The second week of Advent has as its focus, JOY. We hear about joy in our Christmas songs, carols and in our cards and greetings. But, what is it, really?
Indeed, joy is a bit unnatural in our culture. As we face the tediousness, disappointments and confusion of our world on a daily basis, the obvious question is, where is the joy? We jump for joy at a touchdown at the football game, but people would think you were crazy if you did that all the time (“Wow, my first cup of coffee! Yippee!”). Is joy bigger and closer than we think?
Joy is a huge part of the OT wisdom and prophetic literature. Recognition of what the Lord did for his people brought joy and gladness! “Joy in the Lord” is a contrast to the fear and anxiety of the pagan cultures around Israel. Joy is described in many, many ways: Joy is “God’s presence with us” (Ps 16:11), even in the worst of times. Joy is vindication and God’s “justice done” (Pr 21:15). “….The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10). The Lord’s redemption of the righteous is pictured as beauty in nature: “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy” (Isa 35:1-2). Joy is a divine gift that we cannot keep to ourselves; indeed, we must “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music….let the mountains sing together for joy!”(Ps 98:4, 6, 8; see also, Ps 100:1; 126:2, 3; 132:16; Isa 12:6; 44:23; 52:8; Jer 31:7,12,13; 51:48).
In Luke’s Gospel, we hear the story of two elderly folks who were waiting for joy. A “devout” man, Simeon, was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” in the Jerusalem Temple (Lk 2:25). A “prophetess, Anna,” who was “very old,” was still waiting at age 84 for – something. She “never left the Temple, but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” for – for something….(Lk 2:36-37). Then, one day, a young couple entered the Temple with a baby; they were just ordinary folks, following the Torah “laws of purification” after the baby’s birth.
But the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of faithful Simeon and at that moment, he knew that this was not an ordinary baby boy – this was the “Lord’s Messiah” in the flesh! (Lk 2:26). Simeon rushed out into the courtyard, in front of everybody, and praised God. Can you imagine his joy? He declared, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation [Jesus], which you have prepared in the sight of all the nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel!” (Lk 2:29-32).
Likewise, the aging widow Anna praised God for the baby Jesus, just as Hannah had praised God for the child Samuel (1 Sa 2:1-10). The wait was over – Anna finally saw the “redemption of Jerusalem” in a little child, who was the future hope of all the nations (Lk 2:36-38). Can youimagine her joy?? Waiting, waiting, waiting so patiently for so long for the Lord’s promises to be fulfilled….
In his “farewell discourses” in John’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples that he is “the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit…As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…” (Jn 15:5, 9-13). Thus, believers have the joy of Jesus in them, as the presence of the Holy Spirit, and our human joy is made complete. In the command to “love one another” there is great joy, and it is made possible by “remaining” in Christ, by obedience and living in fellowship with him. Joy is being loved by God through Christ, and loving other people in the same way.
Paul found great joy in thinking about his readers, even when he was in prison. Philippians is an outstanding letter of joy; in this letter, Paul uses words for “joy” and “rejoice” 14 times. He opened his letter: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…. (Php 1:3-5). Joy is gratitude and the “affection of Christ Jesus” for one another (Php 1:8).
As Jesus promised in John’s Gospel, joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us that it is the Spirit who produces behavior and attitudes in us that cannot be produced by human laws and regulations. They include: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22). In this sense, joy is an “inner happiness not dependent on outward circumstances.” Joydoes not have to be giddy happiness, just genuine gratitude and a perseverance through the darkness.
At Christmas time, we can share a unique joy that comes from the good news of the birth of a long-awaited Messiah. In a world of powerful, yet corrupt Roman Caesars, Luke chose to use the word “joy” to describe the birth of the King: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people….” (Lk 2:10-11).
This is the joy of Christmas – a tiny baby, wrapped in a blanket, sent by God to be the Savior, the Redeemer of the world, Jews and Gentiles. And today, our world is still waiting…most of the world has no idea what it is waiting for. Perhaps our culture is looking for comfort, success, happiness, or self-fulfillment. Joy must be well-being, good fortune, and a retirement IRA, right? No more violence, hatred and poverty? When will that ever happen?? In the meantime, we worship, we pray, we “remain” in Jesus, and discover that true joy is the presence of God in the present, regardless of the human state of affairs.
Jesus also knew unspeakable joy. Not because he received pricey gifts from “wisemen” as a baby, but Jesus’ joy came when he completed the task his Father sent him to do. Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and [later, after his death, resurrection and ascension] sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
There is joy at the birth of Christ, most certainly, but there is still great joy yet to come. Someday, Jesus will come back, so we wait for a second advent. A stubborn, disobedient human race will be fully reconciled to a holy God; heavens and earth will be fully restored, and we will know complete and unending joy. “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy….Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (Jn 16:20-22).
Receive the gift of Jesus’ joy now. “Joy to the world – the Lord has come!”