Words like hope, peace, love and joy that sound simple, are actually anything but.
Our church has been journeying through the advent season and week by week looking at these words. This past weekend I was speaking about love and on Christmas eve I will be speaking about Joy.
As I reflect on my own life, and as I talk to others, one of the constants is that all of us have different moments we can point out where we have experienced things we would call real hope, real peace, real love and real joy, but for most of us those moments are fleeting.
I think John Elderedge hit the nail on the head when he said, about Joy in particular:
“Joy seems more elusive than winning the lottery. We don’t like to think about it much, because it hurts to allow ourselves to feel how much we long for joy, and how seldom it drops by.”
Love, Hope, Peace and Joy are not just fleeting experiences, they are things we deeply long for.
I think that is why, long after the real meaning of Christmas has gone missing for many, our culture hangs on to this one holiday. We might have all kinds of intellectual arguments against God, but part of us knows there is much more to life than our intellect can make sense of.
In 1985 Canadian singer Bryan Adams had a worldwide seasonal hit with the song ” Christmas time”. Some of the lyrics are:
There’s something about Christmas time
Something about Christmas time
That makes you wish it was Christmas everyday
To see the joy in the children’s eyes
The way that the old folks smile
Says that Christmas will never go away
We’re all as one tonight
Makes no difference if you’re black or white
‘Cause we can sing together in harmony
I know it’s not too late
The world would be a better place
If we can keep the spirit
More than one day in the year
Send a message loud and clear
It is so true… there is something about Christmas time. There is something in us that knows the world should be a place of hope, peace, love and joy, and at Christmas, for a just a moment, the longing we have can be expressed.
One of my favourite bible verses is Ecclesiastes 3:11 which says:
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
I love the picture that God put eternity in our hearts, that there is a part of all of us that is bigger than time and space, and that that part is beyond our intellect.
Sadly, clever marketers are more than happy to admit what people who want to limit the world to rationality find it hard to.
The best advertisers don’t sell their product, they sell the promise of hope, love, peace and joy.
Mostly that promise is subtle, like a group of people having fun in the sun holding a coke bottle, but sometimes the advertiser gives up on subtlety.
Take a look at this Toyota commercial:
So if you buy a Toyota, that longing you have had all your life for Joy that lasts will finally be fulfilled…. Not.
We did away with Christianity only to replace it with a different kind of religion: Consumerism. The author of the book “being consumed”, William T. Cavanaugh wrote:
Consumerism is not simply people rejecting spirituality for materialism. For many people, consumerism is a type of spirituality, even if they do not recognise it as such. It is a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.
The crazy thing that we did in replacing Christianity with consumerism is that all of us know it doesn’t work. There is actually an economic law, called the law of diminishing returns, which says the better you get at consuming, the less you get out of it. We have replaced the promise of true hope, peace, love and joy with something that is guaranteed to fail.
Skye Jethani points out:
The dilemma posed by consumerism is not the endless manufacturing of desires, but the temptation to settle for desires far below what we were created for. The forces of marketing have captured our imaginations and convinced us to desire mud pies and sneer at the possibility that greater pleasures even exist. We have been reprogrammed to desire immediate satisfaction rather than infinite satisfaction.
We keep looking for what we long for, and we are continually disappointed. It is this disappointment that is the dark side of Christmas. We all know that behind the lights and wrapping paper is actually a whole lot of nothing.
“Looking for joy in the Christmas trappings and traditions is like opening a beautifully wrapped package with a tag that reads “Joy Inside,” only to find the box empty. That’s because our Christmas traditions don’t so much house joy as much as they point to joy. If we want our joy voids filled, we must look less at Christmas and more through Christmas to where indestructible, unspeakable [true] joy really is.”
The heart of Christmas is not the lights, tinsel and jolly fat man. The heart of Christmas is that we no longer have to settle for less than true hope, true peace, true love and true joy.
A Baby, born in Bethlehem has changed everything. We are promised that this baby is our hope, that he is our peace, that he shows us real love and makes our joy complete.
We still live in a broken world, and like the Apostle Paul, who admitted in Romans 7, that the things he wanted to do, he doesn’t do, we need to acknowledge that there is a part of us that is broken too.
The big change is that because the Baby was born in Bethlehem, we no longer have to take this journey alone. Skye Jethani is right when he says:
The advent of Jesus Christ is what sets Christianity apart from other religions. We affirm that Christ is indeed Immanuel, God with us and that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He is the image of the invisible God. And with Jesus an entirely different way of relating to God is revealed to us. Rather than stumbling in the darkness between forms of religion that are each a variation of fear and control, through Christ the lights are turned on and our attention is drawn to an entirely different vision – LIFE WITH GOD.
Because a baby was born in Bethlehem, God is with us and inviting us to journey with Him towards the fullness of real Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. As we glimpse what was actually happening on that Christmas night, We can start to understand how profound the words of the angels actually were:
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Luke 2:9-10
There are plenty of cheap imitations, but only one real path to life, and this Christmas the little baby invites us to lay down our baggage at his feet.
One of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote:
Who will celebrate Christmas correctly?
Whoever finally lays down
all power, all honor,
all reputation, all vanity,
all arrogance, all individualism
beside the manger.
This Christmas, lets not settle for the imitation.