It’s strange to talk about joy this time of year. Usually, it’s a word reserved for Christmas tree ornaments and holiday carols, a response to twinkle lights and children’s choirs. We sing Joy to the World, watch Hallmark movies with characters named Joy, and gasp with joy over the holiday buffet loaded with pies and cakes and cookies.
But how did joy become so associated with Christmas? And what do we need to do to reclaim joy as an all-year experience of serious happiness? Well, we start by going back, way back, to the world of the Old Testament.
People of Joy
Our ancient fathers and mothers apparently had much to be joyful over. A quick survey of those early books of the Bible reveal joy gushing out of all kinds of experiences. There was joy in festivals, harvests, and victory. Things like having enough and being led by just leaders also created joy. After the exile, we find God’s people joyously returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple.
When they do experience joy, we see the ancient Israelites expressing it in a variety of ways: singing, dancing, making music, gathering with others, eating, drinking, giving, and yes, even shouting! (Maybe that’s why your kids and grandkids are so loud. It’s the joy!)
Joy Has Ceased
But before I mischaracterize the first half of scripture, let me clarify that it isn’t all about the parties and celebrations. In fact, there are plenty of times when joy is the last thing on the minds of God’s people who were at various times enslaved, wandering, rebellious, warring, and even exiled. When we finally arrive at the Prophets, whose work covers several hundred years of Israel’s history, we see evidence that there was no joy left (weeping, mourning, fasting), as well as proclamations of a joyless existence: “The joy of our hearts has ceased; Our dancing has been turned into mourning” (Lam. 5:15).
And though the reasons for their joy had been many, the reasons for their lack of joy were few. In fact, it could be boiled down to this one main reason: their rebelliousness and disobedience had driven them away from God. In a sovereign reversal, all the things that brought Israel joy and all the ways Israel expressed joy had been corrupted. Listen to the prophet Isaiah describe God’s coming judgment:
“The new wine mourns,
The vine decays,
All the merry-hearted sigh.
The gaiety of tambourines ceases,
The noise of revelers stops,
The gaiety of the harp ceases.
They do not drink wine with song;
Strong drink is bitter to those who drink it.
The city of chaos is broken down;
Every house is shut up so that none may enter.
There is an outcry in the streets concerning the wine;
All joy turns to gloom.
The gaiety of the earth is banished (24:7-12).”
But that same prophet gives us a picture of how God’s joy will return to Israel, when they are wooed and welcomed back into his presence through the promised Messiah.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad,
And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom;
Like the crocus
It will blossom profusely
And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy ….
A highway will be there, a roadway,
And it will be called the Highway of Holiness.
The unclean will not travel on it,
But it will be for him who walks that way,
And fools will not wander on it.
No lion will be there,
Nor will any vicious beast go up on it;
These will not be found there.
But the redeemed will walk there,
And the ransomed of the Lord will return
And come with joyful shouting to Zion,
With everlasting joy upon their heads.
They will find gladness and joy,
And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (Isa. 35:1-2; 8-10).
This is where our Christmas joy originated: with the promise that Messiah would restore true happiness to God’s people by bringing them back into His presence. It’s why John the Baptist, when he was still in his mother’s womb, leapt for joy at the voice of Mary, mother of Jesus (Luke 1:44). It’s why the angels told the shepherds outside of Bethlehem that he was bringing “good news of great joy which will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). And it’s why the Magi “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” when they saw the Star in the sky (Matt. 2:10). Once again, God was with his people, and the only appropriate response was joy.
Incarnation All Year
Although we remember and reflect on the incarnation especially at Christmas, “God with us” is a reality we can celebrate all year long. From the cold, dark days of winter, through the new life of spring, from the hot, dry days of summer to the annual dying off of fall, we can rejoice that God is with us now—even now—through his Spirit.
But just because joy is available doesn’t mean we always feel it. Sometimes, it’s because we are hiding in our own sin or resisting him through rebellion like the Israelites did (James 4:1-10). God doesn’t leave us, but we leave him. We push him away out of guilt and shame, and he uses our sorrow to get our attention and show us how far away we’ve gone.
Other times our sorrows are not the result of our particular sin or rebellion but just a result of living in this world where sin is still present. Someday we’ll be with God forever, filled with joy in God’s eternal presence, where both sin and sorrow cease to exist. But until then we wait. Jesus likens it to the birthing process (John 16:21). We can trust the promise, but the process is still painful.
The bottom line is this: there is a way back to joy, and the directions are simple. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Once you get there, joy will be waiting.