Fantastic Joy and Where to Find Him!
FANTASTIC JOY AND WHERE TO FIND HIM
In the 2016 Harry Potter prequel film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander is a British Wizard who travels across the Atlantic to New York City in the year 1926, sixty five years before the events of the famous Harry Potter books. Newt comes to England with a magic suitcase that has within it a zoo of magical creatures, or fantastic beasts. At the beginning of the movie a magical creature named a Niffler escapes from the suitcase, and in his attempt to recapture the creature, Newt accidentally switches his magical suitcase with the suitcase of an aspiring baker named Jacob Kawalski. Because of this mishap several magical creatures escape from Newt’s suitcase. Newt and Jacob have to team up to capture these magical creatures again.
Fantastic Beast’s And Where To Find Them, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, Mary Poppins and other book in this genre start with the premise that if we look hard enough in the ordinary world we will find magic, we will find excitement, we will find joy. May it be a magical suitcase, wardrobe, a magical nanny with a magical umbrella, these stories speak to our desire to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. It speaks to our desire to capture a moment of life, a moment of joy, and to hold onto it for dear life.
Perhaps there are better ways of finding joy than releasing magical creatures to cause property damage. Perhaps you find joy in other things. Joy in music, joy in dancing, Joy in movies, joy in sports, joy in family, joy in friends, joy in romance, joy in puns. Life is a pursuit of joy because joy seems so fleeting. But our faith teaches us that the fruit of the spirit is, “ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23). Joy in Jesus is said to abide and grow like a fruit, it is not supposed to come and go like a candle flickering in the night. And I believe the Christmas story today reveals Fantastic Joy and Where to find Him. The good news today is this.
When we make our hearts a humble home Fantastic Joy will abide in us.
- Who Joy is?
- How do we welcome Joy?
- How do we make our hearts a home for joy?
First, who is Joy? Perhaps the more expected question would be, “what is joy?” But I think the Christmas story tells us that joy is not a concept, he is a person, Jesus Christ. It seems to me that joy is personal. Joy involves our relationships with others. Joy also involves the making of something new in our relationships. It involves an act of creation.
And there is no greater form of joy than the maker of creation taking on flesh in Mary’s womb. As I have talked with people about joy one of the first things they mention to me is the birth of their children. One friend of mine, a new parent and missionary in the middle east, put being a parent succinctly, when he said, “will being a parent is a lot of joy but not a lot of fun.” There seems to be an element of work to joy, as there is in any act of creation. A mother has to go through labor pains to birth a child. Though God made all of creation with a Word, he had us work the Garden. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary to make her with child but she and Joseph had to work to get to Bethlehem. There would be a long journey to raise Jesus till he was lifted up on the cross. There would be days of joy and days of sorrow. There would be joy for the birth of a new born boy. But fear of the unknown. The joy of creation always battles with the fear of chaos. We feel so helpless to raise the life that has been entrusted to us. But we are in good company. Because our savior knew what it was to be helpless. He knew what it was to depend on his earthly parents and his heavenly Father for protection.
Second, how do we welcome him who is joy into our hearts? I think this passage shows us that the key to welcoming joy into our lives is gratitude. The shepherd’s response to the good news of Jesus birth is to glorify and to praise God. It is to give God thanks for something they could not do themselves. The shepherds knew what it was to protect their flocks. But they also knew that protecting their flocks from predators and guiding their sheep to new pastures wasn’t entirely within their control. Sleeping under the stars they had to trust God to protect them as they rested. Their dependence on God for their work prepared them for divine joy, but it did not make them deserving of joy. The visitation of the Angels was a gift to them. They did nothing to earn it. The shepherds visiting Mary was a gift to her. It wasn’t something she expected or thought she deserved. That is why she treasured their visit in her heart, because she knew it was a gift. When life is a gift we can move from greed to gratitude, from envying others to blessing others, from enriching ourselves to feeding the hungry.
Finally, when we know who joy is, and how to welcome him, where do we find him? In our passage today we see that the shepherds find the baby Jesus in a manger because there was no room for the family in the inn. This English translation gives us the impression that the family was trying to stay at a commercial establishment, and that the innkeeper wasn’t very accommodating to them. But as an article from the magazine The Presbyterian Outlook points out this translation isn’t particularly helpful in understanding what is going on in this passage. If Luke wanted to say that the Holy family was trying to stay at a commercial inn, he would have used the same word as he does in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25. In that parable the Good Samaritan pays an inn keeper to take care of an injured man till the Samaritan returned from a journey. But the word Luke uses here is not the same word he uses in that story. Instead, the word would be better translated as “guest room”. That is because the place the Holy Family is staying is not a commercial establishment but a private home. The context suggests that it is a typical Jewish peasant home.
Many Christmas manger scenes that you may see displayed on church lawns or in church sanctuaries might give you the impression that the manger was located in a separate structure for animals, like what we would call a barn, but smaller. But that is not what this passage is talking about. Instead, most homes at the time were one room homes where the family and their animals dwelt together. These homes are split level homes. On a lower level the animals live. Then on a higher terrace, which makes up about 80% of the house would be for family living space and 20% would be the lower level where the animals dwelt. The lower level was connected to the upper level by steps. The upper level was about four feet higher than the lower level. At the edge of the family level, families would place a manger, or trough, so that animals, if they were hungry, could come up to it and eat at night and the family would not have to leave the family room to feed the animals.
