Topical Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-7
A friend sent me these actual airplane in-flight announcements.
On one flight with a “senior” flight attendant crew, the pilot said: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve reached cruising altitude and will be turning down the cabin lights. This is for your comfort and to enhance the appearance of your flight attendants.”
One attendant said, “Your seat cushions can be used for flotation; and, in the event of an emergency water landing, please paddle to shore and take them with our compliments.”
After a hard landing, the attendant said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats until Capt. Crash and the Crew have brought the aircraft to a screeching halt against the gate. And once the tire smoke has cleared and the warning bells are silenced, we’ll open the door and you can pick your way through the wreckage to the terminal.”
And my favorite: After a very hard landing, the pilot was standing at the door while the passengers exited the aircraft. An elderly lady with a cane made her way up the aisle, stopped, and said, “Young man, do you mind if I ask you a question?” “No, ma’am,” said the pilot, “what is it?” The lady said, “Did we land, or were we shot down?”
We’ve all wondered the same thing. Nevertheless, we fly anyway.
So much of life turns on that single word, “nevertheless.” People perish in car crashes every day in Dallas; nevertheless, I will drive home after church. Marriages often end in divorce in our culture; nevertheless, Janet and I got married. Children so often break their parents’ hearts; nevertheless, we prayed for children and rejoiced when they were born. God so often disappoints me, permitting or even causing pain and heartache in my life; nevertheless, I will trust in him.
Joy is tranquility transcending circumstances. Not the happiness which results from happenings. If someone can take your joy, it wasn’t joy. If someone can give you joy, it isn’t joy. Joy is that inner serenity and tranquility which nothing in life can give or steal.
Who of us doesn’t need such joy? Life is hectic for us all during these holidays. Some of us remember those not with us for this Christmas. Some of us are lonely and alone. Some of us are facing an uncertain new year. We all need joy. But there’s only one way to find it: in the word “nevertheless.” Let me explain.
Christ gives nevertheless joy
“Nevertheless” is a common word in the Bible.
Psalm 73:21-23: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Nevertheless [NIV: “Yet”] I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.”
Psalm 106:43-45: “Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. Nevertheless, he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant….”
Luke 22:42: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours be done.”
Isaiah 8 finds Israel in gloom and distress: “Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness” (vs. 21-22).
And things will only get worse for the people. In coming years their cities will be ransacked, their Temple reduced to rubble, their people enslaved by pagan Babylon.
But Isaiah can proclaim, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress” (9.1). Instead, “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder” (v. 3).
Why? How can they have such tranquility transcending their circumstances? Because of verse 6: “to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”
Before we go to him for our joy, let’s consider the alternatives.
Thomas Aquinas said, “Man cannot live without joy; therefore when he is deprived of true spiritual joys it is necessary that he become addicted to carnal pleasures.But do they work? A century ago, the average lifespan was 41 years; now it is 77; plagues such as polio, smallpox, and measles have been defeated. Our real income, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled in the last 50 years.
However, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “happy” has not budged since the 1950s, despite doubling our income.
“Unipolar” depression, a condition in which a person always feels depressed, is today ten times as prevalent as it was half a century ago.
Gregg Easterbrook’s new book is titled The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. In it he describes our society’s shift from “material want” to “meaning want,” in which our lives lack purpose no matter our prosperity. His conclusion is simple: we are more prosperous, but less happy.
How to have nevertheless joy
So let’s consider nevertheless joy. This is seeking our tranquility in Christ and not circumstances. In eternity and not events. In God and not people. How do we find it?
Trust his purpose. The Christ of Christmas is our Wonderful Counselor. “Wonderful” in the Hebrew means “so full of wonder as to be miraculous.” “Counselor” points to a person of such wisdom that he can advise kings, the wisest man in the land. The two together can be translated, “He who plans wonderful things.”
The world cannot give us such purpose, or steal it. Paul was as much an apostle to the Gentiles when he wrote letters from a Roman prison cell as he was preaching in a Roman marketplace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was as great a theologian when in a Nazi prison as in a seminary classroom. The way your life purpose is fulfilled can change, but the purpose will not.
Where do you need direction and counsel? Will you seek his will, live by his word, surrender to his purpose? Will you make him your Wonderful Counselor, no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless? Then you’ll have his joy.
Seek his power. The baby in the manger is also the Mighty God, translated literally, “the God who possesses might.” No circumstance could steal his power. Frederick Buechner is right: for all his enormous power, Herod the Great knew there was somebody in diapers more powerful still. G. K. Chesterton said of Christmas, “The Child that played with moon and sun is playing with a little hay.”
And no circumstance can take his power from his people. John was as empowered to receive the Revelation on Patmos as he was at Ephesus. Peter could walk on stormy seas and face murderous officials, in this power.
So can you. Where do you need strength beyond your circumstances and ability? Courage to face the future, resolve to refuse temptation and do what is right? Will you seek his power and strength? Will you make him your Mighty God, no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless? Then you’ll have his joy.
Live in his presence. The Christ of Christmas is additionally our Everlasting Father. In the Hebrew, a “Father forever,” one who is always a Father to us, one who forever loves us as only a father can.
No circumstance can change his love. He is a Father, not an employer, general, or owner. And a father is obligated to love his children, simply because they are his children.
Where have you failed, fallen, sinned? Where do you carry secret shame in your soul? Will you seek his forgiveness and cleansing grace? Will you make him your Everlasting Father, no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless? Then you’ll have his joy.
Claim his peace. Last, the baby of Bethlehem is the Prince of Peace. In the Hebrew, the Prince who gives peace.
No circumstance can change the fact that he brings peace, or that we need that peace. President Bush repeated again this week the fact that we are a nation at war. And the war has no end in sight. We need peace our circumstances cannot give.
Where do you need such peace, harmony with righteousness? Where do you need to be right with God, with someone else, with yourself? Will you ask him for your peace? Will you make him your Prince of Peace, no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless? Then you’ll have his joy.
The bearded figure most Americans are thinking about this week isn’t Santa Claus. For the first time I can remember, Time and Newsweek feature exactly the same image on their covers, and you can guess who. We rejoice in last week’s capture of Saddam Hussein, but grieve that the next day six Iraqi officers were killed and 20 wounded by continued terrorist activity in the land. We need the purpose of God, the power of God, the presence of God, the peace of God.
Don’t settle for less. Don’t settle for happiness based on happenings. C. S. Lewis was right: “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Make the baby of Bethlehem your Wonderful Counselor, your Mighty God, your Everlasting Father, your Prince of Peace. Do it no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless. And you’ll have his joy.
This is the promise of God.