Advent 4: Season of Joy

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” Luke 2:10

From November through the end of January, I indulge in Cranberry Ginger Ale. The festive pink soda comes in a 2-liter bottle with holiday fonts and designs. I love the taste, the bubbly effervescence in my glass, and the seasonal specialness of finding it only during a certain time of the year. Despite my love for this drink, I have painfully learned the right way to open a new bottle: slowly and deliberately. A few years ago, caught up in the bustle, I quickly unscrewed the cap and ginger ale exploded across the room, bubbling madly over the lid. Splashes of pink ginger ale hit my backsplash, my cupboards, and even shot up to my ceiling. Not quick in a crisis, I yelled, “Ooooh”, as I watched it erupt from the bottle. Ethan and my father-in-law laughed as I stood frozen, unsure of what to do. Eventually, I found towels to clean up the mess.

I love all things that explode, bubble, burst, or pop. I share the joy of Pop Rocks with the little people I love. My daughter and I squeal with delight as the cotton candy-colored soaps bubble across our windows in a car wash. The Broadway show “Wicked” enchanted me during the ending when metallic emerald streamers explode from the theater ceiling. And I jumped on the bandwagon of hot chocolate bombs, watching them burst in my cup. I believe bubbles and glitter should adorn every festive get together. The giggles that ensue are contagious, as is the glitter that remains in your carpet but is worth the cleanup!

Joy is the final topic of this Advent series, and the easiest for me to receive and give. I am bubbly in nature, delighting in simple pleasures. Practicing the discipline of gratitude increases my joy. I also try to engage all five senses when experiencing joy. Watching fireflies dance in summer, hearing my grandson’s giggles, smelling cardamom pods, tasting bright oranges in the dead of winter, and snuggling cozily under warm blankets all bring me joy.

Joy is a sensory experience in the Christmas story as well. The Bible records the angel startled the sleepy shepherds with the message, “I bring you good tidings of great joy,” followed by an angelic chorus filling the sky with music. Mary swaddled her newborn baby in soft blankets, keeping him warm and cozy in the chilly stable. A bright star appeared in the sky, leading the wise men to baby Jesus, showering him with gifts, including the fragrant frankincense. And Mary prophesied in her song “He has fed the hungry with good things.”

Four times in the Biblical account of the Christmas story, the word joy is used to describe the coming of Jesus. Exceeding and great are used to qualify that joy, emphasizing its importance and magnitude. This joy is not the same as the happy feeling that rushes over you when you see fresh fallen snow, hear your favorite Christmas carol, or receive a hug from a loved one. These are based on external circumstances. This exceeding joy has nothing to do with what is tangible, but everything to do with the character of God. Yes, there were happy moments during the birth of Jesus, but exceeding joy had to do with this baby born to right the world.

For all the characters in the Christmas story, nothing outwardly changed at the time of Jesus’ birth. The shepherds returned to their ordinary lives, taking care of sheep. Despite Mary and Joseph having to deal with the rumors surrounding his birth, and even having to flee from their country for his safety, Jesus was still a normal baby. And the salvation that Simeon and Anna recognized in the temple did not come to everyone until after his death, burial, and resurrection. But the Bible doesn’t say joy “is coming”, but rather places joy in the present tense. Writer Jared C. Wilson says, “Happiness is dependent on our own circumstances. Joy is dependent on our Savior.” The shepherds, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna had joy because they knew they were a part of God fulfilling his promise. This joy, based on His word, affirmed his goodness and mercy.

Joy is mentioned throughout the Bible. Often, it is used in conjunction with tears, suffering, and the cross. These are not the words an ordinary person would associate with joy. But as a Christian, we can have joy in hard circumstances, not because we are manufacturing a cheerful disposition. Our neighbors will easily see through the facade. But if we allow joy to spring up from the comfort of knowing who God is, it will bubble over and make itself felt in everything we do. It will joyfully reveal the glory and majesty of that little baby born over 2,000 years ago.

Christmas and the end of Advent are just a few days away. I’ve been preparing my heart with hope, peace, love, and now, joy. Join with me on Christmas morning by listening to a version of “Joy to the World” accompanied by a full orchestra. Blast it and sing the lyrics wholeheartedly. I know of no other song that musically and lyrically embodies the true celebration of Christmas joy. And as the song is being played, I’m going to reflect on this past year, reminding myself of times that may have been hard, but how the goodness of God still prevailed. And like the song declares, I will “repeat the sounding joy”, offering gratitude to our good God.

Merry Christmas, dear readers! Thank you for journeying through Advent with me, this year. I pray you experienced the hope, peace, love, and joy of Christ, this season, and that they continue with you throughout the coming new year!

Advent 3: Season of Love

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

As young adults, my sisters and I hosted our first Christmas party with our church family. We sent the invites, cleaned the house, and baked cookies late into the afternoon. Pleased with our attempts at domesticity, we looked for some of my mom’s platters buried deep in her cupboard. As we pulled out the 1970s ruby glass platter, I noticed just a slight trace of dust, likely due to lack of use. Exhausted (and maybe a little lazy), I ignored the dust, and quickly placed the cookies on the dusty platter. The party was a success, despite dusty platters.

