We are in a series about joy.  We are talking about the real things of life that steal our joy.  Things like; stress and anxiety.  Things like; resentment and anger.  The point of this series is to look at the decisions we must make to reclaim joy in our lives.

Before we jump into today, I want to share three points to build my talk.

First, I want to make clear that there is a difference between joy and happiness.  Happiness is based on things happening to us.  If I have a date for the dance, I am happy.  If I get the job I want, I am happy.  If I have a flat tire, I am sad.  We said happiness is temporary, it comes and goes.  But joy is different.  Joy isn’t based on external things.  Joy is something from the inside.  Joy is a decision we make to believe that God is in control and we can relax in that.

It’s really important to understand the difference between joy and happiness.  You can have an awful day where everything works against you and at the same time be joyful.  That means, I am not happy about what happened today because it’s been miserable but that doesn’t steal my joy that I am loved and redeemed by God.

Secondly, many times people come to God and ask God to make them happy.  They want God to give them easy street.  No pain.  No struggle.  No hardships.  For example, I don’t want to study for my test and I pray that God will give me an ‘A’.  No, it doesn’t work that way.  God wants to do something bigger.  He wants them to grow up spiritually.  He wants to give people joy.

James, Jesus’ brother, wrote:

2 Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. 3 For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4 So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything. NLT James 1:2-4

Last point I want to make is in the form of a question.  Are you filled with joy?  Let’s slow down and process this.  Did you grow up in a family that laughed together?  Growing up, what was church about?  Was church about a to do list, rules and behavior?  Was church about freedom in God, love and joy?  Is joy in your family today?  In your marriage, do you experience joy?  My point is this.  Joy isn’t easy.  In our South-Central Pa area, people have grown up in families that treated joy as a luxury.  We must get work done.  We must be responsible.  We must behave.  And all those qualities are good and important but without joy, we are missing something in life.  In many families, if you had joy, maybe you weren’t working hard enough.

To be even more specific, I want to ask you 7 questions.

Do you know and experience God’s grace in your life?  That means you daily walk with ‘God courage’.  You have confidence that God loves you.  You are not walking with guilt and shame any more, you are free.

Are you at peace with God and others or do you struggle with control and nobody seems to meet your expectations?  You kinda have an edge about you making others around you feel like they have to make you happy or else.

People who are filled with joy want others to be filled with joy.  Is it normal for you to stop and listen to people in hopes that you can give them joy?  Your spouse?  Your kids?  Your parents?

Do small things, like split milk, ruin your attitude, your emotions and the words that comes out of your mouth?  In other words, do you over-react to small things?

Are your thoughts and words filled with criticism or compliments?  To define criticism, that means do you see what is wrong with others quickly and you notice they just aren’t up to your standards?

People filled with joy, enjoy celebrating others.  Is it normal for you to celebrate the success of others or do you find that you become negative or jealous or gossipy?

How do you take on the day?  Are you able to walk through the to do list and enjoy it or do you think joy is a luxury to be experienced after the to do list is finished?

Based on these questions, are you filled with joy.  Not temporary happiness, joy.

We are walking through the Christmas story of how God entered earth in the form of Jesus.  We started by reading how the angel visited Mary.  The angel was inviting Mary into an impossible story, a virgin birth, and it would probably end in scandal.  This invitation was filled with stress and anxiety.  How did Mary respond?  With trust in God.

“I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true.” And then the angel left.” NLT Luke 1:38

Have you said that to God?  If you haven’t that’s why you walk with stress, anxiety and fear.

When we feel anxiety, it will steal our joy.  What decision must we make?  Trust.

We looked at Joseph who had no idea what was happening.  What is this young man confronted with?  A pregnant fiancée who claimed she was pregnant with God.  Ya-right cause that happens a lot!  He had to feel betrayed.  What does Joseph do after he had a dream?  He let it go.

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord commanded. He brought Mary home to be his wife, 25 but she remained a virgin until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus. NLT Matthew 1:18-25

Have you forgiven and moved on?  If you haven’t, that’s why you are walking with hurt, anger and resentment.

When we are hurt, anger and resentment can steal our joy.  What decision must we make?  Forgive and move on.

I want to continue with the Christmas story to see what happens.

