I think it’s safe to say that Mary received the news of Jesus’ coming birth with great joy. Almost like a Broadway musical, she breaks into song – “My soul magnifies the Lord!” On the other hand, a certain King Herod also responded to the news of Jesus’ birth. I don’t think anyone would have accused Herod of not taking Jesus’ birth seriously – but joy was certainly not a part of the equation.
The other day I listened to a song called “Jazz Police,” by Leonard Cohen, one of my favorite songwriters. The line in the song that caught my attention contained the words: “Jesus taken serious by the many, Jesus taken joyous by a few.” It occurred to me that in the angry defense of Christmas I hear coming from so many Christians, we may wind up sounding more like King Herod and less like Mary. In other words, we find ourselves in danger of taking Jesus’ birth seriously, but somehow losing sight of the joy.
The birth of Jesus – the incarnation of God – was intended to alleviate fear and anxiety and bring hope, peace, joy and love to God’s people. That’s why we dedicate a Sunday to each of those ideas in the month leading up to Christmas – with this coming Sunday being focused on Joy. While I understand those who want to defend Jesus in the “war on Christmas” – I also believe a church that demands everyone take us seriously is much less likely to attract seekers than a church that simply responds to his coming in joy. In my experience, the natural human response to fear and anger is more of the same.
There is no question that anger, fear and despair are contagious. We see it and experience it every day. The good news, however, is that joy works the same way. Joy is also contagious. We are not called to be carriers of bad news. We are messengers of joy – even as the angel Gabriel was a messenger of joy to Mary.
Joy is God’s gift to our world. When the angel appeared to the shepherds, he said, “”I bring you tidings of great joy that will be for all people.” In other words, you don’t have to wealthy, or healthy, or educated, or powerful. God’s joy is available to you now.
In the middle of your stressful life, God wants you to experience joy. He wants you to know that he favors you, that he treasures you, and that he will never let you go.
There are plenty of good reasons out there for choosing fear and doubt. There are plenty of unanswered questions and landmines in your future, just as there were for Mary. But God extends to you an invitation to joy now. Receive it. Be filled by it. Pass it on to others – and like Mary, Jesus will come into your life and you will never be the same again.