The Joy of Recognizing Jesus

Luke 1:39-45

This Gospel shows Elizabeth and her unborn son, John, reacting to the nearness of the unborn Christ.  We know that Elizabeth immediately understood that Mary was pregnant with the Lord. The Gospel tells us that she was filled with the Holy Spirit.  But how could John, who was still inside the womb, somehow comprehend what was going on, to the point that he would leap for joy?


Maybe this teaches us that we don't need to see God working in the world or solving our personal problems before we can leap for joy. We don't have to understand what God is doing, or even know his plans.


The joy that we receive, which comes from recognizing the presence of Christ, is God's Christmas gift to us.  It is a joy that comes from a faith that appreciates God for working mercifully in our lives in ways that we can see and ways that we cannot see. No matter if we are suffering or feeling elated, we can learn to recognize Christ’s presence, and feel joy.


This is the time of year when we tend to frequently contemplate what it means to possess joy. We reflect on our level of, "Christmas Spirit", or the lack of it.  For decades, it’s made for the central story line of many of our favorite Christmas stories.  We find ourselves asking, how, or where, can we find real joy?  At some point in our maturation process, we've come to realize that the receiving end of the gifting process doesn't bring with it the excitement that we had as children.  


But where does real joy come from?  Well, the Scriptures tell us that it comes from a true conversion to faith through the Holy Spirit.  Once we become immersed in Jesus’ presence in our lives, everything changes. We find a peace in knowing that he is in control of our circumstances.


This is summarized well in the definition of joy given by Rick Warren, the Purpose Driven Life author. He says, “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.” We can see that assurance, in good measure, in Mary, as Elizabeth says of her, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken by the Lord would be fulfilled.”


Joy or even happiness is of course not something that can be measured like you can measure a person's blood pressure, but scientists through their studies have been able to draw some definitive conclusions. On the TV show 20/20, John Stossel provided some insights coming from research.


The results showed, as we might suspect from our own experience, that feel good activities such as drugs, sex, shopping, or food, may have great short term effects, but they just don't last. The same for money and fame.


Stossel interviewed a psychologist who cited the disconnect between the things that we as Americans aspire to, and the lack of joy that results. As he said it, "life, liberty and the purchase of happiness" has, in many ways, become the American dream. So many people have gotten themselves into the continuing cycle of seeking the next great thing to, as he said, "rejuice the joy" that the initial purchase gained for them.  Perfectly functional cell phones, computers, cars and other items are kicked to the curb to make way for their newer, glitzier replacements. 


To show that this phenomenon is our natural human condition, they showed an experiment with three month old children in a crib.  If a mobile is installed above them with two dangling objects (where there was none before), most kids like it. But if the kids are stepped up to a ten object mobile, and then they try to get them to go back to the two object one, most babies will lose interest, and cry. It’s just the way we’re wired.


We as a country are a more affluent than we’ve ever been, yet we’re no more content. In fact, research shows us that 37% of the Forbes richest people are at happiness levels that are actually less than the average.


OK, so what does bring happiness?  This researcher listed four common traits. He first listed people who are optimistic as being more likely to be happy, having a fundamental belief that things will work out.  Second, he listed those that didn't consider themselves as victims. Thirdly, he listed those with close relationships. OK, those make sense.


The fourth characteristic is one that we would have suspected all along: faith.  They said that there is a correlation to happiness among those who say that are actively religious and have a relationship with God. The researchers concluded that a sense of purpose, which comes from faith, leads to happiness. More importantly, those of faith realize that there is something bigger out there than just themselves. Another way of interpreting that, in my mind, is to say that those of faith recognize the presence of that something bigger, Jesus in their lives.


As we hear these common traits of those who are happy, we can easily see them on display by Mary in the Gospel, and they would include those that the research did not directly attribute to faith: (optimism, not seeing oneself a victim, and close relationships). Of course, one could ask, how can you possibly possess those traits and not be faith filled? I haven’t met many faith filled pessimists.

Mother Teresa was one who lived a life focused on recognizing Jesus in her life. She once said, "I do not think I have any special qualities.  I don't claim anything for the work that I do.  It is His work.  I am like a little pencil in his hand. He does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it.  The pencil has only- to allow itself to be used."  She found joy in living life in his presence, and serving him.


In 1930, there was a missionary named Frank Laubach, who began what he termed a life-long experiment of practicing recognizing the presence of God. He wrote in his journal: “Can we have contact with God all the time? As we fall asleep in his arms, as we awaken in his presence, and all the time while awake? Can we focus on His will all the time? Can we think His thoughts all the time?” He wrote, “I have chosen to make the rest of my life an experiment in answering this very question.”


As he cultivated this habit of purposely living in the presence of God, he said that it transformed him. Years later, he would write, “Things which I did with a strain before, I now do easily and with no effort whatsoever. I worry about nothing and lose no sleep…. Even the mirror reveals a new light in my eyes.”


We may think to ourselves, c’mon, no one is that tuned in all the time. He’s feeding us a bunch of (as Myron Cope used say) gorgonzola. We all need to “check out” from time to time, don’t we? But yet, we’ve all seen examples of people who we’ve come across who always seem to be present, who demonstrate that they live in God’s presence, and exhibit every good trait that I’ve listed today, and live life with joy!


Jesus is ready to meet us where we are. He is Immanuel, meaning “God is with us.” He is always present to us. We can visualize his presence pouring out on us as a drenching waterfall, descending from highest heaven to lowest earth, giving us access to his nearness. We need just need to take advantage of that access and be transformed.


Our Responsorial Psalm today said, “Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.” The writer of the Psalm recognized the yearning that we all have to recognize Jesus, knowing that only in him we find joy, and only through him we can be saved.


So, when we turn on our TV's today to watch the Steeler game or some other show that we might choose, and we see the endless sea of commercials promoting happiness via feel-good activities, improved status, or whatever else they're trying to pitch, let's instead keep our focus on the roadmap to joy through recognizing the presence of Jesus.

The commercial may ask us to buy their car and make it a "December to remember", but come January, we know that their version of joy will "all but be forgotten."


Our true joy and happiness can only come through our conversion.  Let us live consciously in his presence. Think of him. Listen to him. Talk to him.  We pray that we will feel God’s nearness in a special way today, and through this Christmas Season. May his presence guide us to that special place… of happiness and joy, and set us on the pathway that we ultimately seek, the pathway to the kingdom of heaven! Amen!


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