Romans 15:13-17- “May the God of HOPE fill you with all JOY and PEACE as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with HOPE by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
This coming week we will shift from October to November. Have you realized there are only 61 days ‘til Christmas? But one does not need a calendar to know that we are hastening toward this season. The Christmas displays in many stores have already been up for several weeks. Lists are already being made and dates for family meals confirmed. Travel arrangements are being made. The season ahead is a wonderful time of family gatherings, gifts and other expressions of love. For Christians, this coming season, what we call Advent, is also reflection, celebration, affirmation, and reconciliation.
I have seen miracles during Advent seasons as people I know experienced healing in many ways- spiritually, physically, emotionally, and relationally.
We come together as congregations of believers in activities like studying an Advent Reader, lighting an Advent wreath, and singing Christmas hymns and carols.
Then in a matter of weeks, it’s all over and we barely have time to put away the Advent Readers, pack up the Christmas decorations, change out the calendars for a new year when we are thrust forward into another season . Last year the same week that we completed our Advent Reader topics someone asked me, “Are we going to have a Lent Reader this year?” For many years in Panama City Beach we have been bombarded even as early as the first week of January with news reports and businesses reminding us that say, “Only 6 weeks to the start of Spring Break!”
The seasons come and go quickly. Sometimes we are moving through them so quickly we hardly have time to reflect on what we experience in the midst of them. So, before we begin the rush toward the end of this year, I want us to consider for a few minutes the four themes that are emphasized during the weeks of Advent.
Those four themes are hope, peace, joy, and love. These themes are positioned like a countdown in Advent reflections to the crescendo of Christ’s arrival on the stage of humankind-the first theme is the promise hope of a savior during the first week. Secondly, we celebrate the peace he will institute on earth. In the third week we consider the joy of the announcement of the angels of his birth. And then we celebrate Christ’s birth, the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity in the fourth week.
These themes, however, are not confined to the Advent season. Have you noticed that the words “love”, “joy”, “peace”, and “hope” are frequently located close to one another in Scripture? Paul, in particular, is prone to place two or more of them adjacent to one another as an invocation or benediction in his letters.
One morning in my devotional time I was pondering the relationship among these words. Consider Love. What do we know about the love of God? 1 John 4, verses 8 and 16 tell us that “God IS love”. Ephesians 3:18 tells us that we must have the power that comes FROM God to even begin to understand “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”
1 John 4:10 reminds us that love originated with God and because He loved us, we desire to and are able to love Him. In 2 Corinthians 13:11, the Apostle Paul reminds us that God IS the “ God of love.” It would appear that the first and foremost attribute of God evident to us in Scripture is God’s love. Jesus gives us an even more profound insight into the nature of God’s love when He tells us in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Then he set out to do exactly that. Sacrifice for us.
Love. Such a grand word. Such a lofty ideal. But such a confusing concept. We use it for everything from our first high school romance to the latest fashion trend, from our favorite food to our preferences in TV shows.
I was 48 years old when the Lord made a major correction to my view of love. All of my adult life I had sought affirmation….through people-pleasing, perfectionism, and setting lofty, ambitious (and often demanding) expectations for myself and others. There came a point in my life when I was struggling with a relationship in my life in which I held some resentment for not having gotten what I felt I wanted from the individual, for not having been affirmed as I felt I should have been, for not having been loved the way I wanted and thought I deserved to be loved. In a moment of quiet reflection, as I prayed for that relationship, I felt the Lord speak clearly to my heart about it. Suddenly, I realized, “Affirmation is not love. Self –sacrifice is love.” It was such a sudden reorienting of my thoughts about that relationship, and every other one in my life. I realized how much the individual had sacrificed for me…….even when I had not recognized it. And how much that spoke about the way in which I was loved.
That’s what Jesus said. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another.” Self –sacrifice, the epitome of love. In that moment, decades of hurt and feelings of mistreatment and feeling inadequately loved disappeared as I realized what sacrifices had been made for me. I had never seen it before, I was so focused on not having gotten what I thought I wanted, I couldn’t see the truth of the love I was given. That revelation became the basis for me learning a lot about how to love and be loved. That was the day that I grew up, in an emotional sense. How humbling it was to find myself at 48 years of age and discover how immature I really still was. When we reflect on the extent of God’s love for us….are we challenged to love God and others more fully, sacrificially? As Deuteronomy 6:5 and Matthew 22:37 instruct us, we are to love God “with all of our Heart, all of our Soul, all of our mind, and all of our strength?” Are we willing and able to love to that extent? What does sacrificial love look like? Giving beyond what is merely comfortable and available or our time, money, and other resources? Listening more and demanding less? Giving our disappointment when relationships hurt to God instead of cutting people out of our lives? Love – it’s not just a good feeling we have because someone affirms us. It’s how we treat others because of our knowledge of the sacrificial and unconditional love of God for us.
