It has been interesting looking at the fruit of the Spirit this Advent. While we may not think of these as traditional Christmas topics, each of the virtues created by the Spirit bring us back to the Jesus that was born in the manger.
As I have looked at each of the fruit, the two that we are looking at today seem to have the closest connection to Christmas. If we were to ask about the images that come to mind of people in our community, both Christian and non-Christian, I suspect that love and joy would be near the top of the list. It shouldn’t be difficult for anyone to come up with a Christmas message based on love and joy.
When we talk about love and joy, we are presuming that there are people who are easy to love and reasons for us to be joyful. However, as we saw last week, not every experience is ideal. Some people are difficult to love and there are situations that are difficult to find joy.
What do we mean when we say joy? Some people think of joy as being the same as happiness. There is a Bible translation that replaces every mention of “joy” with “happiness.” This is a mistake. Happiness is based on circumstances and it has connections with our concept of being lucky. When something really good happens to you, then you are happy. You cannot be happy if something bad happens.
But joy is not based on circumstances. Joy is a very theological concept and is found throughout the Bible. Joy is a contentment that is available to people completely separate from what is happening. If you get an unexpected bill right before Christmas, you won’t be happy, but it doesn’t have to steal your joy. Happiness is not a bad thing but joy is deeper and more dependable.
Let us think of joy in terms of the first Christmas. We think of that as being a joyful event and it was but let us look carefully at what happened. Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem while Mary was very pregnant. Travel then would not have been near as comfortable as it is today. It would not have been a pleasant journey. When they arrived in Bethlehem, there was not enough room for them to stay where they wanted and so they had to stay with the animals. None of that was ideal. But when you throw in the story of Herod wanting to kill baby Jesus and the family fleeing as refugees to Egypt, things just get worst. If you were to imagine the best possible scenario for giving birth to your first child, none of this would be it.
But there was joy in the birth because Joseph and Mary saw God in all their circumstances. It did not matter what life looked like, there was joy because there was God.
I see love and joy as being interconnected. Love is the outflowing of joy. If you are filled with joy, you are likely to show love toward others. If you are a loving person, you probably are filled with joy on the inside.
But there is another connection. We have seen that joy is not limited by circumstances. That is what love is meant to be like as well. This is not how we normally think about love. Much of entertainment are tales of people falling in and falling out of love.
We do need to admit that there are some people who are easier than others to love. And even those who are lovable have moments when they are not so easy to love. But Jesus calls us to a better way.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus redefines some concepts that his audience thought they understood. One of these was love. People understood that it was important to be loving but they also believed the group of people to be loved was limited. But Jesus completely explodes that concept of love.
There are times that Jesus is mysterious in his teachings but here is painfully clear. We are to love our enemies and those who persecute us. I want you to think right now about that one person you dislike the most, whether you personally know them or not, and that is the person you are to love. There is no circumstance that would change or limit the command to love.
I understand that I have not experienced abuse or have had my life in danger. It is easy for me to say love everyone. But it is not me that is saying it nor am I expressing what comes natural to me. I am also not saying that you should put yourself or your family in danger under the excuse of being loving.
Here is what loving means. Think about that person who is the most difficult to love. What would you do if you had the opportunity to hurt them? What would you do if you had the opportunity to help them? It is not about giving them a hug or becoming best friends.
Who did Jesus love? Did Jesus love Peter? Even though Peter denied him three times? Yes he did. But he loved more than just Peter. He died for millions of people who never wanted anything to do with him. Jesus’ love, like his joy, was not based on outward circumstances.
My prayer is that your Christmas will be filled with love and joy. Real love and joy. Not superficial love and joy. Not just affection and happiness but biblical love and joy. Jesus is our model. He is the one who was born, lived, died and was raised so that we could experience this. Like all of the fruit of the Spirit, it is a gradual growth in our lives. Each day the Spirit goes deeper in us.