It is the third week of Advent, and this week we focus on Joy. We’re talking about the sweet joy of the Lord, who is the joy in Christmas that lasts all year long.
I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty easy to recognize a joyful person. I mean, there’s something about the person who has joy down deep in their souls. Maybe it’s their calm spirit, or subtle smile, or that twinkle in their eyes. They have something in them and share it without even trying.
Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. –Isaiah 40:9-11 (ESV)
This Old Testament passage instructs us to fear not, just as Gabriel told Mary. The baby Mary was carrying was the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus. Therefore, we need not fear either, but only believe He is Immanuel, God with us. Our Jesus came to save the world. And He defied death to do it for you and me. And like the shepherds of old, our Great Shepherd cares for us, fights for us, protects us, holds us close, and gently guides us to safety. Just thinking about warms my heart with joy. How about you?
Mary visits Elizabeth
Elizabeth was Mary’s much older cousin, well past childbearing years. But, miraculously and just as Gabriel reported, Elizabeth was pregnant. Now, her baby was John the Baptist. And according to his father Zachariah’s prophecy, John’s purpose was to inform the people about Jesus and prepare the way before Him.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” –Luke 1: 76-79 (ESV)
Since John was indwelled by the Holy Spirit even before he was born (Luke 1:14), her baby leaped for joy within her when Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home. At that moment, the Holy Spirit also came to Elizabeth, and that is how Elizabeth knew Mary was carrying the Messiah, Jesus. (Luke 1:41-42).
Returning home doesn’t always feel so good
After returning to her home, Mary and her fiancée, Joseph, needed to settle some things. It must have been awkward, scary, and embarrassing for both of them. After all, on his own, Joseph couldn’t begin to understand the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, but he was willing to end the engagement without shaming her. Not so fast, Joseph!
You see, the Holy Spirit intervened on Mary’s behalf, assuring Joseph that she had done nothing wrong and that they should proceed with the planned marriage. Thank God for the Holy Spirit!
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
Not quite the honeymoon they imagined
To top all of this off, Caesar Augustus issued a decree to conduct a census. You know, a headcount of everyone under his rule, only there wasn’t an online system to access from their home offices. Everyone had to travel to their hometown to register and be counted.
Since Joseph was from the line of David, he had to return, with Mary, to the City of David called Bethlehem. And now we know why they had to go there, but did you know this was in fulfillment of the scripture (Micah 5:2, Matt 2:6)?
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. – Micah 5:2 ESV
The trip couldn’t have been easy for either of them and probably took longer than they expected because, you know, pregnant women have to stop a lot. So, by the time they arrived in Bethlehem, they must have been worn out. But, because people were coming from all over the area, the hotels were booked solid. The only offer they had for shelter was a manager, so they took it. And, from what we read in Luke’s gospel, it might have been just in time.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. –Luke 2:7
Behold the Good News of Great Joy in The Lord’s Birth
One starry night in Bethlehem, shepherds saw the glory of God through visiting angels, who shared the news — a Savior is born!
Picture a star-filled night over pastureland outside of the city where shepherds are resting, with their flocks, after a long day’s work. Then, all of a sudden, they see an angel appear before them saying:
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” –Luke 2:10-12
Can you imagine it! And, as if that wasn’t glorious enough, the gospel of Luke goes on to tell us a multitude of angels appeared and began praising God, saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” –Luke 2:14
Well, after all that, the shepherds had to see for themselves this thing the angels announced. So, they went into Bethlehem to look for this sign the angles told them to find.
Do you think that night changed them?
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13
Maybe from then on, those shepherds had a calm spirit, a subtle smile, and even a twinkle in their eyes only the sweet joy of the Lord can produce. The good news is you can experience the joy of Jesus when you, by faith, accept Him as your Lord and Savior. It’s the kind of deep joy in the Lord that comes from His overflow. That is how those who trust in God can share His joy without even trying.
Hymn of the week – O Little Town of Bethlehem
Is there a difference between a carol and a hymn? Well, according to Webster, there is a slight difference. Carols are songs of joy or mirth, festive, and usually sung at Christmas. As opposed to hymns that are songs of praise to God and often based on Psalms, many of which have been around for hundreds of years. Carol or hymn, I don’t think it matters, as we can find this carolly-hymn in 768 hymnals around the world.
Singing this carol helps us imagine our Lord, Jesus Christ, Who came to Earth as a baby in a manger. Then, as we sing the words, learn that this holy Child descended to us to cast out our sin and be born into the hearts of the meek souls who would receive Him.
Phillips Brooks (1835 – 1893) was ordained in 1859 and became Rector of the Church of the Advent in Philadelphia (a nice coincidence after choosing his hymn for this Advent series). After spending a Christmas in Bethlehem in 1866, he wrote the words to this carol for his Sunday School class (Julian, 1907).
Then, a couple of years later, Brooks asked Lewis Henry Redner (1831-1908) to write a tune for his carol. Brooks was a weekend church organist, a real estate agent by trade but managed to complete the composition the night before it debuted at the Sunday worship service in 1868. Finally, in 1894, O Little Town of Bethlehem was published, but the title was St. Lewis. Can you guess why?
Mr. Redner must have been very accomplished, as he is touted for increasing Sunday school attendance from only thirty-one to over one thousand. On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that the music must have come from a heart overflowing with joy in the Lord, and that is what drew the people.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Phillips Brooks, Words
Lewis Henry Redner, Composer
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by;
yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary,
and, gathered all above
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King
and peace to all the Earth.
How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heav’n.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray,
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel!
This post is number four in the 2021 Advent Series. Click the link to see the others. Merry Christmas!
Visit the Joyology 101 Series to learn more about experiencing joy in the Lord. Click here to find it.
Author: Phillips BrooksBrooks, Phillips. “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Hymnary.org. Accessed December 6, 2021. https://hymnary.org/text/o_little_town_of_bethlehem.
Brink, E. (n.d.). Tune: St. Louis (Redner). Hymnary.org. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://hymnary.org/tune/st_louis_redner.