Often, epic moments in Scripture are framed by the sentence: “In the days of….” When I see a phrase like that in my reading, I pay close attention. Words like that are giving us the background scenery for the big plot move God is getting ready to make.
How would you finish the sentence, “These are the days of….”?
What would you say about your life and/or our world?
What’s challenging your belief system?
What things are stressing you out and making it hard for you to find joy?
Recently, as I prepared to share a message about The Yes Effect at a women’s event [scroll down to see video], I asked friends on Facebook to describe the challenges of our culture in this era. Here are some of their first impressions mixed with mine.
These are the days of….
political infighting, power struggles, distrust, Twitter wars
devices (things that connect yet disconnect us in different ways), distracted driving
overfilled schedules, information overload, on-demand everything
narcissism, mass negativity, anger, disrespect
sexual harassment (It’s probably not a good thing if you’re #trending on Twitter these days.)
drug epidemics, abortion, ISIS, mass shootings, trauma
anxiety, anything goes, unbelief
To sum it all up, these are the days of disillusionment. When I look around, I see my loved ones are hurting on the personal level, and I see our culture in crisis as a whole. At both the macro and micro levels, doesn’t it sometimes feel like we’re tip-toeing on an old bridge that’s ready to collapse?
But gloomy headlines like ours aren’t new. When we look at the story of Jesus’ entrance into human history, joy stands out in very stark contrast to the cultural mood of the time.
Here’s the backdrop….
These were the days of Herod. (Luke 1:5)
Herod was appointed 40 BC and led a 3 yr violent suppression of Jewish leaders who opposed him. He came from descendants of Esau who had been known to help enemies of Israel in OT times. His family had converted to Judaism, but he still embraced the false gods of Greece, paying homage to whatever religion would serve him at any given time. He had killed some of his own family members and would eventually order the killing of all males under age 2 in Bethlehem. Talk about not being able to trust your leaders.
These were the days of Caesar Augustus. (Luke 2:1-3)
Did you know the Roman Senate called Caesar Augustus, “the Emperor Caesar, the Son of God”? A cult of emperor worship dominated the era. This leader demanded allegiance and brought down tight control on his subjects, including the Israelites.
Yet God’s messenger starts with joy. (Luke 1:28-29)
When Gabriel approaches Mary, he doesn’t mention the gloomy headlines, the ugly backdrop of what’s going on in the nation with the powers that be. He begins their conversation with joy. Rejoice. Be glad. Be well. Thrive. Be of good cheer. Be happy. Surprise! This is not like a jury summons. This is more like Publisher’s Clearinghouse showing up on your doorstep.
Gabriel goes on to call Mary, “favored one.” This isn’t just talking about the goodness inherent in Mary. Phrases like this have been used elsewhere in Scripture to talk about the goodness to come upon someone. Just like the angel of the Lord called Gideon a “man of valor” while he was hiding scared threshing wheat in the winepress, God has Gabriel call this humble young woman, Mary, honored. Gabriel presents a joyful vision of who she will be. She will be honored with blessings, much graced one, blessed one, made graceful, lavished with gifts. The word for favored one can also mean agreeable.
“The Lord is with you,” Gabriel says. In the original language, this phrase has the sense of surrounding on all sides. God is wrapping His arms around her. He goes before her. He’s got her back. He is alongside. This same message was presented to Moses and Gideon in their individual encounters with God/God’s messenger. They would need this assurance to move forward confidently and take on the wild assignment ahead.
What do you think about the idea of starting from joy instead of sifting through all the painful, ugly things first?
What might happen the next time you become overwhelmed with busyness or conflict, if you’d stop and think back on a moment of pure joy in your life?
What might happen if you’d speak out loud the favor God has for you, the good things He has stored up for you?
What might happen if you meditated on the reality that He is with you, all around you?
Herod and Caesar and all the chaos is there, but God’s messenger doesn’t need to harp on the bad stuff. God’s goodness makes the gloomy headlines less relevant, and puts them on the periphery instead of at the center.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve read Luke 1 over my few decades of Christmases, but as I searched this passage recently to share with an auditorium full of ladies I love dearly, I discovered some things I’d never noticed before.
As you go over the slides and watch my 6-part “Portrait of a Happy Person” talk about Mary’s story, I know you’ll pick up on some things to change your outlook as you begin this new year.
Here’s a brief outline of my talk to give you a birds-eye view of what I’ve been learning about joy:
1. These were the days of bad leaders and gloomy headlines (Luke 1:5, 2:1-3)
2. These were the days of Mary’s engagement/betrothal. (Luke 1:26-27)
3. God’s messenger Gabriel doesn’t harp on the hard things. He greets Mary with joy, presents a joyful vision of who she will be. (Luke 1:28-29)
4. Gabriel’s message: God is getting ready to step into the timeline of history as a little bundle of joy! (Luke 1:30-33)
5. The power and presence of God overshadows Mary’s puzzles. (Luke 1:34-35)
6. When God is on the move, happy news pops up where you’d least expect it. (Luke 1:36-37)
7. Convinced of God’s goodness, Mary happily accepts her mission. Mary’s will now matches God’s will. (Luke 1:38)
8. Joy multiplies when it’s shared. Likeminded friends affirm the Lord’s work in us. (Luke 1:39-45)
9. Joy erupts in worship. (Luke 1:46-50)
10. Joy travels! We get to know Jesus because day to day, year to year, century to century, believers from other eras have carried Jesus to us. (Isaiah 49:6)
God stirs up joy in us, and has plans to multiply that joy in every neighborhood of the world. But our response to His invitation will determine how much of that joy we’ll get to experience firsthand.
Luke 1:45 says, “Happy is she who believed the Lord would do what He said!”
Trust and joy go together. If you’re not experiencing joy, why not take a step back and see if you’ve believed and acted on what God has already spoken to you.
We’ve just come out of the holiday season, a hard time of year for the supposed-tos. Real life inevitably irritates or obliterates our ideals. In my circle, some friends are grieving the passing of a parent. Some have even lost a child. Others are walking through the pain of dysfunctional relationships. Others are simply discontent with everyday life and want to find a way out of the status quo. Whether you’re trying to navigate the regular pressures of life or the aftermath of a disorienting crisis, I hope you’ll listen closely for the joy of the Lord, lean toward it, and see what happens.
P.S. To help us explore how to receive God’s joy and get energized to make an impact in our families, neighborhoods, and ministries, I’m launching The Yes Effect Book Club in a Facebook group to run January 29-March 31. If you’re on Facebook, I hope you’ll join us when the group opens up January 22! If you’re not on Facebook, you can still enjoy weekly posts reflecting on The Yes Effect from a great line-up of contributors right here on my website. Order your copy of The Yes Effect today and follow along with us!
Special thanks to artist Greg Pilcher for gifting me his hand-drawn image/lettering to illustrate Luke 1:45.