Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Season of Advent: Bringing JOY to a Joyless World

This was a very difficult time for Mary and Joseph. We know Joseph eventually came around and Matthew tells us that he even had his own encounter with an angel. But one thing is for sure—their road could not have been easy. They undoubtedly faced many obstacles along the way. But, in spite of all that happened, listen to the song Mary sang just after she learned she would have a baby.

Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
    In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
        because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
    He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
    He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
    just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46–55 CEB)
You may not know this, but each week of the Advent Christian calendar is associated with a different theme. Last week, the theme was “Peace,” so all over the world, Christians focused on texts and heard sermons about peace coming in the world. This week, the theme is “joy.” And this text certainly embodies the joy that is associated with Jesus coming into the world. Believe it or not, though, this song is also making one of the most important theological points of the entire Bible.

In God’s Kingdom, there is what has been called a “reversal of fortune.” What that means is this: In God’s Kingdom looks can be deceiving. Up is sometimes down! The people who are rich, might actually be poor. And the folks who seem to have nothing might actually have everything! Their “fortunes” have been reversed. You see evidence of this theme here in Mary’s song. Look at the song, beginning in verse 51:

He has shown strength with His arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled down the powerful from their thrones.
He has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things.
He has sent the rich away empty-handed.

Do you see it? The reversal of fortunes. But not only does the song bear witness to this theme, the song’s singer is a living witness of this theme! Mary is a poor, young, unmarried Jewish girl. Yet God blesses her with a child. But not just any child, the Son of God! Mary’s life bears witness to the fact that God indeed has come to bring a reversal of fortune to the world. And this opening story in Luke’s gospel is a foreshadowing of what is to come later in Jesus’ ministry.

In chapter six, we see Luke’s version of the beatitudes, but in this gospel, the theme of “reversal of fortune” comes through more clearly than it does in Matthew’s gospel:
Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours.
Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh.
Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One.
Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven.
But now, listen to how Jesus continues in Luke’s gospel:
But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort.
How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now, because you will mourn and weep.
How terrible for you when all speak well of you.
Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20–26)
Also, in this gospel, we find the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Do you remember that story? The rich man has everything he wants in this life. Friends, a full banquet table of food, power and privilege. But there is also a poor man, Lazarus. He has nothing. He sits by the gate all day long begging for food. The rich man hardly notices Lazarus in this life. But when the two die, the poor man is carried by angels to be next to Abraham. The rich man died and entered a place of torment. We see this theme throughout Luke’s gospel, and it is first introduced right here in Mary’s song.

So, here is my question for us: So what? Yes, God, through Jesus, brought JOY to people who had nothing to be happy about. Yes, God brought JOY to a young woman named Mary in 1st century Palestine. Yes, Jesus’ ministry reversed the fortunes of many people. But what does that have to do with us? Is this just a good, heartfelt story? Or, are their implications for people who have made this same Jesus Lord of our lives?

Well, there are implications for us. To put it simply: We are called to bring joy to this world. You and I, Christ-followers, are called to find places of sadness and bring joy. We are called to participate with God in reversing the fortune of devastated areas and peoples and relationships. That is part of our gospel mission in this life. So, where is joy needed in our world today? Well, I can think of at least one place. A couple of weeks ago, I received some interesting looks during one of my sermons. At the very least, I could tell a few of you woke up! I said the gospel calls us to give up our own comfort. I said the gospel calls us to follow the model of Jesus, who “being in very nature God . . . made Himself nothing.” I said the gospel calls us to have compassion for Syrian refugees. Yes, now you are awake again! I want to offer more of an explanation of what I meant today. I hear a lot of fear language in our world today. And according to the Bible, true love casts out all fear. Listen, the gospel is not easy. The gospel is not politically correct. The gospel is sometimes dangerous, and it often calls us to cut against the grain. I realize this issue is so politically charged right now, and I hate that! I realize some of us have a difficult time having this conversation without feeling like we have to pick a political side. But can I ask you to set aside your political leanings for a few minutes. Go ahead, take off your red jackets. Take off your blue jackets. And for a moment, let’s not even talk about granting asylum or refugee status to Syrians. The fact is, sometimes we get so bogged down in fear and politics, that at the end of the day, we do nothing. But consider this: We presently are witnessing the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. The Syrian Civil War has displaced more than 12 million people. This has affected more people than Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami combined! People are literally starving to death. People are getting aboard life rafts and heading out into open water, because they believe that gives them a better shot at survival. As a Christian, my first response should not be fear. As a Christian, my first response should be: How can I help? So, how can you help? You may not be comfortable with America taking in refugees; let’s just table that discussion today. This crisis affects millions of people, and even if America decides to take in 10,000 (as has been proposed) that is still helping only a fraction of the people involved. Is there anything else we can do? I want to give you some information this morning about ways you can help. There is an enormous effort led by Christians in our world today. You can access information about this effort at this address:

www.wewelcomerefugees.com

This site is filled articles and information about this humanitarian crisis. It also gives us practical ways to help—places you can send money, ways you can help provide food, ways you can help encourage and partner with the churches in the Middle East who are on the front lines of this crisis. Church, followers of Jesus, here is why this issue is so important for us. We are called to participate with Jesus in an effort to bring JOY to this world. There are places in our world that desperately need JOY. There are people who can hardly fathom the concept of JOY. There are refugees wandering around the Middle East, but there is no room at the inn for them. Be prayerful about ways you and your family might be able to spread JOY to them during this season of Advent.

One of the great things about the effort I mentioned to you this morning is that is a united Christian effort to bring love and joy to this world. There are many people in the Middle East today spreading the lie that Christians are rich, arrogant, elitist, power-hungry people. The best way to fight propaganda like that has nothing to do with airstrikes or tanks or machine guns. The best way to fight that message is with love. The best way to fight that message is for the church, the united church, to send food, shelter, water and compassion. “They will know you are My disciples by the way you love one another.” Let’s show the world who we are. Let’s bring love and JOY to our world, and in this small way, we will be following in the footsteps of Jesus. The Jesus who made a habit of reversing the fortunes of hopeless and joyless people in this world.

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