In the children’s book The Tree that Survived the Winter, a tree realizes it has survived the hardships of winter. “Her roots seemed to be extending further and more firmly into the soil. Her arms seemed to embrace more of the world, not with the timid gestures of a sapling afraid of tangling with the wind, but with the freedom of knowing that the wind could not topple her. `I have survived the winter,’ she marveled aloud.”
Advent comes in the midst of winter and for some people the season is less than joyful. It’s a season of winter for their souls. Unlike the tree of the children’s book, they’ve not yet made it through to the other side. While everyone around them seems to be singing “Joy to the World,” all they want to do is pull the shades and close out the world.
What was the Apostle Paul thinking when he wrote to the church of Thessalonica, “Be joyful always”? Was he from another planet? Didn’t he ever have a bad day? Didn’t he know pain? Didn’t he understand suffering, grief, disappointment and discouragement? Well as a matter of fact, he did.
To the church at Corinth, Paul wrote:
“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I
spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” 2 Corinthians 11:24-28 (NIV)
O.K., so Paul had been dipped in the fire, but he can’t be saying that a person is supposed to remain joyful through stuff like this, can he?
Here’s what I believe Paul teaches us. The joy we have in Jesus transcends circumstances. There is joy in some circumstances, and there is grief and sadness in others. However, Christians cannot allow circumstances to become the determining factor in whether we have joy.
Many people look for joy during Christmas in the lights, the shopping, the decorating, the cooking, the family, the gifts and the football game. These things bring only temporary joy. The pleasure comes and then it’s gone. The buildup may take weeks or months and then it’s over in minutes or hours. There’s a letdown and you aren’t sure why. True joy has depth that penetrates deeper than the season, deeper than the event and deeper than any gift. True joy is connected to Christ himself.
When studying those occasions in the New Testament where joy is mentioned, I found that the passages hover over and around the gift of Christ, much like the star of David hovered over the Bethlehem stable all those years ago. In studying those passages, I came to realize that when the Apostle Paul said, “Be joyful always,” he was referring to the foundation we have in Christ.
Because of this foundation, there are no circumstances that can take joy away from us on a permanent basis. Every time a person in the New Testament refers to joy, that individual refers to a joy that goes deep, a joy that is embodied in the personhood and deity of Christ or a joy that a person has in relation to Christ. It’s a joy that cannot be taken away regardless of the circumstances that come our way.
Does this mean we are never sad, never depressed, that we never grieve, hurt or despair? Not at all. The birth of Christ was a gift of joy to the world, a gift to Mary and to Joseph. Yet, the gospel writers never paint a picture of a blissful, painless, stress-free birth. Far from it.
Ladies, does traveling nine months pregnant on a donkey over 90 miles of winding roads—about a week of traveling—to get to a small town with no vacant rooms sound painless and stress-free?
What about Matthew’s account of Jesus’ family having to flee into Egypt in fear of being killed by King Herod? Only Matthew records the gruesome “Flight into Egypt,” which links Advent with the death of many innocent babies, killed because Herod was jealous of the news of a baby king.
James I. Cook, in a 1995 article titled “Joy to the World/Pain in the World,” expresses his gratitude to Matthew for including the story of the massacre of the innocent children in his Christmas account.
“I turn to it again and again, when someone I know loses a loved one at the height of the Christmas season. It helps me—and I hope it helps them—to remember that theirs are not the first tears to fall on Christmas; to recall that there has never been a Christmas of pure peace and happiness; that ‘joy to the world’ has always been sung to the accompaniment of much ‘pain in the world.'”
Part of the miracle of Christmas is that “Joy to the World” is sung at all, because it is never sung in the absence of pain and suffering. But it is sung. For some it is a song of hope. For some it is hope that joy will return. For others it is a song of confession that through Christ joy is here already; that joy will continue to come because Christ is here; that Christ will continue to come and break through all that is wrong, painful and sad in this world of ours.
Right now it is still winter on the calendar. For some of you it may be winter in your hearts. But Jay Marshall says that there is a certain joy “present when we recognize that by God’s grace we can survive the winter seasons of life, that there is some resilience to our lives. That joy can only be magnified when we look beyond the hills, the winters, the hardships and see that through it all God is at work, whether creating for the first time, or rebuilding for yet another time.”
The season of Advent prepares us for Christmas Day, the day that Joy came down from heaven and entered into the hardships of humanity as a vulnerable child. He became our high priest, one able “to sympathize with our weaknesses,” because he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)
Wherever you are in your journey today, remember the promise of Jesus, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:20 (NIV)
That’s why he has the name “Immanuel.” That’s why we can have joy, even in the winter, because God is with us!
Michael Helms is pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. This column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.