As you are all aware we are now fully into the Christmas season. Everyone in America knows this is the season for celebration.Television specials, movies, books, all tell of what a wonderful time of year this is. This is a time of wonder...and merriment...and joy.
Yet, when you take a good look around and listen to every day people, you see something different.
For many of us this is not a season of joy. It's a season that brings more stress and concern. Sometimes it's a burden we just want to get through and be done with or ignore altogether.
In response to this growing attitude, John Grisham wrote a book a couple of years ago titled Skipping Christmas. In this book, Luther and Nora Krank are determined to skip Christmas. They rebel against Christmas being defined by crowded malls, corny office parties, fruitcakes and unwanted presents. These are the kinds of things that often define the Christmas season for us.Even though we may acknowledge the true meaning of Christmas...in reality we are going to have to spend the month juggling parties and family members and gifts and all the stresses that go along with them. And sometimes all the merriment and festivities of others just makes real difficulties we are dealing with seem all the worse.
I think it's important to recognize that Christmas ought to be meaningful, significant and joyful to us. Somehow the joy and wonder of Christmas has gotten lost and clouded. I'd like to us to really set out to recapture that joy.
To begin finding that joy, we need to begin with hope. Hope is something we can hang onto regardless of whatever else might be going on in our lives. We honestly will not be able to eliminate the various stresses and concerns of the holiday season. We can't force the world to change and go the way we want it to go, and we can't just stop and cut ourselves off from everything and everyone around us. We need to find something that rises above all the other things and outshines them so that we can look at that instead. Hope is grabbing onto that thing...it's focusing there because it is so much better..so more important...so much more meaningful than anything else.
So where do we find hope these days? Or, perhaps, where have we misplaced hope if we are not experiencing joy?
The world offers us all kinds of things to grab onto. The problem is that they always fall short. We reach for them and then they disappear...or they keep moving further away and we never reach them.
For example...think of when the official start of the Christmas season is here in America. It's the day after Thanksgiving-"Black Friday". Christmas...or the "holiday season" is defined by a shopping frenzy.
Macy's has a Christmas campaign going on called "Believe." They recognize the loss of joy...that people aren't celebrating the way they used to this time of year. They want us to "believe." in the magic of Christmas But the thing they are asking us to believe in...doesn't really last...it doesn't fulfill...and even teaches us that "belief"...and faith in something real...ultimately don't deliver when it comes to real life. When you get right down to it, what they really want us to believe in is...shopping. Spending money at their store. They place their hope in us buying a lot of stuff during the Christmas season, and they-as well as many retailers-are asking us to place our hope...to grab onto to as the most important thing...consumerism. Getting stuff...and even giving a lot of stuff to others. With such a focus on things all around us...maybe that's part of where the joy has gotten lost. Either we are grasping onto this gift giving and buying as our source of hope and joy...or we are just trying to avoid getting caught up in it...either was we end up losing sight of anything that is really worthwhile and lasting during Christmas.
Sometimes I think we end up placing our hope in meeting certain expectations. This can show up in all kinds of ways. Maybe it's the expectation of how our Christmas parties will turn out...or how the decorations will look. Or maybe we are hoping to accomplish certain things at work or home, and we feel that if only we can meet these expectations of ours, we can rest and be happy. But we can't always control these situations and there will always be more to accomplish. Depending upon our abilities or the abilities of others to always come through isn't a reliable focus for hope.
Sometimes we are facing a real crisis-maybe in the form of a health problem or financial concern. Or we are dealing with fractured family relationships. Our expectation-and focus for hope is for that situatiojn to change. But what if is doesn't...or it's going to be a long time before anything changes.. What does it do to us if we hang onto hope for this one thing that may or may not come through. Or what it it does change...life does get better...then where do we place our hope....do we find another crisis to give us something meaningful to focus on?
All of these are good things to want, but if we place all our hope in a situation upon things we can't predict or depend upon, we will often be disappointed. We can't have our hope...our source of joy...depend upon things that will eventually come up short. We need something or someone we know will be reliable in all things.
We need something bigger than ourselves to place our hope in. Sometimes people place their hope in goverments...or in logic and reason.-the ability to figure things out..or science and technology. Are we placing our hope in any of these kinds of things? All of these fall short, too. Technologies fail-and are constantly changing. We are limited in our ability to fully understand and explain things...and governments are filled with fallible people. They can never provide us with an stable, unfailing source of fulfillment and joy.
Long ago, an Isrealite king, King Solomon, wrote about these things in the book of Ecclesiastes, and he realized then that ultimately all the things we often place our hope in fall short. Let take a look at what he wrote in Ecclesisates, chapt 2.
Solomon tried to place his hope in all kinds of things-pleasures and passions of all kinds, his work, and even in being foolish rather than wise. He found none of these things to be dependable. He called it all vanity and a chasing after the wind.
In the end he found that he could only rely upon God. Ecclesiastes 2:24-26. Wisdom, knowledge and joy came from the Lord.
