Joy to the world
The Lord is come
Let Earth Receive its King
“Joy to the World”
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Luke 2:34-35 (NIV)
Joy. We all want it. The mental health experts tell us that we all need it. The Christian gospel claims to provide it. And yet, so many of us seem to live each day without it.
The truth is that most of us don’t really know what joy is, either because we have never experienced it for ourselves or because we have allowed ourselves to be led astray by some over-spiritualized speculation about its real nature. Like hope and peace, joy is thoroughly grounded in the nitty-gritty of human life. It is the exuberance that we feel when something really good and really important happens.
More specifically, it is the overwhelming sense of gladness that we experience when we are vitally connected with someone who really loves us. At least, that is how the psychologists and psychiatrists define it. It is bliss of a first kiss, shared with the one who will walk with us for our whole life. It is the inferno the blazes in our hearts when we get together with dearly loved friends. It is the inexpressible emotion of seeing our child for the first time.
Each of these experiences—and many others beside—is an authentic experience of joy. But each one also functions as a signpost, pointing us to something greater. Each experience of joy calls forth in us a longing for an even deeper and more lasting experience of joy. This fact, by no means, diminishes their value. Quite to the contrary, it accentuates their value, for each experience of joy develops within us a longing that can only be satisfied by a loving and permanent connection with our Creator.
Like home and peace, joy is not an unambiguous part of the Christian story. Just ask yourself how Jesus’ coming was to bring joy to the world. How was his coming a joyful experience for Mary? She would have to explain to a disbelieving family that she had not been unfaithful to them, to Joseph, and to God by getting pregnant, and she would have to watch as her precious baby boy was nailed naked to a Roman cross and displayed for the whole world to see. How would Jesus’ coming be a joyful experience for Herod and his family? They knew all too well the precarious position that they occupied, and they knew that anyone who claimed to be “King of the Jews” was a threat both to their own power and to the peace of the nation. How would Jesus’ coming be a joyful experience for his disciples? He was headed for a cross, and he told them that they would have to do the same if they really wanted to follow him.
We sense the same ambiguities in our own hearts and minds. How can this Galilean from two thousand years ago really have any real benefits for us? How can we take joy in his coming when so much that he promised still has not come to fruition and when his call to suffering is still in effect?
And yet—as Mary, the disciples, and generations of their admirers have recognized—Jesus did bring joy. He was more than a sign of God’s continuing care for His people. He was more than the ultimate expression of God’s care for the whole world. He was even more than the embodiment of God’s love (a theme to which we will return next week).
Jesus was all of these things and so much more. He made joy in its highest and deepest expression available to us by opening the way for us to reconnect with our Creator. He opened the way for us to experience a love that transcends and yet animates all other loves, and, in so doing, he made it possible for us to re-evaluate everything that happens to us (including all of the not-so-joyful stuff) in the light of this overwhelming joy.
We take it for granted that God loves us. We take it for granted that God forgives us. We take it for granted that God wants to be with us and in us. And so, we no longer experience the joy that is so near to us and that we so desperately need.
And yet, in this season where we celebrate the coming of King Jesus, he still stands ready to bring and to be joy. There are many hard things that we will experience in life. Without joy, they can be unbearable. But with joy, we can endure them. And the good things in life will be all the better in the light of the ultimate gladness that is available in Christ.