How to Embrace God's Gift of Joy This Christmas

How to Embrace God's Gift of Joy This Christmas

Christmas! My favorite time of the year! Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Joy to the world! Right?

We all want to be happy – especially at Christmas time. I love the story of a little boy whose dad promised him a new puppy. Tomorrow was the day! When they arrived at the pet store, the father turned to his Son and said, "Now Son, we're going to look at every puppy before making a decision. Right?" The little boy nodded. "We've talked about the responsibility of taking care of your puppy, so we need to be careful choosing that puppy. Okay?" Again, the little boy gave a slight nod to his dad. When they entered the pet store, they were greeted by a remarkable display of puppies. One little dog ran up to them, his tail wagging ferociously and a smile on his face (if puppies can smile – and I believe they can). The little boy pointed at the puppy and said, "Dad, I want that one!" His father smiled and said, "Remember our agreement? To look at all of the puppies before making a decision?" The little boy's smile disappeared, but he agreed. After looking at every puppy in the store, the father and Son ended up where they started. The dad said, "Okay, Son. Which one will it be?" The little boy could hardly contain his excitement as he pointed to the puppy they had seen when they walked in. "I want that one! I want that one with the happy ending!"

Christmas can be a wonderful time of the year, a time filled with joy. Unfortunately, it can also be the hardest time of year to find joy. The holidays can magnify a person's sense of loneliness and loss. The reality is that everyone has problems and sources of unhappiness in their lives. Christmas won't change any of that. But what if this Christmas is different?

I believe the Advent season is not just a date on the calendar. It's a way of life. Advent can be an adventure when God takes us from where we are to places we would never be able to go without him. And here's a story to help us adventure from sorrow to joy. It's the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Scripture says that Mary was from a town called Nazareth.

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"In the days of Herod, king of Judea…the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin, and the virgin's name was Mary." (Luke 1:5,27)

Nazareth was a small town in 1st century Israel during the time of King Herod, the Great. Nobody understood sorrow better than Mary's people. It had been generations since they were a nation in their own right. King Herod the great was not great. He wasn't even their true king. The conquering Roman Empire gave him the title for political reasons. Herod ruled Mary's country with an iron fist. Roman soldiers were everywhere, and they were brutal toward anyone they thought was getting out of line. The people were being taxed up to 90%, losing their land and homes. So, 1st century Israel was a pretty sad place. And Nazareth was at the bottom of the totem pole in a nation that was already at the bottom. Archeologists tell us that Nazareth might have been a town of no more than 150 people. Nazareth's only claim to fame at the time was that it had a red-light district for Roman soldiers. When the boys in the army got a few days off, they headed to Nazareth, looking for cheap wine and cheap women.          

Mary was an ordinary teenage girl of probably no more than 13 or 14 years of age. She was engaged to Joseph, and beyond that, we don't know anything about her. But it's safe to say she felt the humiliation of her people.

And then the adventure begins.

"The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob's descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.' 'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?' The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.'" (Luke 1:28-34)

Since angels don't just show up every day, I imagine Mary was rattled. I mean, seriously? There's an angel in her living room. The angel says, 'Don't be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! God is with you! You're going to have a baby, and the baby will be God's only Son.'" Since Mary had taken a 7th-grade health class, she asks the obvious question, "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" I'm sure Mary wondered how that could be possible physically. But I also think she wondered why God would choose someone like her from a place like Nazareth to be the mother of Jesus. How could she have a baby who would change the world and set her people free? I wonder if she was thinking, "Look around, Mr. Angel. I live in the armpit of Israel. This place is a dump. Are you kidding me? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? The Son of God whose kingdom will never end is going to be from Nazareth?

God often takes the most broken to do the most unlikely, to accomplish his greatest work. In her confusion and doubt, Mary stepped out in faith. "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May your word to me be fulfilled." God always honors faith and turns sorrow into joy.

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"Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on, all generations will call me blessed." (Luke 1:46-48)

Maybe her source of joy is in the fact that she is going to have an amazing baby. But He was also going to turn her life upside down and create more problems – not less – in her life. She was engaged to Joseph. What was her fiancé going to think? What were people in her little town going to say behind her back? What is the source of this joy? Remember, at the beginning of the story, Mary gets a greeting card of sorts. The angel says, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." Don't miss this!