At Christmas, my husband is one of the jolliest souls I know. He loves old Christmas movies, especially “White Christmas”, collects vintage Christmas books, and listens to Bing Crosby. But when the song “Christmas Shoes” comes across the airwaves, my husband gets a little Grinchy. The song records the plight of a young child trying to buy a pair of shoes for his sick mother. It pulls on the heartstrings by expressing that the shoes will help her look beautiful if she meets Jesus, tonight. Please do not think my husband is heartless. He has teared up over the course of fifty viewings of George Bailey’s basket of donations during “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Unlike the Grinch, his heart is the right size. He just doesn’t appreciate contrived emotionalism.

The Christmas season invites differing opinions about music, movies, traditions, and foods. There are those who love Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” while others hate it. Most Americans seem to despise fruitcake, but across the pond, the love of fruitcake is alive and well. The Elf on the Shelf tradition elicits various responses, from those who chronicle the Elf’s antics on Instagram to those who wouldn’t chase the dog running away with the Elf in his mouth. We throw the words love and hate around casually, like the strands of tinsel that float around your house for months after Christmas.

This week in Advent, I am focusing on love. Even in researching Advent, I found some traditions disagree where to place love: either in the third or last week. Wherever you place it, John 3:16 clearly explains that Jesus came because “God so loved the world”. This love is not fickle like our love for fruitcake. It doesn’t compare to our love for our spouses, because sometimes that love is a choice, not a Hallmark moment. Pet owners declare undying love for their pets and may go to great lengths to care for them, but this love doesn’t measure up to God’s love. The closest human relationship we have with this kind of love is how a parent loves their child. But the Bible records that even though we provide amazing gifts for our children, especially under a Christmas tree, these gifts don’t compare to the gifts from God.

As a child, my son, Ethan, loved Christmas as much as his father. He was the first to turn on the lights on the tree, couldn’t wait to indulge in Peanut Butter balls, and had his favorite songs on repeat during the holidays. Even his sense of gratitude matched his love for Christmas. After opening each gift, he would bellow, “Thank you, mom and dad” followed up with a big hug.

As I unwrap the gift of Jesus, I want to express my gratitude as well. Jesus chose humility by being born in a stable full of animals, even though He was the King of everything. He endured a life of hardship and poverty when He had access to all the riches of the earth. And finally, He suffered unbelievable pain to bring me hope, peace, and joy, all for the sake of His love for me.

And who am I to be worthy of such a gift? Elyse M. Fitzpatrick, as quoted by Ann Voskamp in “The Greatest Gift”, helped me answer this question. She said, “I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared to believe, but more loved and welcomed than I ever dared hope.” This quote has resonated with me as I examine where I fall short. I am a sinner, and no matter how I try to paint things, I have lied, judged, been harsh, and refused to do the things I know to do. And if I say I have no sin, I “deceive myself and the truth is not in me.” Like cookies on dusty platters, I may look good to others and even to myself, but Jesus looks underneath and knows who I really am.

Yet, despite this understanding of my sinful heart, Jesus loves me unconditionally. He doesn’t love me based on what I do, how I perform, or even how others perceive me. He loves me and welcomes me into His family as His adopted daughter. It is a relationship full of privilege and blessings. I have the hope of eternal life because His love covers a multitude of sins. I can move towards wholeness where sin had left me broken. And it’s His love that transforms my brokenness into the beautiful story I live today.

Yet, while I bask in His love, I can’t keep it all in my own heart. This love needs to be shared not just with my family and friends, but with the marginalized in my community. When I read the Christmas story, I marvel at the birth of the Messiah. Angels revealed His birth to shepherds. Simeon and Anna recognized Him as the Messiah in the temple. Wealthy wise men searched for the newborn king and presented Him with presents. Meanwhile, the so-called royalty of Jerusalem, baffled by the wise men’s inquiries, attempted to use them to destroy this new king. Poor farmhands, senior citizens, and foreigners got a glimpse of the baby who would change the world. From the time of His birth, Jesus cared about all people with an overwhelmingly abundant love. With such a great gift given to me, how can I help but share it with others?

Advent 2: Season of Peace

“Lord, You will establish peace for us, for you have also done all our works for us.” Isaiah 26:12

The first snowfall sprinkles my world with magic. White flakes cover the dead earth and coat the barest of branches, making winter a wonderland. On dark morning walks, the moon reflects on this clean slate, creating an ethereal atmosphere. All noise is muffled by the snow, adding to the magic. Despite the briskness, I walk with more ease, with my shoulders relaxed and my countenance carefree. Even my thoughts seem less cluttered, as I breathe deeply of the cold air, and my mind opens to more possibilities. All that is dead, brown, and heavy now seems alive, beautiful, and peaceful.

