The Promise of Christmas Joy
I had never thought about it until this year, but it’s curious that we sing more about happiness and cheer in December than in any other month of the year. But as I observed in Part One of this two-part series, despite the all the encouragement to have a holly jolly Christmas, there’s a problem with holiday happiness. Here we are, almost a week after the Christmas buzz has worn off, and we echo the ache of one of those famous holiday songs: Why can’t everyday be like Christmas? Why can’t that feeling go on endlessly?
The Bible tells us why everyday can’t be like Christmas. It explains why the “hap-happiest season of all” may temporarily manage our moods by medicating or minimizing misery but will ultimately fail to supply us with an inexhaustible source of joy.
Now, before you call me Scrooge, don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that all holiday happiness is false, but I am saying that there is a joy that is full and forever. Not every holiday happiness is a sham, but many of them, even the legitimate kinds, are shallow and short-lived.
What Joy Is This?
Like that tree in Psalm 1, which is planted by streams of water, we can tap into a different and deeper happiness that will sustain us even when our white Christmas turns blue. Better yet, God promises that we can rejoice even while we are grieved by various trials (1 Peter 1:3-9). Like Paul, we can say, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Corinthians 7:4b). Something about this blessed joy will enable God’s people to “count it all joy when [we] meet trials of various kinds . . .” (James 1:2). What kind of happiness is this? What kind of joy enables us not only to survive, but thrive in the midst of sorrow and suffering? The Bible’s answer to the problem of holiday happiness is the promise of Christmas joy.
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:10–14, ESV)
The angels announced the full and forever joy of being in loving relationship with God through Christ. They called it a “great joy” (Luke 2:10). That word great is the Greek word mega. The angels proclaimed the gospel (“good news”) of Mega-Joy, a joy so full and forever that it would make every other mini-joy pale in comparison.
After 400 years, God broke the silence and confirmed the promise that He would save His people from their sins. “He wrapped His love in flesh and blood and took the form of man.” Jesus was born to bear the cross that we should have borne ourselves. Finally, people who were once under the curse because of their rebellion against God could enjoy the true and lasting happiness of peace with God because in Christ God could be pleased with them. As J. R. Vassar puts it, “Jesus, the only commendable one, became condemned, so that we the condemned might become commendable in Him.” He came to make His blessings (true and lasting happiness) flow far as the curse is found. This is Mega-Joy indeed!
Tidings of Comfort and Joy?
Let’s consider for a moment, the immediate and eventual recipients of this good news of great joy.
Shepherds. They were the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth, the social outcasts. The unappreciated, unwanted, unseen. Did their discovery of a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths change their status in Bethlehem? Were they able to quit their dirty jobs and live large like men who just won the lottery? Of course not. The day after His birth it was business as usual. Back to the flock. Back to being unappreciated, unwanted, unseen. Good news? Great Joy? Mary and Joseph. This bundle of joy had already cost them their reputation for righteousness back at home. (“Hey, are those the crazy kids who think God got her pregnant? I can’t decide whether to be sad or sick. Shame on them.”) They would soon be enemies of the state, running for their lives to Egypt. Not many days from now Simeon will tell them that their baby boy would be the cause of the “fall and rising of many” in their beloved Israel, that He himself would be opposed, and that Mary would come to feel as if her own soul had been pierced with a sword because of Him (Luke 2:34-35). Good news? Great Joy? The Disciples. His friends. Those twelve who were happy to leave everything, every mini-joy, to follow Him. On Palm Sunday they would “rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen” Him do, but a few days later they would fear for their lives (Matthew 19:38). Some years later almost all of them would die a martyr’s death because this baby had been born and they had believed in Him. Good news? Great Joy?
You see, those who heard the good news of great joy, held this joy in their hands, and hailed Him as the promised Messiah, even they experienced great loss and loneliness. Indeed, all who followed Him would later be described as those who would “rejoice and be glad” to be persecuted for Him, as those who “joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property” because of Him, “as sorrowful, but always rejoicing” (Matthew 5:10-12; Hebrews 10:34; 2 Corinthians 6:10).
Again, I have to ask, What joy is this that can be attained in and through pain, and sustained in suffering?
The Apostle Peter describes it well:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:3–9, ESV, bold emphases mine)
“In this you greatly rejoice,” Peter says. In what? In what do we rejoice when our mini-joys are no longer attainable or sustainable?
Rejoice in His great mercy. Rejoice in being born again. Rejoice in the hope that is living in you because Jesus is living again. Rejoice in the imperishable, undefiled, unfading inheritance that you have waiting in heaven for you. Rejoice in God’s power to guard you until then. Rejoice that He guards you through the faith that He gives you. Rejoice in the completion of your salvation that waits to be unwrapped like a present on Christmas morning. Rejoice that the roots of your faith are being driven down deeper into Jesus during the drought of your trials.
All of this is just Peter’s way of saying with the psalmist, “In Your presence is fullness of joy, at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). The promise of Christmas joy is the promise of Christ’s presence in every season of life.
Most of my so-called happiness hangs on happenstance. If my circumstances are OK, then I’m OK. But what happens when my circumstances are unhappy? For the Christian, there is a circumstance that is deeper than any happy or unhappy circumstance, a reality that is more real. That reality is this: we are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:16-19). No matter what storm, or drought, or fruitless season may come, we are the blessed, the truly happy ones, who do not wither no matter the weather, who are planted by the streams that make God’s people glad (Psalm 1; Psalm 46:4).
Why is the man in Psalm 1 blessed? Why is he like a living tree planted by Living Water? The psalm-writer explains why: "His delight is in the Law of the Lord, and on it he meditates day and night" (Psalm 1:3). Tim Keller reminds us that the "Law of the Lord" in this passage refers not merely to God's rules, but to the entire story of the Bible. When we root ourselves in the story of Jesus and what that story tells us about the reality of who God is in Christ, who we are in Christ, and who Christ is in us . . . oh what joy floods our souls and overflows into our lives! The gospel, the story of Jesus as it's unfolded in all of the Bible, is truly good news of great joy, the message of a Mega-Joy that transcends every mini-joy.
The promise of Christmas joy is the gospel, the good news that our greatest joy is living in peace with God because in Christ God is pleased with us. His name is Immanuel, "God with us." Even when our holiday happiness falls short, is shallow, or is short-lived, the promise of Christmas joy is the different and deeper reality of Christ’s full and forever presence. Joy to the world, the Lord has come! No matter how unhappy our holidays, He is with us. He is with us. He is with us. He is with us.
NOTE: This 2-part blog series was originally meant to be the second sermon of our Advent series "Contending With Our Longings". I was providentially hindered from preaching the sermon "Longing for Joy's Completion" on December 8th, 2013. Be sure to read part one: The Problem with Holiday Happiness
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