Christmas may be long past, but the One who gave us His Son wrapped in strips of cloth that day is the Giver who keeps on giving. He gives the gift of joy to His people day in and day out. The gift is hard to hang onto. Nonetheless, trusting in Christ’s promise of new life and deliverance breaks through sorrow and worry; such trust pours joy into the way we think and the way we experience life.
The birth of a baby causes joy in a wide circle of relatives and friends. The angel who visited Zechariah to inform him of the impending birth of his son John had promised, “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth” (Luke 1:14). Thus, it probably should not surprise us the angels figured that the birth of this baby in Bethlehem, the cousin of John and son of Zechariah, would arouse a joyous response. What a joy that baby’s birth was and continues to be. The prophet Zechariah had proclaimed that the coming of the Savior, who is the Messiah and the Lord, would call forth joy: “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for just look, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord” (Zechariah 2:10). The prophet further foretold that this joy would enter Jerusalem in person on a donkey. The excitement of the anticipation of messianic liberation exudes from Zechariah’s call, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, yet humble, riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). When the shepherds confirmed this unbelievable angelic announcement, they could not suppress themselves but told the news of the birth all over town. Three decades later, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had the same reaction when they got the angel’s message that the crucified Jesus had risen; they were awe-struck and were overcome with joy (Matthew 28:8).
Joy bubbles up out of our encounters with the good in many forms. The disciples could hardly believe it when Jesus showed up in their midst after His resurrection. They were overcome by their joy and amazement (Luke 24:41). Meeting someone of fame, fortune, or power can stir up a feeling of joy, as in the case of the Ethiopian governmental official who returned home rejoicing after getting acquainted with Jesus through Philip’s witness (Acts 8:39).
The English hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748) recognized how joy is a reaction to God’s giving and goodness that all creatures in Heaven and on Earth share. Fields, flood, rocks, hills, and plains echo the joy that sounds throughout His creation. Joy flows and overflows from the coming of Jesus to counter the curse. For He rules the world with His truth and His grace that unfolds in human history among the peoples of His earth (LSB 387). This thought echoes in the hymn by U.S.-American poet Henry VanDyke (1852-1933), “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee... field and forest, vale and mountain, flow’ry meadow, flashing sea, chanting bird, and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee” (LSB 803).
Joy flows and overflows from the coming of Jesus to counter the curse.
Joy makes an impact on the way we live out each day. Sadness and depression can cause us to limp through life, weakening our desire and our ability to be about the often challenging and difficult but always ultimately rewarding work God calls us to do in touching the lives of others with His love. Nehemiah reminded those reconstructing Jerusalem that, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). His observation is true on the purely psychological level: Joy energizes. Even more importantly, the joy Jesus arouses in us gives us the confidence to proceed and even dare in difficult, seemingly impossible situations because it arises from confidence in the presence and power of Christ, who has conquered all our enemies in His death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:54-58).
Joy does not produce lethargy but acts upon the trust in the Lord that pushes and pulls us into service to Him. With joy over His presence in our lives, we have courage to take our places in His intervention into the lives of those around us, as He enlists us for active involvement in the ways in which His will is being done and His Kingdom is coming into our little corners of human history. On a deeper level, our trust in Christ leans back and bursts into the laughter of delight at experiencing the presence and power of our God as it returns in the memory of faith to Calvary and the empty tomb and looks forward in the anticipation of faith to the final liberation when Jesus comes again.
Joy can seem counter-intuitive, depending on what a person treasures and on our perspective on what is truly worthwhile. For joy comes from discovering treasures of worth (Matthew 13:44-45; Luke 15:8-10). Christians are, strangely enough, accustomed to finding joy even in the midst of that which makes them unhappy, their disappointments, their defeats, and even their suffering. Jesus told His disciples that in the face of persecution, they should, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for, take note, your reward is great in Heaven.” The gift of suffering for the faith brought joy to those who have gone before, the Lord informed His disciples, and such suffering indicates how disturbed the Devil is at what they would be doing (Luke 6:23). Jesus warned them they would have good cause for sadness and grieving, “...but your grief will turn to joy.” He compared what lay in their immediate future to the anxiety and anguish of childbirth. “But I will see you again, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:20-22). Indeed, when He appeared after His resurrection, they were (in the impossible expression used by the NIV which captures what they must have felt) “overjoyed” (John 20:20). Jesus’ words must have been ringing in the ears of the disciples as they appeared before the Sanhedrin: “They left the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Christ’s name” (Acts 5:41).
Christians are, strangely enough, accustomed to finding joy even in the midst of that which makes them unhappy, their disappointments, their defeats, and even their suffering.
Christians have their supreme reason for joy in the final return of their Lord. As the north German cantor Laurentius Laurenti (1660-1722) called out, “Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear. The evening is advancing, and darker night is near. The Bridegroom is arising and soon is drawing nigh. Up! Pray, and watch, and wrestle, at midnight comes the cry.” That darkening night is not without “our hope and expectation,” and so Laurentius prayed that Jesus appear: “Arise O sun so longed for, o’er this benighted sphere. With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see the day of earth’s redemption that sets your people free” (LSB 515). The ultimate joy of waiting believers comes from knowing our names are written in Heaven, a joy exceeding even our moments of triumph over all Satan’s devices aimed at establishing his lordship over us and this world (Luke 10:20). We rejoice in our hope of sharing in God’s glory through Christ’s gracious giving of access to God’s favor and His peace (Romans 5:1-2).
Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) recognized the source of Christian joy. He led his congregation in singing, “Rejoice, my heart, be glad and sing; a cheerful trust maintain. For God, the source of everything your portion shall remain. He is your treasure, He your joy, your life and light and Lord. Your counselor when doubts annoy; your shield and great reward.” Joy in Jesus banishes despair and restlessness because our Creator takes our cares from us and makes your burdens light. “Did not His love and truth and power guard every childhood day? And did He not in threat’ning hour turn dreaded ills away?” Christians rejoice because they know, “His wisdom never plans in vain nor falters nor mistakes. All that His counsels may ordain a blessed ending makes” (LSB 737).
Trust in Jesus and confidence in His promises floods us with joy and fills our lives with rejoicing that praises Him for all His continuing mercies. They are more than enough to make a person glad. This joy is infectious, more infectious than any virus. Joy spreads through a congregation of God’s people as they react to His coming to them in His Word. “Rejoice, and again, I say rejoice, for the Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:4-5). What could bring more joy than Jesus!