So what the text actually says is that Mary and Joseph probably went to stay with some family friends. Being a poor family the family had only one guest room. That room was occupied when Mary and Joseph arrived. Not wanting to turn them away this family made space for Mary and Joseph in their family room, which was the only room, and they laid Jesus in the only suitable space, that being the feeding trough or manger. So this is not a story about the Holy family being turned away and having to stay in a barn. Instead, it is the story of a poor family making room for them at some expense to themselves. It is a story of humility and hospitality.
So we see that joy is the person of Jesus Christ who creates in us new hope. We see that we welcome Jesus into our hearts through gratitude. And we see that we find him in not exiled into a barn, but welcomed into a humble home. We know that home is where the heart is. But we also know it takes more than decorations and décor to make a house a home for our hearts. Joy requires personal relationships, it requires creativity, it requires gratitude, and it requires humility. This family didn’t expect to put up the Holy Family in their own home. They didn’t have any place to put an infant. So they had to be creative. They used what they had. They used a trough a manger. Maybe they didn’t think it was their best. Perhaps they felt a little embarrassed. But they gave what they had and they gave it with hospitable and humble hearts. And that was enough for God’s only Son. Sometimes we can’t bring our best to God. Still he bid us come.
As I was thinking about Fantastic Joy and where to find him I was reminded of a British video advert I saw on facebook a couple of weeks ago. This video opens up with the image of a Old Brick Victorian style townhouse in some British city. It has three windows. One on the first floor, two on the second, with a red door, and two brick chimney’s on the roof.
The video cuts to the inside of the house where we see a young man coming down the stairs. He is well dressed, fixing up his shirt, presumably preparing for work. He is a thinner man, with a well kept beard and mustache. He has a clean shaven head on the sides. He keeps the hair on the top of his head longer coiled up in a small pony tail. The man is probably in his twenties to early thirties. He seems to live by himself. We see this man go to a calendar. It is the month of December. He takes a red marker and marks out December 1st. The implication is he is counting down the days till Christmas. Which seems to be a strange thing to do when you are a grown man who lives by yourself.
In the next scene we see this man decorating his Christmas tree with ornaments, again preparing for Christmas. In several more scenes we see this young man waking up, eating breakfast, crossing off days on the calendar with his red market, and looking at the calendar with eager expectation.
On Christmas Eve we see a scene of this man lying awake in bed, looking up at the ceiling, in a contemplative mood. It seems like the man is excited but also a little nervous. We see that this man’s shoulder is tattooed with eagle’s feathers. He doesn’t seem to have any kids. He doesn’t seem to be the type to be excited about Santa coming down the chimney. You really begin to wonder what this man is waiting for to happen on Christmas day. He turns out the light and goes to sleep.
In the next scene it is Christmas Day. The young man sits at his breakfast table. He has a pair of headphones on and a box of cassette tapes on the table. He takes one of the cassette’s marked, “2014” and puts it in an old walk man, that is like a primitive ipod for you young people, and begins to play the tape. We the viewers, hear what the young man hears.
“ High Chris. It’s mum. Merry Christmas Poppet. Another year has passed. I wanted to start this one by saying something I haven’t said yet which is thank you, thank you for taking the time to remember me. After all these years I can’t believe you are going to be thirty soon. I wish I could be there to see how you have grown. To see what kind of man you have become. I know I would be so proud of you. So this is it my last tape.”
At this point the camera pans to the other tapes. We see that it is 2014 and that Chris’s mom made him a tape to remember for every year since 2005, which presumably was the year she died. The recording continues.
“I wish I could keep talking to you every Christmas. But it is time to say goodbye. Just remember how much I love you. Never forget that okay? I will always be your mum. Before I go let me tell you a story about the happiest day of my life. The day you were born?”
As I tried to capture in words the experience of joy that this passage portrays, that the Bible describes, this story struck at my heart. It produced in me a deep welling up in my inner being. A warmness, and gladness, and a sorrow that I could not hold onto that feeling forever. It is personal, creative, grateful, and humble. It reminded me of the fact that one day I will have to say goodbye to my own mother and father. It reminded me of the fact that this Christmas many of you have already had to do so. I felt deep joy. But deep fear of that joy. Fear because I would have to let go of the object of that joy and in the moment the sorrow felt too much to bear. And I was reminded of the words of Jesus as he bid his disciples goodbye in the Gospel of John,
“When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has born into the world. So also you have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, Truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:21-24).
And the Apostle Paul tells us, “ Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness[a] be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7).
My family has cause to rejoice this week. I didn’t expect to be an uncle this week. But Rowan Reynolds was born on Monday. And it was a wild ride. My sister got in a car crash that morning. Luckily the air bag didn’t go off. She was put in the hospital for observation. Around seven o’clock that night after a meeting I received word that the doctors were inducing labor. I talked my brother in law around eight and things seemed okay. And then around 11:30 pm she had an emergency c section. And I lay in bed that night wondering how things were going to go. Then around 1am I received a phone call from my brother in law telling me I was an uncle. And I rejoiced.
But this Christmas I am reminded that for some of you that didn’t happen, no miracle came. And I mourn with those who mourn, and I rejoice with those who rejoice. Because the scriptures tell us when our joy is in the one who has risen from the dead, who death can no longer bear a sting, then the world cannot take our joy from us. And I knew today I would have to preach on joy no matter what would have happened with my sister. And I want you to know and believe that the joy of the Lord is our strength, no matter what happens.So Father God the world groans at the end of this year with sighs to deep for words for joy. So would you birth in us joy today that the world may know we have received good news of great joy. And now may the God of hope fill you all with joy and peace in believing so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you, every one of you, may abound in hope, everyone of you may abound in joy.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.