By Pastor Glenn Pease
Dr. Samuel Upham, a theological professor and a man of great learning, was dying. The family was gathered around his bed and someone said I believe he is already dead. Someone else said his feet are still warm and nobody ever dies with warm feet. Dr. Upham opened one eye and said, "Joan of Arc did." These were his last words and he died with a smile on his face.
Some may feel it is not appropriate to crack a joke on your death bed, but there are others who consider it a great virtue to be merry in the midst of misery. When the Israeli bombs were landing in Arab territory, a man and his wife were fleeing their home. The wife said in frustration, "I can't find my dentures." The husband replied, "What do you think they are dropping-sandwiches?"
It is possible to have a sense of humor and a glad spirit even in the worst of times. Those who do, tend to be healthier than those who do not. Being Merry is a potent medicine that drives off diseases of both body and mind. Proverbs 17:22 says, "A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones."
Since medicine is something you only take when you have a problem, being joyful and merry goes hand in hand with the fact that life is filled with trials and troubles. In other words, being joyful is not the same as being blind to the reality of evil and sorrow. It is possible to look forward to a merry Christmas in full awareness that we live in a world of misery. Just as there is nothing inconsistent with taking medicine to feel better in a world of sickness, so there is nothing inconsistent with a merry spirit in a world of misery.
Laughter is a good lubrication that keeps the body, mind, and spirit going for many more miles. In laughter there is life. The Jews had a saying, "The gladness of the heart is the life of man, and the joyfulness of a man prolongeth his life." It is this philosophy that has caused the suffering Jews to produce the greatest comedians. No race can match the Jews for great comics and producers of laughter. For the Jews, it is a religious duty to be cheerful.
In spite of the severity of the Old Testament law, and the punishments it demanded, the fact is, Judaism is a religion of joy. The Jewish year was full of great feasts and festivals, and times of national rejoicing. God wanted His people to be joyful people. God's idea of a good time is not a group of people who sit with sour faces dwelling on the sin, folly, and tragic evils of life. We sometimes get the idea that God delights in the sober, somber, and solemn fast more than in the festivities, food, and fun of the feasts. There is a time for both, but when it is time for the joy of feasting, God wants no wet blankets on the flame. In Neh. 8:9-10, Nehemiah says to the people of Israel, "This day is holy to the Lord your God: do not mourn or weep....Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him to whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy to the Lord, and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." If God wanted His people to be joyful under the law, how much more is this the case for those under the new covenant, who have received His best, the gift of His Son?
The Christmas message is a message about light in darkness. In Christ's coming the light invades the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it, even though it tried. The Christmas story is one of joyful angels with a message of joyful news to the shepherds, who joyfully responded by going to Bethlehem to see the Christ-child, and to go away rejoicing. But we cannot forget, it is also the story of the hatred of Herod, the lying, the deception, and finally the slaying of babies of Bethlehem that left many in tears. The first Christmas represents all Christmases-it was merry and it was misery combined.
Jesus experienced this paradox of the merry and the misery in all the major phases of His life from the crib to the cross. We have seen the merry and the misery in His birth. In Heb. 12:2 we see them both again in His death. "Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, scorning the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Joy was motivating Jesus even as He died on the cross. You would think the paradox would be over when He ascended to the right hand of God, but Hebrews says the conflict continues. Jesus even now is touched with our weaknesses and feels the suffering of His body-the church.
What this means for us in practical everyday living, and especially in these days before Christmas, is that we need to learn to accept both the merry and the misery in such a way that the misery does not eliminate the merry. In other words, even though life and circumstances are far from what they ought to be, every Christian should have a merry Christmas.
Christmas does not stop sin, war, crime, famine, murder, accidents, and sickness, but the joy of Christmas is a joy that rises above all these things. There is no tragedy so dark it can blot out the light that came into the world at Christmas. Christmas joy is joy in spite of all evil because one greater than all evil has come into the world to save us from all evil.