Let us consider Joy. Joy of life ……“Joi de vivre”. In the past I have tended to think of joy with a connotation of liveliness, excitement, and having an appetite to enjoy all that life offers- like the joy that one sees in children at play who are learning a fun new game or celebrating a birthday, or that of engaging some challenging new adventure and finding it fun and rewarding.
As I think about my concept of joy now, it seems to me that joy is more so about the essence of the abundant living that God had in mind to demonstrate for us when He stepped from His heavenly throne to dwell on earth in the person of Christ to accomplish salvation for humankind. As the angel said to the shepherds, “ I bring you good tidings of great joy. For unto you is born a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord.” There is an implied connection between the two- joy and the presence of the Savior and Lord.
When I think of JOY I am also reminded of Nehemiah 8:10 which says: “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” These Scriptures impress upon our understanding this additional characteristic of God – joy. Joy, like love has its origin in God.
God has been teaching me for some time to recognize the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is based on how we see our circumstances, how much pleasure and satisfaction or comfort and convenience we find in our circumstances.
True joy, however, is predicated on confidence in God’s goodness, knowing His love for me as His child, and the expectation that whatever comes from His hand will, ultimately, be proven to be good. That confident expectation of God’s love, goodness and redemptive power is the definition of and foundation for our JOY….and also defines our Hope!
That was one of our Advent themes, too. Romans 15:13 refers to God as the “God of hope”. All hope then, also originates with God. But even though God, in His sovereignty and power, can bring good out of any circumstance, that’s not a guarantee that circumstances that come to us are always particularly welcome, convenient, comfortable, or easy. Joy and Hope are sometimes born in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Joy and Hope are found more in the steadfastness of our state of mind, focused on our confidence in God in the midst of circumstances, and not in our emotions in response to our circumstances.
I have begun to understand the common association between hope, peace, joy and love and have sought to help foster understanding of and embracing of these aspects of God’s character in the lives of those to whom I minister so that they, too, can experience the abundant life in Christ that is offered to believers. The knowledge of God’s extraordinary love for us brings joy in living and gives us hope that our future can be better than our past. As that love, joy, and hope become more and more a regular feature of one’s life, true peace begins to take root, the kind of peace that Jesus described as being “beyond understanding.” Peace in our relationship with God, peace with our own past, present, and future, and peace in our relationships with others.
In the letter to the Hebrews we see God described as the “God of peace”. Christ is further described as the “Prince of Peace”. Peace, like love, joy, and hope also originates with God.
Circumstances, whether turbulent or calm, become less and less capable of putting the little boat that represents my life in danger of capsizing when these attributes of God- love, joy, hope, and peace are present and firmly fixed in my mind and heart. As we teach our students at Bethel Village as part of their Twelve Step Recovery program, relationship with Christ brings peace in our relationship with God, peace with our own past, present, and future, and peace in our relationships with others.
In contrast to the joy of life, the “joy of the Lord”, I believe, is a joy that is deep, profound, and peaceful- something that no one and nothing can take away.
It is interesting to me that Nehemiah describes the “joy of the Lord” as part of his instruction to the people after they have experienced conviction and regret after the public reading of and teaching from the holy books of the law that had been lost to them for some period of time and were rediscovered during construction on the temple. Upon hearing the words read, we see the people broken, grieving, and weeping in the public square.
Nehemiah tells them, in their conviction, brokenness, sorrow, and repentance that this is a sacred day, they are to go and celebrate and to involve in the celebration, too, those who have nothing. In spite of their conviction and mourning over their brokenness, their sense of unworthiness before the law, they discover once again and know in their hearts that God is with them and loves them. That gives them joy so that they can move on from the brokenness and know peace and embrace hope for their own lives and for their nation. Conviction, brokenness, and celebration that God is with us in the midst of it. That, says Nehemiah, is something to celebrate, something that brings joy. Notice also that Nehemiah includes, as part of the prescription for joy, to serve the poor among them. We, too, can experience the joy of the Lord as we serve others. The same discovery of God’s love for us brings joy, peace, and hope to any heart that hears the truth about the steadfast and expansive love of the Lord.
