Excerpt from Traveling Unfamiliar Pathways

“Because when angels draw near, as they do, the earth begins to shake beneath our feet as it began to shake beneath Mary’s feet, which was why she was greatly troubled. Instead of everything standing still and sure, suddenly nothing is standing still, and everything is unsure. Something new and shattering is breaking through into something old. Something is trying to be born. And if the new thing is going to be born, then the old thing is going to have to give way, and there is agony in the process as well as joy, just as there is agony in the womb as it labors and contracts to bring forth the new life…”

- Frederich Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

Christmas for some stirs up as much sadness as gladness. This is especially true for those who have lost someone close, those who are experiencing loneliness, those for whom hope seems distant. Perhaps that is you. If so, know you are in good company. Modern nativity scenes can immunize us to the grit and grime of that holy morning. Don’t forget that the saints and Savior of the first Christmas were hard pressed from every side. Uncertainty abounded. Mary groaned. Joseph winced. Jesus wept.

That morning in the coldness of a cave, in the blackness of a womb, the omnipresent God traveled somewhere new. God whose word spoke the world into existence became the Word that was spoken. The One who “beholds our unformed substance” emptied himself and became the unformed substance. The Spirit of God who once brooded over the deep now brooded in a body. Creation was turned on its head.

Do you know what this means?

Up until now we trembled before God-the-Powerful and prayed to God-the-Invisible. But in the Incarnation God-the-Infinite becomes God-the-Infant, God-the-Hallowed becomes God-the-Held. In Jesus, the Son of Man, God becomes our Brother and Friend.

When the author of Hebrews says “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15), it’s more than mere rhetoric. Jesus is intimately acquainted with our limitations. Jesus tastes our temptations. Jesus feels our pain. He knows how hard it can be to do life in an unresurrected body.

Paul speaks of sharing in the fellowship of Jesus’s suffering (Philippians 3:10). Jesus also fellowships with our suffering. He does not observe our pain from afar or offer “everything’s gonna turn out all right” platitudes. The Comforter holds our hands and sheds our tears.

Perhaps now is a good time to pause and light a candle of hope. This suffering—his and ours—is going somewhere. If God could transport us to the place he wants to take us and make us the people he wants to make us without the trials of life, he would. Love requires it. He cannot, so he does not.

“God, this pain is too much! Why not bring us home?” Isn’t that the question we ask when life crushes our hearts? We can throw up our arms and say, “Only God knows.” But that answer will not sustain us in a dark hour. No answer satisfies completely. But there are hints of answers. And the biggest hint is that three-letter word that embodies Christmastime. The one scattered everywhere on wreaths and wrapping paper, whose power has dulled through overuse.

Joy.

In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples to make their home in him, to love one another as he has loved them. The chapter is rich with the kind of wisdom only the Master can serve up. And what is the grand finale of all this abiding and loving? What is the fruit he desires us to bring forth? What is the answer to our midnight groans of “Why, God, why?” It is “That my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).

Reread that last sentence slowly. Don’t miss it. Shake off the blinders of familiarity. The importance of those words can’t be over exaggerated.

What is this Joy? khar-ah’: Cheerfulness, calm delight. The Jesus Storybook Bible calls it Forever Happiness.

How could Jesus endure the horror of the cross? “For the sake of the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He knew that he was ripping open new worlds of joy. Strength for suffering came from meditating on the Forever Happiness to come. Not pie-in-the-sky pearly gate happiness, but the deep joy of a redeemed creation and people who would co-create and reign forever with him.

You see, God is the most joyous being in the universe. He’s also the most giving, which means he wants to share what he has with us. God has gallons of joy to pour into us. The problem is that we all begin life as small as a shot glass. So we have to be heated up and remade. That’s what trials are for. Yielding to God in the midst of our hard times makes us pliable and God expands us. Our capacity for joy increases, both now and forever.

I close with a story that brings this starkly into the real world. My wife was in the hospital a few years ago. The psychiatric ward, to be exact. After a perfect storm of life events, she spiraled and crashed. We both experienced a kind of darkness we scarcely knew existed. For months, she sank into a deep depression and could not care for our children. It was hell. I did not know if life would ever be normal again. But nine months after the hospital God did a miracle in her heart and mind, dispelling her depression and restoring her hope. That was many years ago, and while there are natural ups and downs, we are today the best versions of ourselves we have ever been. At first, it was unclear why we went through all we did. Some questions remain unanswered, but we can now truly say we are thankful for all that transpired. In the valley of the shadow of death muscles developed that help us explore the mountains of life. Did I mention my wife’s name is Joy?

So this Christmastime as you see the word “joy” plastered across yards and stores may it serve as a reminder of Jesus’s words to his friends just hours before his death:

Abide in Me…that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

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