Jesus could have joy even as He endured the cross because He could see beyond the cross to His victory over death. Jesus abolished death, yet it is still around to cloud our joy. Modern technology has abolished distance. This does not mean the distance is no longer there. It is still just as far from here to Washington D. C. as it was in the days of Lincoln. But now distance does not mean what it meant then. Distance can no longer function as it did to keep information and events isolated and very slowly communicated. Now it does not make any difference if you live one mile from the White House or 2000 miles. You can have the same information at the same time by means of television. Television has abolished distance even though it is still there.
So Jesus abolished death even though it is still there. It no longer means what it use to mean. It no longer means an entrance into darkness and a state of unconsciousness, but now it means an entrance into light and the conscious presence of God. Jesus brought life and immortality to light, and the result is none of life's miseries mean what they use to mean. None of them can rob us of a merry Christmas if we keep our thinking balanced.
Beware lest you become a chronic Christmas complainer about the hustle and bustle, the rush and the crush, the hurry and the scurry of Christmas preparation. You can get so fed up with the materialism and commercialism of it all that you lose your appetite for the things of God. The fact is, a Christian has no business expecting the world to act like Christians. But God does expect Christians to act like Christians. It is folly to get so upset by the folly of the world that you do not enjoy the things of Christ. If you find yourself more concerned about griping at the abuses, than about anticipating the uses of this season of joy, it is time to get your priorities straightened out. There is no better place for this than at the cross.
The cross is our perpetual reminder of the high cost of a merry Christmas. Without the cross the birth of Jesus would never be celebrated. His birth is only famous because of what He did on the cross. The cross, therefore, is to provide for us some perpetual guidelines for the celebrating of Christmas. It reminds us that joy is costly. Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was before Him. The joy was worth the price of what He suffered. It was worth the misery for the sake of the merry. Applying this to our lives in these days before Christmas, it means there is a price to be paid for a merry Christmas. Have you ever been to an enjoyable party that did not cost in terms of time, effort, and resources. It is a lot of work and a labor of love to put forth the effort to prepare for others to have an enjoyable time. Jesus paid the price for our merry forever, but we need to pay a price also to have a merry Christmas. There is always some of the cross involved in the positive and blessed things of life.
There are two ways of being merry and entering into a season of parties and festivities. The Prodigal Son experienced both. The first was the kind of parties he experienced when he spent all his money on wine, women, and song. There is no doubt that he had a great time, and his life was full of fun and laughter. But it was all on the surface, and it did not last, because it was the joy of pleasures and possessions only, and not the joy of relationships. He ended up with nobody but the pigs.
The second kind of party he experienced was when he returned home and his father called for new clothes, a feast, music, and dancing to celebrate his homecoming. This joy lasted and was a deeper joy because it was based on a relationship of love.
The merriest Christmas will be experienced by those who are motivated to build their joy on relationships. That was the source of the joy of Jesus on the cross. His body, the church, could only exist by His going to the cross. All the redeemed enjoying an everlasting love relationship to Him, and each other, was only possible because of the cross.
Let it be said of us when this Christmas is over, who for the joy that was set before us, endured the costly gifts, the hectic schedule, the time consuming preparation, and are now seated with Christ in heavenly places enjoying the relationship to Him and His body.
In the novel, Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone Pietro, a revolutionary has lost his best friend. Many are gathered at the home of the friend to mourn his loss. The father stood at the head of the table and gave out food and drink to all who came. He said, "It was my son who helped sow the seed from which this bread was made. It was my son who helped harvest the grapes that were used to make the wine." What he was saying was, the food they enjoyed was a gift from their friend. It was his labor that led to their joy.
The bread and wine of the communion service are reminders that it was the labor of Christ on the cross that led to our having the right to enjoy the pleasures of time and eternity, and to enjoy a merry Christmas. A merry Christmas is Christ's gift to us from both the crib and the cross.