote this. He said, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and we’ll call him Immanuel.”
He said, “The Lord himself will give you a sign.” It’s not gonna be a sign from a preacher. It’s not gonna be a sign from a prophet. It’s not gonna be a sign you got from God because you read a good book or you listened to a great podcast. It’s a sign from God himself, directly from the Almighty. And actually, probably we should adjust that just a little bit and say, it’s not that it would come directly from him. The sign is him. The sign is God himself because that’s what the word Immanuel means that they’re going to name this child. In Hebrew, Immanuel literally means God is with us.
And see, that’s Christmas. The God who cares coming close and was capable of doing for us what we could never do for ourselves, of actually fixing what is broken. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son and you’re to call him Jesus,” another of his names. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever. And his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I’m a virgin?” Which is the natural question, I think, but it’s the wrong question. It’s the natural question because I’m like, maybe you’re not this way, but for me, how is what I almost always focus on. When I’m in a difficult place, what I wanna know is how. You know, okay, how are you gonna fix this relationship, God? How are you gonna fix this circumstance? How are you gonna fix my finances? How are you gonna fix my health? How are you gonna fix my kids? How are you gonna fix whatever it is? It’s how, right?
But you notice the first thing the angel said to Mary had really nothing to do with how, it was all about who, right? Not that God’s gonna do a particular thing, but God is with you. See, how’s not the right question. The right question is who. Who matters way more than how. The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you and so the Holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. And even Elizabeth, your relative, is gonna have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month of pregnancy. For no word from God will ever fail.”
And notice, he really doesn’t answer her question. He doesn’t really answer anything about the how. If anything, he raises more questions than he answers. She says, “How’s this gonna happen?” He says, “Well, you know, the Holy Spirit will come upon you.” Well, for a 1st-century Jewish person, wait, the what? Well, what does that mean? Oh, he’ll overshadow you. That doesn’t sound pleasant. Well, what does that mean? Well, and because of that, the one will be called the Son of God. God has a Son? Seriously? I mean, there’s all these questions, but what the angel is basically trying to get her to do is, hey, don’t worry so much about how, the only thing that really matters is who. If God is with you, the how is not really all that important because God can do anything. Nothing is impossible for God. So that’s all you really need to understand.
But Mary has to make a choice. Yes, God cares. Yes, God longs to draw close. And yes, God is capable. Nothing is impossible for him, but she has to make a choice about whether or not she’s going to trust him because it’s when we trust God that everything he’s capable of really begins to get into motion. So she makes her choice. “I’m the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” And then the angel left her.
It’s always struck me that it’s kind of abrupt. She makes her choice. She says, “Okay, I’m God’s girl. Like, yeah, let’s do this thing.” And the angel is like, good enough, gone. And I’m sure Mary was like wha.., “Can we not just one more question? Okay.” I mean that’s all he was looking for. He was looking for her to make her decision to trust him. And it’s interesting, you know, his first word to her was rejoice and we haven’t seen that happen yet. She hasn’t rejoiced, but she has done the only thing that makes choosing joy possible. She’s made her decision to trust God.
So, here’s the thing, the foundation of joy is trusting God, because here’s another way to think about joy. We talked about that a bit in the series of the last few weeks, again, joy isn’t the pleasure we feel when our circumstances are pleasant, joy is the peace that we have even when they’re not. Joy and peace are very, very closely linked. And how do we have peace, especially when circumstances aren’t pleasant? Because we trust God to be in control of what we can’t.
I remember when I was little, we’d go on these long car trips sometimes, and we’d be coming home late at night. And sometimes crazy…you know, it’s raining or it’s snowing or the traffic’s insane. And you know what I was doing in the back seat? I was falling asleep. I didn’t have to worry about all that because I trusted my dad. And then, you know, I grew up and I had kids. And I remember those days of being out on the road with my two girls in the back seat and it’s late and the traffic’s bad and snow’s falling or whatever it is. And my kids, they’re falling asleep because they trusted me, and that trust brought peace. But the reality is I could make a mistake. I could screw it up. They trusted me, but I’m not quite worthy of their trust in the way that God is.