We don't find God's favor because we are better than others. The word "favor" here means "grace." It's saying, "You are receiving grace." And "grace" literally means "gift." Gifts are free. You don't do anything to deserve a gift. The angel is saying, "You are the recipient of God's grace. The Lord is with you!" And I believe that greeting is the source of Mary's joy. The words "happiness" and "joy" are not the same thing. Happiness comes from the word "happenstance" and depends on our circumstances. But joy is different. Joy is a deeply rooted confidence that God is in control no matter what is happening. Our inward attitude does not have to reflect our outward circumstances. Mary's joy comes when she is told that she was highly favored, and God was with her.

She's about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime - which was terrifying. But it became a journey of joy because she knew she was favored and that the Lord was with her.

Jesus is saying the same thing to you that He said to Mary so long ago. "Greetings favored one. The Lord is with you." You are highly favored by God Himself. Not because of who you are or what you've done but because you are His child, and He cherishes you.            

I know what you may be thinking! If I am highly favored, and God's with me, why is my life so hard? Why aren't I happy or at least happier?" Because God's favor and God's presence are not meant to bring us happiness, they're meant to bring us joy. We all have problems. Jesus said it Himself, "In this world, you will have trouble." (John 16:33) As long as I'm in this world, trouble is not optional, but joy is possible. I believe the adventure God wants to experience this Christmas is an adventure toward more joy, and it starts with "Greetings to you who are highly favored. God is with you."        

Jesus is called Emmanuel, which means "God with us." It's a gift. You are loved. That's the first thing. So, claim the greeting for yourself today. And here's the second thing. Don't just claim it for yourself today. Claim it for yourself - every day. Write "Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you" on a post-it note and stick it on your computer or your dashboard. Make it your screensaver. Write it on your bathroom mirror.         

Life is hard, but joy is a gift God wants to give you through a personal relationship with the one conceived in Nazareth and born in Bethlehem. Being a follower of Christ is not easy, but it is an adventure because it brings your life purpose. First, we receive God's love and grace and then share it with others. The kind of Christmas you will have this year depends on where you choose to focus. Focus on your sorrows, and you will mourn through Christmas. Focus on your joys, and you will celebrate through Christmas.

How do we do this? First, follow the example of Jesus.

"We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame." (Hebrews 12:2, NLT)

Jesus had to endure the cross, but He chose to do it with joy and the end result in mind. Let me share a story from my book, Escaping the Stress Trap, that sums up the message and adventure of Christmas.

It was Christmas Eve, and the family was preparing to attend the church service. Everyone was going except Dad. He could not understand the story of the baby in a manger born to save the world. As his family went into the cold wintry night, the man added a log to the fire and settled into his favorite chair to wait for his family's return. A knock at the window startled him. Glancing outside, he was stunned to see that the knocking sound was a small bird desperately trying to reach the warmth of the fire. The man opened the window, but the bird ignored him. He tried opening the front door, but the bird again refused his offer. The kind-hearted man finally grabbed his coat and stepped into the Christmas night. He trudged through the snow, determined to save the tiny bird by opening the barn doors. Still, the bird rejected his plan. The man thought, "If only I could be a bird, for just a moment, I could lead the bird to safety." But then, the sound of church bells suddenly rang through the cold night – and he knew. He finally understood the reason Jesus came - to be one of us – to lead us into the safety of His will and the certainty of eternal life.

"Greetings favored one. The Lord is with you." I pray that this Christmas is the greatest adventure of your life! Merry Christmas!

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Mary Southerland is also the Co-founder of Girlfriends in God, a conference and devotion ministry for women. Mary’s books include, Hope in the Midst of Depression, Sandpaper People, Escaping the Stress Trap, Experiencing God’s Power in Your Ministry, 10-Day Trust Adventure, You Make Me So Angry, How to Study the Bible, Fit for Life, Joy for the Journey, and Life Is So Daily. Mary relishes her ministry as a wife, a mother to their two children, Jered and Danna, and Mimi to her six grandchildren – Jaydan, Lelia, Justus, Hudson, Mo, and Nori.