In early July of 2015, we visited Israel and parts of the West Bank for the first time. This was like a dream come true for us. After years of reading the bible and trying to imagine what the Holy Land was like, we were now on the ground, seeing the places and making all the geographical and biblical connections. It was as if the bible became more than a book, it came alive and in living colors. As much as our visit was a life changing experience, we came back home with a profound weariness of spirit. This Holy Land that we so revered from a distance was heavy with conflict, poverty and power imbalances.
But our time in Israel and Palestine was not just tainted with pain and sadness. We met people—Palestinians and Jews who exhibited transcendent joy and hope despite their circumstances. One would expect that people living in desperate conditions would be shaped by their despair, emptied of any hope and joy. To the contrary, we met scores of Christians finding reasons to rejoice; gathering for worship, meals, and daring to dream big dreams for the peace and prosperity of The Land.
Our text for the fourth week of Advent takes place more than two thousand years ago in the very land that we visited. Remarkably, even at that time, the Holy Land was a place of war, injustice and military occupation by the Romans. Jerusalem, the regions of Galilee and the regions of Judah were policed by a foreign power.
One could ask the question, who’s in charge? Who sets the parameters on what human beings can and cannot do? Is it governments or God?
In the small, inconspicuous village of Nazareth the angel of the Lord visited a poor, possibly illiterate young woman and told her the most amazing news: the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. Unable to contain her joy, with haste, Mary traveled the hill country of Judah to visit her relative Elizabeth.
One cannot read this passage without feeling the pulse of the text being one of joy—unbounded, overflowing joy. Mary was joyful that her formerly barren, relative was six months pregnant with child. Mary was also joyful that she could share the same news that she too was expecting a child.
So these two women, the teenager and her elderly relative met in Elizabeth’s home to celebrate the Lord’s blessings.
Advent is a time of joy. There is a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is temporal and is often conditioned by favorable circumstances. Happiness often lingers as long as things are positive. But when trouble comes, happiness quickly departs like a flock of birds at the sight of a predator.
On the other hand, joy is fueled by faith in the goodness of God. Joyful people believe that God is a promise keeper. Over 600 hundred years before these women met in the hills of Judah, the prophet Micah spoke the promise of God:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the cities 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).
Elizabeth and Mary were joyful that the promises of God were being fulfilled in them. There was nothing that the powers of the world could do the derail God’s wonderful plan.
As we wait for the Second Advent of our Messiah, we are also called to live in the same joy that these women had. Our world is racked with pain. Signs of injustice, human trafficking, poverty and the abuse of women and children are everywhere. The sure promise of His coming means that we must believe that Hope entered the world in the form of a baby and with haste, just like Mary, leave our homes and share the subversive joy in the face of sin and evil.
Joy is relational and demands the presence of others to share its warm embrace. When you are possessed with good news it is natural to want to send an email, post a message on your news feed and let the world know about your good fortune. Could it be that the missing element in the evangelical witness of the 21st century church is that we are not possessed with the good news of the Savior who loves this broken world?
Picture if you can this young woman; she abruptly leaves her home and presumably travels alone through the hills of Judah to see and rejoice with her relative. Be careful, joy will cause you to do things that others might deem irrational. But to the one filled with joy it is not only rational it is imperative and it becomes contagious when others are in your sphere.
May each of us in this season of Advent be filled with the true joy that sends us out into the world sharing the good news of Christ.