I’ll never forget the time I worked for a very particular senior pastor and as we were creating Christmas, my video team missed a small capture he wanted to play at the beginning of the Christmas Eve services. When the video rolled and he noticed this mistake, he was so disappointed that he refused to light his candle during “Silent Night.” He then proceeded to storm the tech booth and display his unbridled disappointment: “If you can’t make this stuff happen, then what do I need you for anyway?” Talk about a temper tantrum.
I can tell you now, that that was one of the most unjoyful Christmases of my life. Beaten down and tired from this unforgettable moment, I spent the entire holiday break hermiting in pajamas and sadness, not able to get off the couch and celebrate with my family.
Although you may be shocked to hear someone behaving this way, it’s not uncommon under the stress of the holidays, to allow the smallest inconveniences or unmet expectations to harm the joy God wants us to experience in the birth of his Son. It’s while we’re “working” on Christmas that many of us have had these types of breakdowns, planning an experience for our community to celebrate, while missing the joy of Christmas ourselves.
I missed the joy. I allowed joy to be out of my reach. I chose rather, to dwell on this moment and drama and neglect soaking in the gift God gave me in his Son, which was free for the taking.
Recorded in the Book of Luke we see from the outside that Mary had a pretty terrible first Christmas too. Disgraced by her own community for being an unmarried pregnant teenage virgin. Traveling on foot at nine months pregnant for a first-ever nationwide census beyond her control. Having to labor and give birth in a barn-cave surrounded by barn animals. And finally, having to be host to strange and unexpected visitors, right after giving birth!
Did she have every reason to throw a fit about the unfairness of how her evening went? Did she lock herself away because she was so maxed out? Was she screaming at the sky, “I have carried your Son for nine months and these are the accommodations you give me?!”
As we zoom in and remember this real moment in her life, we find an invaluable passage of Scripture and a glimpse into Mary’s heart and posture at Jesus’ birth. In the the chaos and unknowns, she sat and soaked in the moment right in front of her with her brand-new baby boy, the Son of God:
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
As I think of Mary and her essential role in the birth of our Savior, I see a woman so connected to God and his purpose that it led her to experience complete joy during so much chaos. We don’t see her battling with fear. We have no record of bitterness. No recordings that would lead us to believe that there was anger or even despair. She willingly walked out every step that God laid before her and beheld the gift of this miraculous moment.
Even from the very beginning when first approached by the angel Gabriel, proclaiming to her that she was being called to be the mother of Jesus, she responds:
“I am the Lord’s servant. Let everything you’ve said happen to me.” (Luke 1:38)
Not her plan. Not her comfort. No control. She said yes to all of it, and it led to one of the greatest moments of her life.
“Let everything you’ve said happen to me.”
Journey of Joy
While we might not understand our hardships, disappointments, or the paths we are on or redirected to, maybe we can allow Mary to teach us something about the journey of joy discovered as we walk everything out with God, one step at a time.
Our culture sells us an ideal that joy is experienced only when we arrive at something we do not yet have.
One day …
One day … When I get married.
One day … When I am healed of this illness.
One day … When I score that dream job.
One day … When I get out of this funk.
One day … When my spouse changes.
One day … When the Christmas service is perfect.
One day … When I find balance.
One day … When I get over that break up.
One day … When I have more money.
On the other side of the coin is our inner judge, reminding us of the regret of missed joy that’s now forever gone.
If only …
If only … I had savored that moment.
If only … I had been more intentional.
If only … I never made that mistake.
If only … I had been a better version of myself.
If only … I hadn’t lost that opportunity, relationship, etc.
If only … The season lasted a little bit longer before I had to let go.
This is the type of joy that slips between our fingers, leaving us empty.
Stop and Claim Joy
Can we choose to believe wholeheartedly that joy is not lost in what we lack or what we’ve missed, but that it’s found in the present and on the journey in step with God. John 15 gives us a clear picture of complete joy no matter our circumstances. It’s what Mary models for us as she stepped into her calling.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit;apart from me you can do nothing. …I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:5, 11)
Jesus reminds us here that real, complete joy, is found in connection to him.
When we’ve been emptied out, bankrupt of the means to create our own temporary happiness, God is there waiting for us. He is the vine to graft to and receive complete joy.
The first step to experiencing this joy this holiday season, or any season, is to walk with God with this posture, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let everything you’ve said happen to me.”
When we “get this” we can find joy in the exhale after pulling off five exhausting and imperfect Christmas services, knowing our work is an act of worship. We can find joy in warm clothes and hot cocoa. We can find joy in a baby crying in service because it means we are blessed with new life in our community. We can find joy in a pebble in our shoes, allowing it to be a reminder to pray for those who are without.
“Joyful, Joyful we adore thee.” Where is the joy of the Lord evident in your life this season? How can you stay connected to the vine and allow all parts of this Advent season to unfold in their own way? What can you decide, claim, or surrender today that will allow you to have an unwavering spirit of love and joy at Christmas?
It’s my prayer for all of us. May we ponder and treasure every moment, looking on the Savior this Christmas.
Bri Johns is a pastor, speaker, writer, and leader with over 20 years’ ministry experience in multisite church ministry, leadership development, and creative teaching.