2020 has been a really difficult year for many around the world. I've had friends and family who have lost jobs, lost loved ones, struggled through difficult challenges, experienced intense loneliness while being far away from loved ones without any clarity on when they would be able to meet again. Many have struggled with emotional and mental health issues.
If you could make a wish list for Christmas, what would be right on top? For many, it would be for things to get back to normal, or to be able to reunite with family.
For me, it would be a heart filled with joy and gratitude! I've struggled with feeling joyless quite often this year and, at times, I've longed for the abiding joy that Jesus promises. As Christmas approaches, with its message of love, joy, and peace, I long for my heart to be filled with joy and gratitude.
So I was quite excited that the women at our church were doing a study to prepare our hearts for Christmas. As we sit together every Saturday and study the first two chapters of Luke, there have been so many things I have learned. One of these is the theme of God's favour upon man and the joy that preceded and surrounded the actual story of the birth of Jesus. This joy came with faith, obedience and surrender.
Four hundred years of silence had passed since the last prophet Malachi spoke. The people of God lived in distress and oppression under Roman rule. People lived in darkness and sin, and the few that trusted in the Lord were waiting for Him to intervene. When would their Immanuel come and rescue them? I wonder if they had their own version of 'O Come O Come Immanuel' as they longingly waited for their Deliverer.
Set in a time of helplessness and suffering, the first Christmas story is one full of surprises and the showering of God's favour upon people. He gave long-awaited answers to prayer, but in ways no one had imagined, and through people no one would've expected. God Himself was coming to dwell among men, bringing light, hope, and joy.
We see the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, as God in His tender mercy answered their seemingly long-forgotten prayer and heart's desire for a child in an unbelievably gracious way - their son would be the one preparing the way for the Messiah! The Lord, in His perfect way and timing, took away their shame and gave them joy. Their son's birth story, life story, and even his name, John, (God is gracious, He has shown favour) would ever testify of the Lord's goodness in their lives. No wonder Elizabeth sings out in thanksgiving,
"Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people!" (Luke 1:25)
And then we see Mary, a simple young girl who probably lived a life hardly anyone knew or cared much about, but she was shown favour by God. The angel comes to her and tells her she was chosen to give birth to the long-awaited Messiah. Mary sang in praise,
"My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name." (Luke 1:46-49)
How great was the favour God poured out on Mary! What great joy she experienced as she saw what the Lord did in her life!
God's favour was being poured out on man through Him coming to dwell among us. As Zechariah, being filled with the Holy Spirit prophesied,
"Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1:78, 79)
This favour is for all who would believe in Him and we continue to experience His favour as He dwells in and with us. Elizabeth, Mary, and Zechariah rejoiced in what the Lord did for them and His people. What do we rejoice in?
What brings you joy at Christmas time? For some, joy is families coming together, the familiar and well-loved carols in the background, delicious food, cookies, and cakes. For some, it's the decorations and festivity all around. But if our joy is dependant on all these, Christmas for those with lockdown restrictions or those stuck in faraway places can be pretty joyless. Honestly, I've often needed to be reminded of where joy comes from. True joy comes from our Lord Jesus Christ - who He is, and what He has done for us. That doesn't change with our circumstances.
This Christmas season, will we declutter our hearts and minds and make room in our busyness for Jesus? In the midst of difficult situations, will our hearts acknowledge answered prayers as we testify to the Lord's gracious hand in our lives? Are our hearts prepared to humble ourselves in obedience, surrender, and worship as Mary did? Will we open our hands and hearts to the God who comes to us in His tender mercy and favour? I hope this Christmas we will fix our hearts and minds on Jesus, His wonderful salvation, and His continual grace on us. May this fill us with joy and gratitude.
Again, I say, rejoice
For unto us is born
The Saviour of the world
Oh weary soul, take heart
For help is on its way
And Holy is His name.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel"
(Matt Maher - O come O come Immanuel)