Great Joy? I’m Calling Bullshit

Tragedies. We have all endured them. We have had family members whose stories have ended far too soon. We have had egregious sins and abuses committed against us and the ones that we love. We have stared horrific diagnoses in the face. And we have known the anxiety of being destitute and alone.

Tragedy is a part of human existence, the awful school shooting in Newtown CT being just the most recent reminder. There is no way to avoid tragedy. Try as we might, we can’t legislate it or pray it or hope it away. Murders. Floods. Wars. Abuse. From the very beginning, this has been the human story. This has been our story.

And it seems like we are always looking for a way to end it … or at least to avoid it. We vote for politicians who promise us peace and prosperity, who paint pictures of a rosy, tragedy-less future. We pin our hopes to a new job or a new house or a new relationship, thinking that it will make us happy. We lose ourselves in alcohol or marijuana or reality TV or Facebook or food or sports because we don’t know how to deal with the tragedies in our lives, in this world.

And the marketers know this. I am beginning to think that it is the advertisers who know us better than we know ourselves. They know that we ache because of the tragedies of this world. They know that we will let ourselves believe that a new car or a new phone or a new outfit will make our pain go away. They know that we are easily separated from our money by promises of love and laughter and happiness.

But when tragedy strikes, and we are brutally honest, we know that the marketers are lying. And we feel like they are bullshitting us.

And that’s kind of how I feel about the angel who visited the shepherds. I feel like the angel is a lot like one of the smooth-talking guys from Mad Men. I feel like the angel is bullshitting the shepherds. And the rest of us.

This Advent at my church, Vintage Fellowship, we have been anchoring our anticipation of the birth of Jesus in the statement that the angel made to the shepherds. “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

During the third week of Advent, the season of joy, I’m not sure I’m buying it. In fact, I’m calling bullshit.

“Great joy,” the angel promised. And that’s where, during a weekend of profound tragedy, the words are sticking in my throat. Advent is supposed to be the season of great joy. Joy to the world! Rejoice! Ring the bells! Great joy – happiness and fulfillment and delight and revelry. The angel said that this is what Jesus would bring. There is no joy like a child being born. And Advent invites us into that season of great joy.

The Greek word for “great” is megalos. It’s the word from which we get our word “mega.” Mega joy can be yours. Sounds like a marketer, doesn’t it? Sounds like something you would see on a commercial, doesn’t it? Mega joy sounds like something an advertiser would say.

And the shepherds believe it when the angel makes the promise, just like we all do when the advertisers promise us love, laughter, and happiness. Sometimes the bullshit is really appealing. They run off and see the baby. They find the scene just as the angel said. And they end up sharing the joy with anyone who will listen. And it’s happily ever after, right? Mega joy is theirs now and forever, right?

Well, as Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth, you remember that the Wise Men came and clued Herod in to what was happening. But then they didn’t go back to him and report exactly who Jesus was. They slinked out of town instead. And do you remember what Herod did? He was jealous at the idea that a king had been born and so he ordered that all of the boys under two years of age and under in and around Bethlehem be killed. It’s a horrible story. It’s a tragedy.

And is it unreasonable to think that one of those boys might have been the son of a shepherd, the grandson of a shepherd, the nephew of a shepherd, the neighbor of a shepherd?

If there is no joy like a child being born, there is no tragedy like a child dying. This we know.

We don’t know how the shepherds reacted to the slaughter of the innocents. Did some of them wonder about the angel’s promise of great joy? Did some of them now call bullshit on the angel? Had the memory of one of the greatest nights of their lives now been transformed into a tragedy? Is it unreasonable to wonder?

Great joy. This is the promise of Advent. The promise of Christmas. The promise of Jesus.

But there are days that I just don’t see how it’s possible. I guess those are the days when I simply live by faith. I can’t understand or comprehend or know … and so all I’m left with is faith. Faith that loss isn’t forever. Faith that pain and death and hell don’t get the last word. Faith that God can transform our tragedies into great joy. Faith that Jesus really does bring great joy.

This idea that tragedy can be transformed does not mean that tragedy isn’t actually real, that its pain isn’t felt, or that we should gloss over it. In fact, I think that the only way tragedy can be transformed is for us to be as honest as possible about how much it hurts, how wrong it is, how unjust it is, how it is so very much not the way things are supposed to be. I’m not suggesting a Facebook Christianity of happy quotes mindlessly pinned. I’m suggesting a faith that is desperately real about how much this world sucks sometimes, and yet doesn’t wallow into despair.

This faith that tragedy can be transformed, for me as a Christian, is rooted in the story of Jesus. It’s rooted in his death on the cross – a profound injustice that somehow God uses to plant the seeds of re-creation. And it’s rooted in his resurrection, a sign of hope to which I anchor my faith.

It interests me that Luke uses the phrase “great joy” one other time in his gospel. It happens at a moment that should be tragic. Jesus has died and been resurrected. His closest friends, much like the shepherds many years earlier, have experienced the full spectrum of human emotion. They had lost Jesus once; I can only imagine that the last thing in the world they would want would be to lose him again. But they did. As Luke tells the story, Jesus ascended into the sky as they looked on. But was this a tragic moment for them, a second time losing their teacher and friend? No. They returned to Jerusalem, in Luke’s words, with “great joy.” Somehow, what should have been a tragedy was transformed.

Because I believe in Jesus, I will live with the faith that tragedies can still be transformed. And while I keep praying, How long, oh Lord, how long? I’m going to be keep believing that the promise of great joy doesn’t turn out to be bullshit.


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