All around us at this point of the year, we only hear about joy. “Joy to the world!” the speakers blare, “the Lord has come. Let earth receive her king!” Starbucks has a Joy tea, with Joy themed reusable cups. Organizations with Joy themed names, like Toys for Joy, come out of the woodwork looking for money to help the impoverished. “Let every heart prepare him room.” Jesus, or joy?
What happens when we’re inundated with messages about joy, telling us to get joy, be joyful, give joy, and feel joy all of the time when we don’t hear of our king? Coptic Christians were killed in a bombing at a Catholic cathedral. We have family members unable to join our festivities due to cancer, or handicaps, physical or mental. A pair of bombs killed 38 in Istanbul. We ourselves suffer from the stress of cooking, cleaning, bills, larger than usual spending habits. The nation mourns that justice is not served in our courts. We are tired, run-down, sick, and sore. Where is the room for joy?
“Joy to the earth; the savior reigns! Let men their songs employ!”
But what if our songs don’t turn to joy? What if they are the songs of lament, of hurting, of pain, or destitution? How can we not feel guilty for being joy-less when we’re in the season of being joy-filled? “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground: he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Sounds nice, but that’s not the reality we fill that we live in, is it?
There’s good news. The first Advent season was not, as we might expect, a season characterized by joy. Herod, a ruthless king, killer of family members, reigned over the kingdom of Israel. He himself was subject to the lordship of Roman rulers: Israel had no real autonomy, and whatever royalty they had wasn’t much better anyway. Even righteous priest Zechariah and his blemishless wife Elizabeth were barren. Simeon and Anna stayed in the temple their entire life without word from God, silent since the time of Malachi.
Even before that, hints and whispers of Advent were spoken in times of great distress. King Ahaz, in the time of Isaiah, found himself threatened by two rival powers: Rezin, king of Syria, and Pekah, king of Israel, came against Judah to unseat Ahaz. This was not only a political coup: this was an act of rebellion against the God who cut a covenant with David to keep someone from David’s line on the throne – forever. Even God’s good promises looked to be under threat.
But God knew. And he knew that his word would never come back empty and would accomplish all that it had set out to do; this is contrary to the word of man, which would fade and wither. He knew what he promised David, and his message and promise would remain strong. God delivers an assurance: It will not pass: have faith, because if you don’t have faith, you will not stand in the face of this. He even gives a sign: the virgin shall bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel. The threats from Israel and Assyria would be long gone before this king was alive, showing Ahaz that he had nothing to fear.
But this is not a generic faith. This is a faith that we can share today, knowing God’s eternal promises stand. This is a faith that stands even when everything stands against Ahaz, and us. It is a faith that renounces the easy way out and renounces union with anything that is not Christ. It is a faith in a particular person, in a particular way, in a particular time. Have faith in me as King, and faith in my promise to be with you in the Son of a virgin, and you will stand. It is a faith in the face of immense trial and pain and fear. It is a faith in the deliverance of God. It is a faith that says, despite what everything looks like now, despite all appearances, I know God will deliver me, because he promised to, and gave me a sign of his good intentions.
Judah’s situation did not change right away. Neither will ours. But God’s promises still stand. The Son of a virgin was as much a sign for Ahaz as it is for us today. Emmanuel was the surety that Judah would survive and God would remain faithful to David and to Israel and to Ahaz. Jesus is the surety that God is remaining faithful to us, to David, to Israel, and to Ahaz.
God offers a similar promise today. Remain strong, ready to be a martyr for my word. If you do not stand in faith in the risen Lion-Lamb of Judah, you will not stand at all. But if you remain, the First and the Last shall grant you freedom from the second death, hidden manna, a white stone with a new name, authority over the nations, eternal life, an audience before the Father, a home in the new Jerusalem, and to dine with our new king. Our current situations may not change. We still have to live in a world of death, and murder, and corruption; of heartache, and sadness, and illness; of woes, and trials, and tribulations. They may kill us. But the One who promised these things still is, and will be forevermore.
As Elizabeth and Zechariah’s faithfulness despite barrenness was met with satisfaction of a baby; as Simeon and Anna both saw Israel’s deliverance; as Mary and Joseph bore the one who would topple kingdoms and restore the poor and downtrodden; so will it be for us. The baby in the cradle, the promise of restoration and the image of hope for these is the promise of hope for us. As God has come before, he will come again. As he came to make everything right as a baby, he will come back as the victorious Son of God in the future. For now? For now, we believe. And we wait. And we hope, because the promises of God find their Yes in Christ.
“And makes the nations prove the wonders of his love.
The wonders of his love.
The wonders, wonders, of his love.”