The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
The road to joy can seem daunting, if not impossible, these days. A recent op-ed piece in the NYT was titled, “Are We Living in a Post-Happiness World?” The author stated that, with happiness harder to come by these days, people are grasping at any moment of joy they can get.” The premise behind the decline in joy was rooted in our vicious, polarized politics, the growing disparities in economic wealth and opportunity, and the destruction of our planet through global warming, that now appears to be beyond our ability to remedy.
“’In an age of despair, choosing joy is a revolutionary act,’ said Douglas Abrams, an author of “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World,” a 2016 best seller he wrote with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.”
Today we conclude the season of joy. It is the 12th day of Christmas and tomorrow begins Epiphany. For the past twelve days, (or longer) we have been immersed in joy, or at least behaved as if we have been. We have sung, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come,” and “O tidings of comfort of joy.” We have heard the angel proclaim to shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
As we conclude the Christmas narrative this morning with the arrival of the magi at the manger in Bethlehem, we hear, “When [the magi] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Christmas and the birth of Jesus are saturated with joy.
But in an age of despair, are we really feeling the joy? Is our joy authentic or is it faux? Did we mask the realities of our current circumstances with our Christmas celebrations, but now that they are over, have we returned to a state of despair?
The story of the Nativity is not meant to be a fleeting joy, but rather to offer us permanent joy and hope, even in the most despairing of times. As the angels proclaim, the birth of Jesus is tidings of great joy for all people. And for all time.
As in our own times, the circumstances of the world that Jesus was born into was one of great despair. I read a quote from an evangelical minister recently that stated that when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape the genocide of Herod’s murdering all the boy children under age two in his realm, that they were not actually refugees. This pastor was refuting the claim by some Christians – like us – who understand that the Holy Family were compelled by the threat of violence to become refugees, just like those people today fleeing violence in Central America. His premise was that all the peoples and countries living under the Roman Empire’s Pax Romana were just one big happy nation and so, the Holy family could not have possibly been refugees. They were just residents moving from one part of the country to another!
I assure you, no one who lived under the brutality of Roman rule and oppression thought that they were part of one happy country. The perpetual efforts of the Jews to liberate themselves from Roman rule attests to that.
Peoples who lived under Roman occupation were over-taxed to the point of poverty, subject to the terroristic tactics of the Roman Legions, were quickly enslaved to meet Roman labor needs, and even more quickly crucified if they challenged or threatened Roman authority. This was not one big happy country.
So, under these conditions choosing joy at the time of the birth of Jesus was certainly a revolutionary act.
And the magi certainly faced some arduous challenges as they followed the star to where the Messiah was. Two years of travel by camel through dessert sands, in the blazing heat of the day and bitter cold of the night, through an environment inhabited by vicious animals and marauding bandits. I rode a camel for five minutes in Israel several years ago; it was hardly comfortable, and mounting and dismounting that animal was terrifying. Two years of doing that is beyond my imagination!
I’m sure the magi experienced more than a few moments of despair as the star moved west, constantly recalibrating their travels to – hopefully - bring them to the goal of seeing the new born messiah. At times I suspect it would have seemed like a hopeless endeavor. But they persisted. They held onto to the hope that the star represented.
Once the magi get to Jerusalem they encounter Herod, a small-minded, despotic king who feigns interest in what they say about the birth of a newborn king of the Jews. But as he is the king of the Jews, he is alarmed. Who is this threat to his throne that these exotic visitors are seeking? The scripture says Herod was “frightened,” but I would speculate that he exploded in rage once the magi were out of earshot. After consulting with the theology experts, he discovers that scripture foretold the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, David’s city.
So, Herod meets the magi again and points them in the direction of Bethlehem. He says to them, “"Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
Now, being learned people, I suspect that the magi might have been skeptical of Herod’s desire to pay baby Jesus homage. If for no other reason than small-minded despots seldom can hide their true feelings, especially if its malice.
The magi go to Bethlehem and the star stops over the place where the child lay. Two years of challenging and exhausting travel, in arduous and dangerous conditions, with more than a few moments when it must have seemed like a foolish endeavor to be pursuing this star. Under the circumstances who would fault them if they threw up their hands in despair, giving up hope and returning to Persia?
But they persevere, and the end result of their persistence, even in the face of huge obstacles, is that the magi are over-whelmed with joy!
Their perseverance leads to joy and was in all ways a revolutionary act!
Joy is always the result of encountering Jesus.
In the beloved carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem, we sing that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Who knows what hopes and fears the magi had met for them in Jesus when they arrived in Bethlehem. I can’t imagine they would be much different than the hopes and fears we all experience in our lives. The fear of being unaccepted, un-loved, unappreciated, uncared for. The fear of our very existence, and that of our children, and children’s children, being threatened by political, economic and climate forces that seem beyond our control. All these fears are cause for despair. And then there are our hopes: hope of being accepted regardless of who we are, of being forgiven our sins and offences, of being released from the abuses of the evil ways of the world. The hope that God can and will redeem all despair. In Jesus all those fears are eased, and all those hopes are fulfilled. No wonder the angels, the shepherds, and the magi all responded to him with joy! Their hopes and fears – like ours – were, and forever will be, met in him. What other response than joy could we possibly have in realizing this is the gift to all people in the child of Bethlehem? It was a revolutionary act in their time. It is no less a revolutionary act in our own time.
I think the most important phrase in this text is that once the magi had experienced the joy that Jesus brings, “they left for their own country by another road.” Their lives found a new path to journey on because they encountered the joy of Jesus. It was the path of hopefulness. And leaving by this new path of hope informs us that our lives are transformed after we encounter Jesus. We no longer travel on the road of despair. The babe of Bethlehem redirects our lives and places us on another road; the road of hope and joy.
As the dark clouds of despair seem to grow more oppressive, grasp the gift of good news for all people, and the hope and joy the message of the Nativity brings to the world. It’s a revolutionary act to do. And it will save us and redeem us. Joy to the world the Savior reigns! Merry Christmas!
 Laura M. Holson, “Are We Living In A Post-Happiness World?” New York Times, Sept. 28, 2019