God makes no mistakes. Nothing is outside of his control. And so, the foundation of joy is trusting God, and that’s what Mary does. She trusts him and the angel immediately departs. And I love what Luke says next. He says, “At that Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.” That was the relative that the angela had told her was pregnant. And Luke, earlier in his Gospel, says that she was well along in years, which is his way of kind of saying in code, she was old. Like, really, really old, but you never say that about a woman, but she was way past the years where she could bear children.
And so, it’s interesting that Luke emphasizes how quickly Mary went. The angel, like, jets off and Mary immediately…in fact, in the original Greek, what it says in this moment is literally, “And arising on that day, she hurried to find Elizabeth.” There’s a very strong sense that she did it as quickly as possible, which is interesting. And I think this is for a couple of reasons. For one, I think she probably was looking for a little confirmation she wasn’t crazy. Mary hadn’t had a lot of conversations with angels.
She didn’t know anybody who had, and in the moment when she’s talking to an angel, she’s probably going, is this really happening? And then once it’s over, there’s a part of your brain that goes, did that really happen? Did I really just have a conversation with an angel? So she’d like a little confirmation she wasn’t crazy. And the thing is, the angel told her that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant. She’s six months along, which means she’s gonna be showing. So if Elisabeth’s pregnant, then that means that Mary isn’t crazy, this actually happened. So I think there’s a little bit of that, but maybe most importantly, I think what Mary’s looking for here is community.
She’s looking to spend some time with somebody else who is choosing to trust God. Somebody else who’s had an experience with a God who can be trusted, who cares and draws close, and is capable of doing what we can’t. She’s looking for somebody else who is looking for peace and joy in the same place. And there’s something very powerful here. Listen, one of the keys to choosing joy on a regular basis is who we hang out with because the reality is it’s much easier to trust God when we’re connected to a community, seeking joy in the same place.
We tend to seek joy. We tend to look for peace and assurance in the same things that the people around us are looking to. And so if we’re gonna choose joy, if we’re gonna trust God and have the peace that comes from that, it’s important that we lean into connections with people who are looking for that same peace, that same joy in the same place. And that’s what Mary is doing. And it’s interesting to me that it’s only after she comes in and finds her old cousin six months pregnant that Mary says this, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.”
Now, finally, she rejoices. Now, finally, she does what the angel began by telling her to do. And I think it’s so important to understand that just because she shows joy in this moment, just because she rejoiced, it doesn’t mean that her life suddenly got easy. She had all kinds of difficulties. Her family didn’t believe her story about why she was pregnant. Her village certainly didn’t believe it, or her fiancé, Joseph, didn’t believe it either. In fact, an angel had to come talk to him to tell Joseph not to put Mary aside and to go ahead and marry her. Being an unmarried pregnant girl in 1st-century, Israel, that’s not a picnic. And yet, because she had chosen to rejoice, I believe that she faced that very differently, along with all the other difficulties she faced.
She’s almost at the end of her pregnancy and the Roman emperor decided, I wanna make sure I get everybody counted so I can make sure I’m getting all the money that’s due me. So, he sent every…he completely disrupted society, sent everybody back to their ancestral home so they could be counted so he could make sure he was getting every dime he could out of them. And of course, they got into Bethlehem, which is Joseph’s hometown. And of course, as they get in, Mary’s like, “Hey, Joseph, I think tonight might be the night.” And Joseph’s probably like, “Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be? We’ll just go to our relatives’ house.” Well, okay, last, he says, “We’ll go to…the inn is full.” So what did they do? They bed down in a barn. It’s a great place to deliver a baby, right? And they deliver this child. And as Mary holds him and wonders over everything that God’s already said about this child, shepherds come in. And you know how new moms love strangers in the delivery room. Like, that’s a thing, right? They come traipsing in like, “Angels told us to come,” and she’s like, “Angels, don’t even get me started.”
And Luke says this. He says, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She treasured up all these, and not just the shepherds, not just the manger, not just the census, but everything all along. She’s storing up everything that God has done. And in other words, what Luke is telling us is that Mary is a hoarder. She’s a hoarder of God sightings. She’s a hoarder of what God has done. And by treasuring these things up, she’s setting herself up to continue to be able to choose joy as she goes forward from this point, which leads me to ask you this question.