When we think about these things “Love, joy, peace, and hope” we see that these are “eternal things”; they are attributes of God Himself. God has been teaching me their relationship to one another, how the presence of one builds upon another. Galatians 5:22 lists Love, Joy, and Peace as the first three of the 9 aspects of “fruit of the Holy Spirit”. It has been impressed on my heart that any time attributes are listed like these in a sequence in Scripture, the sequence is significant and represents God’s perfect plan. We may not experience them in exactly the order given, living in a fallen world as we do. But the order given, it would appear, is God’s perfect plan for the lives of His people.
When we understand their relationship to one another we begin to see how they work in our lives and other scriptures related to them begin to make more sense.
When I teach the Fruit of the Spirit described for us in Galatians 5:22, I describe for students how the knowledge of God’s love for us restores joy to our lives and enables us to experience peace with God, with ourselves, and with others. They are attributes of God Himself that free us from the pain and grief of unworthiness and restore Hope. The presence of love, joy, peace, and the hope that they give birth to then prepares us for the pursuit of the deeper, fuller aspects of the Fruit of the Holy Spirit- the patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Those first three – love, joy, and peace – and the Hope they engender, are entirely the free gift of grace to us when we believe in Jesus Christ and give ourselves over to the work of the Holy Spirit. Those additional aspects of the fruit – patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control- require our cooperation with the Holy Spirit. They test our perseverance and call forth more and more surrender by us to the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
So, I am increasingly visualizing joy in a more peaceful, serene, confident hope kind of way and less in my previous “joi de vivre” excitement and liveliness kind of way. It’s not necessarily about feelings of exhilaration, excitement and delight (though those may occur at times.) It is about feelings of unshakable, steadfast confidence, supreme trust, unwavering faith, and stubborn reliance on the promise of Romans 8:28 (..for we know that all things work for good to those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose..) That is the kind of joy and peace that can see one through the worst of difficulties, the most fierce storms.
We live in a culture that emphases diversity and tolerance, a world in which one is encouraged to find one’s own way in life and seek whatever works. For me, what works is the knowledge of God’s unshakeable love, His joy that gives strength, and His peace beyond human understanding (and the Hope that comes from such knowledge). Those attributes, that we know and value about God and which are given birth in our hearts and minds through the power of the Holy Spirit, give us stability, security, and confidence in the future. Romans 15:13-17says “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
So, I challenge you to know and embrace these attributes of God, that are offered to us and that originate with God- love, joy, peace, and hope. We have celebrated them this Advent season, but they are eternally present among us in every season, because God is with us in every season. Let us carry them forward with us into this new year.
If your life is lacking these attributes….if you are yearning for them in your life, ask for them.
God has told us that they can be ours, if we ask. It is part of our heritage as sons and daughters of the Living God, with Christ.
Last year, with the destruction of Hurricane Michael lying all around us and struggling through the tasks of recovery, I had difficulty getting into the spirit of the season. It was December 15th before I finally summoned the energy to pull out a much-scaled down version of Christmas decorating at our house. I forced myself to pull our several favorite holiday recipes and bake cookies and cakes. It was an effort. I never pulled out the Advent wreath base and candles. All of my door wreaths had been damaged and were trashed. So I salvaged a bundle of glitzy Christmas tree topper stems and flowers from a previous year, tied them with a bow and hung it on the door, lacking the energy or enthusiasm to make a new wreath. The weeks passed without any consistent reflection on the weeks’ themes. We were unable to host family in our home. I had little interest in shopping for gifts. It was a difficult season, more endured than enjoyed. For some that is the case every Christmas season. If that is the case for any one in your life, consider how you might help them in these weeks of preparation for Advent and Christmas.
If you need help, choose an Advent reader discipleship plan, purchase or make a simple Advent wreath, spend some time reflecting on joyful holidays of your childhood or those of your children. Or simply talk to friends about these themes in your life and how to experience them more fully….. seek out a pastor or spiritual friend to prepare you heart and mind to experience the fullness of this Advent season with your family. It is my joy to talk to people about their lives and help them find their way into knowing and growing into the character of God. It is my prayer, like the Apostle Paul that you know the “God of hope, that he would fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” As we approach another holiday season, may we live the themes of Advent every day of our lives.
Prayer: God of power and might, all powerful, all knowing, and ever present……you are the key to love, joy, peace, and hope in our lives, not our health or our financial security or any other temporary circumstance. May we be firm in our knowledge of your promises and claim them for our own lives through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen 10-27-19 published
(Elements of this message were first written as part of a presentation for a women’s retreat at New Vision UMC. Editing began on 10-27-19 in preparation for preaching, if needed, for a pastor’s need to be out of town at Carillon Chapel. It was not needed at that time.. This is the partially edited 2nd draft. It was finally presented as a completed message on December 1, 2019 at First Church of God-Panama City, FL. The final presented message is posted here on 12-12-19)