As Paul wrote in Colossians 2:8, "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."(Col 2:8 ESV)
Paul, who had a personal encounter with the resurrected Christ, and because of it beleived Jesus to be God Himself...the God of Isreal made man..or God in human flesh...is pointing out that we need a divine source of hope. We need God himself to give us something subtaial and trustworthy to hope in.
At the time of Jesus' birth, the Isrealites knew this. They lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and the reign of a cruel and suspicious ruler, King Herod. Life wa a constant struggle for survival, and there was little to hope for. Yet, the people of that day did have hope. They clung to a prohpecy given by the prophet Jeremiah. (see Jeremiah 23:5-6) This prophecy spoke of the coming of a messiah-a saviour. And it wasn't just the Israelites who clung to this hope...there were others in distant lands as well. Let's take a look for a moment at these people and see something of the hope they had.
video clip-Nativity 00:24:48-00:28:10
The Isrealites clung to this promise of God's. The wise men-or Magi-were people of Persia. Very likely believers in an ancient religion known as Zoroastrianism who believed in one all-powerful, merciful and benevolent God-much as the Isrealites did. They heard of the prophecy and watched for signs of his coming. These magi were ancient scientists. The ancient people observed the world around them and recorded what they say. As they watched the stars in the sky they saw them moving in defined ways. They recorded the cycles of the stars and attached meaning and significance to their movements. There are actual historical and astronomical records of the heavenly events they speak of in this film. In February of 6 B.C.E. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn came very close to one another in the constellation Pisces in what is know as a triple-conjunction. Jupiter was considered the star of royalty...Saturn represented a god who protected Isreal and Pisces represented the Jewish people. As they came close to one another, these three planets would appear as a bright new star in the sky. To the magi this star would have been a sign off the coming messiah of the Jews. The watched and observed it. They clung to it as a physical sign of their hope for a savior who would save them from Roman rule as well.
These magi discovered that the savior this star pointed to was a baby named Jesus born in Bethlehem to a young Jewish woman named Mary. They placed their hope in Him. He is the reason for Christmas...and offers himself for us to place all our hopes in. But do we know if we can really trust Him? If we are going to find joy in our lives, we need to KNOW in our hearts that we can place our hope in HIM above all other things. It may help to take a good look at who Jesus is. There are several special things we need to know about Jesus.
I mentioned this prophecy of Jeremiah's Jesus was the answer to that prophecy...but not just that one. The kids in one of our Sunday School classes are learning about this today. Jesus fulfilled 100 prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah God promised. The events of his birth, life and death were predicted by prophets known to be trustworthy in their words and dedication to God. That just hasn't happened with any other person in history.
When you consider all the people who have ever been the central figure or founder of a religious movement or a philosophy about life, Jesus is the only one who has ever claimed to be God. All others hav claimed to have special knowledge or wisdom or a vidion from God, but not equla with God.
But litsten to Jesus' own words...this is from John 14:6-10. Jesus equated himself with God. This is not something you do without a great deal of arrogance...or lunacy....unless you are telling the truth.
Was he arrogant...or laying for personal gain...out to promote himself and gain power over others. That's not consistent with everything esle we know about him. He was a man who constanty gave of himself for others. He humbled himself and served others without asking for anything in return. We wasn't seeking to build an empire for himself, and he willingly allowed himself to be killed on a cross over false accusations. Hardly the actions of an arrogant man.
Was he crazy then? Again, his actions are not consistent with a mental disturbance. He possessed a great deal of wisdom and knowledge. He did not behave erractically or inconsistently.
All we are left with is the possibility that he was telling the truth...that He really is the Son of God...and He is the divine answer to our need for someone to believe and hope in.
Every system of belief in existence had to somehow come to terms with this evidence and much more about who Jesus is. There are some who acknowledge that He came from God, but they cannot accept that He is of God himself. Islam even acknowledges that Jesus was born of a virgin named Mary.
There is something of substance to the biblical claim that Jesus is the Messiah...the Son of God. That He was conceived miraculously and born in Bethlehem. That He gave up his lifeas a perfect sin sacrifice for all of makind...that He rose from the dead and excercises Godly authority over all heaven and earth. There is something significant to hope for in Him.
Do you see something solid, significant about Jesus today...can you cling to Him in a new way. Do you see as we look ahead toward Christmas, the hope we have in His birth.
Whether that hope is like the bright shining of the sun for you today or just a faint glimmer of a distant star....it is my prayer that you see something in Him worth hoping for...someONE to hope in.
Just as the magi from the east grasped onto the the hope that this star they were watching was a sing of the coming saviour, can you grasp onto Jesus now in the hope that we can find a true and reliable source of joy this season...a joy that lasts all year long?
I want to ask you to do something tonight. Step outside when it gets dark..look up into the sky. Find the brightest star you can...let it be a reminder to you of the star of Bethlehem that gave hope to the magi.. Be reminded of the hope the lives within you...a hope that will not disappoint...a hope in Jesus. Let us all pray together tonight that God would show us how to make that hope grow...that He would show us anything we need to know to truly believe in Jesus with all our lives and place all our hopes in Him.
Come back next week as we continue to seek joy and move beyond hope to the next part of our journey.