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2(This was the first census taken.) 3 All returned to their own towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, his fiancé, who was obviously pregnant by this time.

6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the village inn. NLT Luke 2:1-7

What do you think about this story?  If an angel visited you and said that you will give birth to the Messiah, a future King with no end to His rule, wouldn’t you assume that everything would work out for you?  Don’t we believe, if God is in it, then everything will be easy, it will be blessed, there will be no challenges?  Mary had God in her belly, you would think her experience would be a little easier.

Let’s talk about what they had to deal with.  The Roman government made them go back to Bethlehem for a census.  When was the last time you were excited about the government telling you what you needed to do?  I assume you are thrilled about the tax deadline of April 15th.  I assume you love it when the government talks about guns rights and freedom of speech.

I don’t think Mary and Joseph were excited.  They had travel 90 miles away and Mary was 9 months pregnant.  How did they get there?  On a donkey.  For comparison, Allentown, Pa is about 90 miles away.  Scholars assume that trip took around 7 days.

Is it obvious that God is with Mary and Joseph?  Can we just say it?  Things aren’t working out the way they are supposed to.  Mary has God in her belly and she has to deal with life not working out they it should.

Surely, when they make it to Bethlehem, there will be a Holiday Inn.  And they would get the last room available and tell all their friends, ‘It was a God thing.’  And surely they would be close to a hospital that accepts their insurance.  No.  Their reward to joining God in one of the greatest stories ever told was walking into a packed city leaving them to stay in a barn.

Things aren’t working out the way they are supposed to.  Mary has God in her belly and she has to deal with life not working out the way it should.

The story continues.  Jesus is born.  Shepherds visit.  The wisemen visit.  Let’s keep reading.

13 After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up and flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to try to kill the child.” 14 That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, 15 and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.” NLT Matthew 2:13-15

The story gets worse.  They have to run for their lives.  How in the world is God with them?  They have to leave their family, leave their business and leave their country.  They now have to travel with an infant over 600 miles.  And the journey isn’t safe or easy.  There are no Sheetz, no McDonalds, Wendy’s or Donkin Donuts.

Things aren’t working out the way they are supposed to.  Mary has God as an infant and she has to deal with life not working out the way it should.

Let’s take a quick time out to talk about this.  I think one of the things that steal our joy is when we give our lives to God and things don’t seem to be working out the way we want.  In fact, it seems like we face challenge after challenge.  It leaves us wonder, where is God?  Is God with us?  It steals our joy because we thought things would be easier.  If God is with us, we think, He will bless us making everything easier.  Actually, no, we don’t see that in this story.

What do we need to do when things aren’t working out the way we thought?  Surrender.  We must remind ourselves, God is in control and we can relax in that.  If we don’t, it will steal our joy.

The birth of Jesus is a remarkable story.  It’s a story of God entering earth.  You would think that God would be born in a castle.  No, in a barn.  You would think God would be born in a safe and secure place.  No, he was vulnerable.  You would think that God would be born in a wealthy family.  No, it was a humble family.  Nothing about God entering earth makes sense to us.  Nothing about Mary and Joseph surrendering to the God story makes sense to us.

Here is the thing I want you to think about.  Based on scripture, if you give your life to God and if you join God in what He is doing, it’s probably not going to be easy.  It might not make sense.  It might cost you deeply.  You might have doubt and concerns about God being with you.

The Christmas story smashes our assumptions about religion.  It smashes the formulas we have in our heads.  Thoughts like, if I attend church now and then, God will bless me.  If I try to behave and follow all the rules, God will give me the American dream of health, success and comfort.  If God allows something bad to happen to me, that means God is angry with me.  If my life is a struggle, that means God isn’t with me.  No, no, no, no.  According to scripture, God absolutely is with us but things probably won’t work out the way we want them to.

What is stealing your joy?  Are you tired or angry that things aren’t working out the way you thought they would?  Are you wrestling with God?  Are you struggling?  Have you assumed that God isn’t with you because your life is a struggle?  Have you given up on God and become passionless and maybe depressed?

My invitation to you today is to surrender.  Tell God, I believe you are in control and because you are in control, I’m going to relax in that.

The last words of Jesus.

Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. NLT Matthew 28:20