I know 2020 has been a hard year, but it’s not been a year without God moving in our lives. We’ve seen that as a church. I’ve seen it in my own life. And my hope is that you’ve seen it as well. But let me ask you to ask yourself this question. What things has got done this year that I need to treasure up? Some of them you may immediately think of and some of them, you may need to take some time and look back on this year with a different lens, a lens of choosing joy to see things that God has done. You need to treasure those things up, but you need to ask yourself that question, what things has God done this year that I needed to treasure up so that I can choose joy in the next one?
Like, I really hope 2021 is gonna be better, but I can guarantee you there’s gonna be some hard times, but it is possible to continue to choose joy if you’ll treasure up what God has done even in this past year. Mary continued to face difficult things, but she faced them with joy. She saw her husband die and she became a single mom. She saw her family split apart as Jesus began his ministry. His brother and sisters thought he was crazy, and they wanted to go and get him and lock him up. There was that schism in the family. She had to deal with that. And then ultimately, of course, she saw her oldest son falsely accused, beaten, nailed to a cross, and thrown into a borrowed grave. And yet through all of that, she chose to rejoice. She chose joy.
And I think it’s important to understand this, trusting God doesn’t mean the end of pain. I wish it did, and one day it will. I promise you one day it well. In heaven, trusting God, it will be the end of all pain. But in this world, it doesn’t necessarily mean that. Trusting God doesn’t mean the end of pain, not now, but it does mean the birth of new possibilities for joy, even out of what looks like pain. Because see, Mary’s child didn’t stay in the manger. He grew into, you know, a young man who amazed everybody with his insight and wisdom. But he didn’t stay a young man. He grew into an adult who amazed everybody with his power. He made the lame walk. He made the blind see. But maybe more than anything, he amazed people with his love. He loved people far from God that everybody else thought was completely unlovable and unworthy of love, he loved them back from the brink, back into a relationship with him and a relationship with God, by love.
But he didn’t just stay a man with amazing wisdom and amazing love, he became a sacrifice. He willingly chose to die on the cross in our place to pay for all the wrong that we’ve done that separates us from God and has made such a mess of things. He became a sacrifice, and he didn’t stay in the tomb. He burst out of it three days later to prove that he had defeated death and could offer a new life. Those are new possibilities that Mary got to experience and that so can we, so can we. Because at Christmas we celebrate that God cares and he has come close in our own flesh in the person of Jesus, his own Son who is capable of doing for us what we could never have done for ourselves, and so it is that we can choose joy.
Some of you are here today to celebrate that joy because you know him, you have a relationship with her. You’ve said yes to following Jesus. You’ve experienced God coming close because he cares and doing what you were not capable of doing, forgiving your sin, giving you salvation, entering you into eternal life with him forever. Some of you are here and maybe you’re not exactly sure why, but if you’re honest, you’d say I’ve never experienced that. It’s a gift. It’s what Christmas is. It’s God’s gift to us. It’s his gift of himself coming near because he cares, and he wants to do what we’re not capable of doing. That’s his gift to you, but like any gift, it has to be accepted. And so if you’re listening to this, if you’re here and you’ve never accepted the free gift of God’s love that washes away our sin and gives us new life, you can accept that gift right here, right now. You can receive it.
I’m gonna ask everybody close their eyes and bow their heads. If you’re here tonight as a follower of Jesus, then please celebrate with me as we think on this incredible gift. And if you’re not a follower of Jesus yet but there’s something stirring in your heart that says, I need to accept that gift, the gift of Christmas, here’s how you do it. You’re just gonna have a conversation with God in your heart right now. Just say this to God after me:
God, I’ve done wrong. I’m sorry. I know I’ve made a mess of things. Thank you for loving me. Jesus, thank you for coming to be with me. Jesus, thank you for dying for me. I believe you rose from the dead and I understand that you’re offering me the gift of forgiveness, salvation, eternal life in heaven, a relationship with God. Well, I’m saying yes. I’m accepting your gift. Jesus. I’m saying yes to following you, to trusting you. I’m yours for now and forever. Amen.