Of the four concepts I will explore in my Advent blogs, I find peace the most difficult to sustain in my life. I often find myself caught up in the busyness of life, anxious about details and overwhelmed with uncertainties. The stress manifests itself not only in my body but also in my actions and responses towards others. Internally, I get knots in my neck and stomach, causing discomfort. Externally, I become snippy and demanding, creating a less than peaceful atmosphere in my home. I am not proud of this, and it is something that I am consciously trying to change.

Timothy Keller, in his online Advent devotional, asks readers to meditate on the terms to describe Christ in Isaiah 9. When talking about the Prince of Peace, he says “Prince of Shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word that conveys absolute spiritual and physical flourishing.” This flourishing is antithetical to how I define peace as a place of inaction and lack of forward movement. How then is peace a place of growth?

Both in the Old and New Testaments, peace is synonymous with harmony. Being married to a musician, I have learned a little about harmony over the years. When a group sings in harmony, the individual different parts don’t sound so beautiful. But put together, something magical happens. It creates a fuller, richer sound that is more than the sum of its parts.

If peace is the same as harmony, the opposite would be conflict or disharmony, known musically as dissonance. This is not always unwanted, especially in a piece that is trying to convey a sense of urgency or chaos. But if you are trying to convey a sense of peace and beauty, adding the vocals of someone like me who goes off key will create an unwelcome dissonance (for more about my tone deafness, see “O Holy Night”). The one off-key person or one instrument disrupts the whole, leaving everyone slightly uncomfortable.

The Israelites anticipated the coming of the Messiah. They expected a powerful king like David, who they memorialized in their conversations and scriptures. This Messiah would restore the Hebrew people back to power. They felt validated when reading the prophecy in Isaiah 9:6, where he talked about “the mighty God” and, in the next verse, “the increase of His government”. They forgot that in these same two verses, peace is also recorded: “the prince of peace” and “of the increase of His government and peace, there will be no end.” Jesus came to bring a full and sustaining peace.

This peace is not the distorted view I have of inactivity. Instead, it is like the blanket of snow, covering a ground that seems dormant, but instead is busy beyond our purview. Snow provides the precipitation the earth needs for things to grow and to replenish our water supply. It contributes to soil fertility by trapping dissolved organic nitrogen and nitrates. Snow also protects our forests by insulating the ground and protecting roots in the bitter cold. As winter unravels, the warming temperatures and thawing snow allow for a season of miraculous growth.

There is nothing as precious as a baby sleeping. I watched in awe this past Thanksgiving as our family: parents, grandparents, and aunt and uncle, took turns holding a sleeping two-month-old. We all “oohed” and “aahed” over her sweet coos and sleepy stretches, beaming at this beautiful, precious baby girl lying peacefully in our arms.

I can only imagine the peaceful expressions of Mary and Joseph as they watched in awe while baby Jesus lay in the manger. Maybe, as they held him, counting his breaths, they remembered the past months of angelic visits, tough decisions to make, and the echo of rumors from friends and foes. But right now, all alone in a stable, they held in their arms the fulfillment of four millennia of prophecy. Their peaceful reminiscences were interrupted as a group of shepherds rushed into the stable. The shepherds, too, had a peaceful night interrupted by a host of angelic voices telling them of this baby born in this stable. How did Mary respond to this attention? The Bible records that “she kept all these things and pondered them in her heart”.

This attitude of Mary’s was peaceful, but not without action. The Bible records earlier that Mary sang a song about her savior. In Luke 1:52-53, she exclaims that he has “exalted the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things.” Even though she didn’t understand how or when, she knew that this little baby came to fulfill all the prophecies and change her world. She didn’t fret or worry, instead, she did what she knew to do. She fed him, changed his diapers, played with him, taught him the basics of living, and helped him grow. She took care of him when he was sick, worried when he was missing in the temple, and encouraged him in his first miracle. She watched as he was taken away, saw him suffer on the cross, and was filled with his spirit after his ascension. By choosing peace, she continued with life and, eventually, it led to her being whole.

Jesus declared in his first message in the temple found in Luke 18:4, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to set at liberty all those who are oppressed.” He has come so those who are broken, captive, or oppressed can experience his gift of peace. And in his peace, they will flourish and grow by experiencing healing, freedom, and liberty.

Why do I struggle with peace? Like the Hebrews looking for a savior who would rescue them from their Roman captivity, too often I decide the kind of God I want to rescue me. I have preconceived notions about how God should orchestrate my life. And when my plans don’t align with his, this creates a dissonance that is uncomfortable for me and those around me.

Just today, as I wrote this, I called my husband asking if he had received any information on a situation we desperately need resolved. With no news, I felt tension rising in my body, asking why God hadn’t performed my Christmas miracle. It seems like a minor thing for God to do. I stopped for a moment, reminded about Advent, and prayed for peace to flood my soul. Like Mary, I took a few minutes to meditate on the life of Jesus, declare his future miracles, and trust him. And with that prayer, my shoulders relaxed. I took a deep breath and continued with what I know to do. By resting in his peace, I can wholeheartedly bless others without anxiety and stress taking up mental space. I can trust that He is doing a work in my life that will flourish. And that is Shalom peace, a beautiful, harmonious melody with God leading.