Cornerstone EPC Sunday morning
Franklin, NC 28734 December 15, 2019
“The Gospel of Great Joy”
Christmas appears to be a happy time for many—to judge from advertisements, Christmas specials on television, and the like. We participate, and watch others participate, in festive occasions that mark the season. We watch others on our advertisements receive surprise gifts—sometimes with large sticker value, such as a new car or a diamond engagement ring. True, for a fair number of people, these weeks will form one of the happiest seasons of their entire lives.
Yet this time is not joyous for many. For many who are poor in this world’s goods, the season reminds them only of their inability to give their loved ones the materials that everyone else seems to get and to take for granted. For many who are broken under life’s heavy loads, this season reminds them that they struggled to lift their heads to Heaven or to lift the corners of their mouths into a smile.
December in this part of the country brings cold, and it often brings wet. These are hard enough on those who can ward them off with sufficient shelter, but for those with inadequate shelter, cold and wet are constant companions—and there is little joy in such a state. Add to this food insecurity—or outright hunger—and precious little joy remains.
Every one at Christmas, to judge from our entertainment, is happy and surrounded by people they like and love. For the lonely, though, these scenes are cruel reminders of what they do not have. Those enduring relational estrangement (marital breakdown, e. g.) do not enjoy warm sentiments and company with those who formerly cared about them, and in their hearts little joy exists. The grieving routinely find these holidays difficult, for they rightly miss loved ones who no longer are here. Even those in Christ we have the confidence of being with them once again, and in that day never again to be separated, we yet must traverse these difficult days—and the traveling and the travailing through such grief snuffs joy’s flame. Truly, for many, the brutally honest fact is Christmas is not joyful.
‘Twas not a joyous time and place that today’s text narrates. The people of God seethed under hated Roman occupation, and they languished in the centuries-long, ongoing silence of God. Moreover, most in that time and place eked out a hardscrabble existence; there was very little prosperity outside a very few Jewish and Roman elite. Yet into that time and place—and into our time as well—God enters. He enters via the written Word, the Bible, which bears witness to the living Word, Jesus Christ—Whose first Advent we celebrate and Whose second Advent we anticipate. Let us give ear, whatever our level of joy today, to God’s Word read and proclaimed again—and may He in these moments fill us with His joy to overflowing.
(HERE READ THE TEXT)
The text narrates a pastoral setting. We read here of open country, of night, and of shepherds keeping watch over the flocks entrusted to them. This tranquil, bucolic scene changes to something quite unusual—both in our eyes and to the shepherds’ eyes. An angel of the Lord appears, and the Lord’s glory shines round about. Given the long silence from God, and the unusual brightness of the night, we understand the shepherds’ fear: they feared a great fear.
Then the angel speaks, and his first words strike at their fear. He commands them, “Fear not,” which, once again, is the most oft-repeated command in Scripture. The angel follows his command which an excellent reason to discard fear. The English Standard Version has the angel declaring, “I bring you good news of great joy….” One (me, for example) could translate reasonably the Greek thus, “I preach to y’all the Gospel—(itself) great joy….” The angel, in his next words, gives us the substance of great joy.
A Savior is born unto us. This Savior that the angel announces is the Christos, the Messiah, the Anointed One. He is the One foretold by prophets of old, and His birth occurs in the city of David, that is, Bethlehem—scarcely six miles from Jerusalem and possibly quite near to the shepherds. More than this, the angel declares the confirmatory sign: They will find a nursing infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Here is a wonderful declaration of the Gospel—this great joy—offered via proclamation to all.
Presently the angel has company. A multitude of the Heavenly host appears with the angel, and that host praises God and declares both His glory and peace among those pleasing to Him. What an incredible narrative—if God the Holy Spirit has not inspired its recording by Dr. Luke, we scarcely could believe it. Yet God gives a dazzling display of His glory and His message, not to those elite back in Jerusalem, but to shepherds—perhaps among the lowest of the low—in order that they may behold Him. Indeed, they behold Him face to face, for the next paragraph in Luke’s Gospel has them in Bethlehem at Jesus’ birthplace, declaring what they had seen and heard.
All we’ve heard and noted today is wonderful beyond description, but we’ve yet to answer one question, namely, “Why is this great joy?” Let’s look at a few answers. Jesus came, from Heaven via the Holy Spirit, into Mary’s womb and into this world to save us. Scripture tells us elsewhere that, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) and that, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In short, if we are to be saved, we require a Savior. Happily, as we note today, He has come. Moreover, He saves us both by living a sinless life (thus obeying His Father actively) and by dying on the cross to atone for those sins against Him (thus obeying His Father passively). We receive this salvation not by works, but by faith—a faith itself given by God (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is cause enough for great joy, but there is more
This salvation entails upon us both eternal life (John 3:16) and abundant life (John 10:10). We have a quality, a dimension, of life in Jesus that those outside of Him simply do not have. Even in our troubles—and through many of these Christ’s people must press in order to obtain the prize—we have this abundant life, and joy is one of its many expressions. Moreover, this abundant life never ends—and, either at our Homegoing or at Christ’s return, we shall know this joy heightened in our souls above anything we could ask or even imagine (cf. Ephesians 3:20). All of this Jesus guarantees by His victory over death—and, by extension, over sin, over hell, and over the devil
Now we have a Gospel of great joy. Have you received it? If not, then there is no better time than now. Receive the Lord Jesus, Who we declare today, by faith and receive all the good He has for you—His abundant, eternal life, including great joy abounding in your soul. If so, then continue therein and continue to enjoy His blessings to all eternity.
Now, despite our human circumstances today, we have great joy that transcends those circumstances. Let us rejoice in Him Who came to Bethlehem a baby. Let us rejoice in Him Who came to save us. Furthermore, let us rejoice in Him Who prepares a place for us—in order that we may be with Him eternally, with inexpressible joy accompanying.