Pastor Michael Frye:

At the turn of the twentieth century a Russian countess accepted the Lord Jesus Christ and was very open about her testimony.

The Tsar was not happy about her openness about her faith and had her put into prison.

After 24 hours with the lowest level of Russian society, in the most miserable conditions one can imagine, the Tsar ordered the countess to be returned before him.

With a sardonic smirk on his face he said, “Well, countess; are you ready now to renounce your silly testimonies of faith and come back to the pleasures of the court?”

To his surprise, the countess smiled serenely and replied, “I have known more real joy and more real happiness in one day in prison with my Lord than I have known in a lifetime in the courts of the Tsar.”

It sounds like the countess had a similar experience to that of Saint Paul, who wrote to the Philippians from his prison cell:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

“The Lord is near.

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

These encounters seem to be a far cry from the opening words of Luke’s gospel for today:

“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him:

‘You brood of vipers!

‘Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

John knew that in the midst of that crowd were those who separated themselves from those whom they considered to be the riff-raff of society.

Their presence was meant to lord their piety over John and the others as the true ancestors of Abraham.

When John warned them of the Messiah’s impending arrival and the judgement of God, many began to question what they must do in order to be worthy of God’s salvation.

John’s responses were immediate and to the point:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Tax collectors should ‘collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’

Soldiers, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

John assured them that he was not the Messiah, but he would be coming with the fire of purification so that the wheat will be separated from the chaff.

Think back to Zachaeus, the tax collector who had hurt many people, even leaving some devastated economically.

After meeting Jesus, his life was changed and he did all he could to make restitution to whose whom he had harmed.

That was a kind of a biblical Dickens Christmas Carol in which Zachaeus’s Ebenezer Scrooge-like character was turned from a cynical, anti-social being into one who became a bringer of joy.

Now, at first glance, John’s words may not seem like good news, but to those who were prepared to receive Jesus as Messiah it would be a joyful meeting that would change their lives forever.

John Ortberg has said that “Joy in this world is always joy ‘in spite of something.”

Jesus is that kind of Savior; one who brings joy in the midst of sorrow, pain, and grief.

He reminds us daily that he will lift us up in spite of the times in which we may stumble or fall.

Have you ever heard the term “joy-sucker”?

We have all probably encountered such persons.

A “joy-sucker” is someone who is determined to either create discouragement or hardship as we seek to minister in Christ’s name.

They take on all shapes and sizes, but often they have a negative outlook toward, family or friends, their jobs, their churches.

Somehow they have been allowed to get away with unacceptable behavior; and because they are not happy people, they are determined that others should not be happy either.

So, they are fault-finding and contentious.

John the Baptist was confronted by such people, so was Jesus; so were the disciples; so may we also be as we strive to serve our Lord and our neighbors.

It is our calling not to be judgmental or disruptive, as I have known some so-called religious groups to be; rather, to take pleasure in life and in our relationships with one another, not just in the exciting times, but in all of life’s circumstances (to bring a sense of joy and hope in the down-times as well as the up-times).

One day a woman was crossing the lobby of a London train station When an older man stopped her and said:

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I want to thank you for something.”

“Thank me?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am; I used to be a ticket collector in this station, and when You walked by you always gave me a cheerful smile and said ‘good morning.’

“You don’t know what a difference it made in me.

“Whether it was a good day or a bad day, it was always the same, and I thought to myself, ‘I wonder where she gets her joy from; one can’t always be happy, so I knew your smile must have come from the inside.

“Then I noticed that you had a little Bible in your hand, and I thought, maybe that is where her joy comes from.

“So as I went home, that night I bought a Bible, and I’ve been reading it; and I felt Christ in my heart, and now I can smile and feel the joy of Jesus even during the tough days.

“So, I want to thank you.”

Joyfulness is a characteristic of the soul that lives in communion with God.

Without our even knowing it that joyfulness can persuade others to experience the love of God within themselves rather than seeking pleasure for their own self-satisfaction.

Those who have received good news of great joy that the Lord is near are called to a new life of joy; and that joy has staying power because it is based on what God has done and is doing, even now.

Paul Scott Wilson shares that God is still working to accomplish our salvation in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

That is a comforting message for today’s church.

Yes, there are things that we can do to be ready for the coming Christ and things we need to do by way of repentance.

Our actions have consequences.

Ultimately, however, salvation is what God has accomplished for us through our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Like the story about the woman in the train station, you and I have no idea about the impact we may have on someone else who we may not know or have little knowledge of; yet, the way we carry ourselves and the way we show love and the joy of knowing Christ may affect them in ways that go far beyond anything we could have planned or imagined.

Martin Luther wrote:

“Nothing can be said here about the part of faith and Holy Scriptures because there would be no end to what could be said. With practice one can take the Ten Commandments on one day, a Psalm or chapter of Holy Scripture the next day, and use them as flint and steel to kindle a flame in the heart.”

We have all sung that glorious hymn:

“Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love!

Hearts unfold like flow’rs before thee, praising thee, their sun above.

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the gloom of doubt away.

Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.”

So, let us rejoice and be glad as we dedicate our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ who has come, who continues to come to us daily, and Who is to come in glory.

And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Amen.