Christmas is, or at least it should be, a season of joy. But what is the joy of Christmas? Where does it come from? Does it come from the decorations, or the gift giving, or the music, or the traditions, or family gatherings? No. As wonderful as all those things are, they are not truly a source of Christmas joy. The joy of Christmas comes from the good news of Jesus, the news that with the coming of Jesus God has fulfilled his promises to Israel, which are really promises to the whole world mediated through Israel. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God has drawn near, and all those things we love about Christmas are, in fact, the Kingdom of God – righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Joy at the Coming of the King
It is the news of Jesus that produces joy. In the birth narratives of Jesus, both in Luke and Matthew, the coming of Jesus is repeatedly met with exclamations of joy and praise. It is a recurring theme.
(39) Rising up at that time, Mary went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judea, (40) and she entered into the house of Zacharias and greeting Elizabeth. (41) And it happened that as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped within her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, (42) and she cried out in a loud voice and said: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Who am I that the mother of my lord should come to me? Behold, as the sound of your greeting came into my ears, the infant in my womb leaped with joy. (45) How happy is she who has believed that the things spoken to her by the Lord will be fulfilled.”
(46) And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
(47) and my spirit rejoices over God my savior,
(48) because he has looked upon the humble state of his maidservant.
For, behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed,
(49) because the mighty one has done great things in me, and holy is his name,
(50) and his mercy is from generation to generation to those fearing him.
(51) The has shown strength with his right hand,
he has scattered those who are proud in the imagination of their hearts;
(52) He has brought down the powerful from thrones and he has raised up the humble,
(53) the hungry he has filled with good things, and the wealthy he has sent away empty.
(54) He has helped Israel his servant, the remembrance of mercy –
(55) just as he spoke to our fathers – to Abraham and to his seed forever.
(56) Mary remained with her about three months, and then returned to her own town.
We see joy repeatedly in this passage, and I want you to notice four things about this joy. First, joy is the natural response to the good news of Jesus. It almost seems involuntary, as evidenced by the fact that all three characters respond to Jesus with joy and praise, even the unborn John the Baptist. Certainly, an unborn baby is not going to have the capacity to generate joy or praise by an act of will. But none of the characters have to do anything approaching fabricating joy. It just happens when they hear the news of Jesus or reflect upon that news.
Second, the reason Mary, Elizabeth, and John are so naturally filled with joy at the news of Jesus is that it isn’t really “natural” at all, but supernatural. The joy all three characters experience comes from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves upon them, and they cannot help but rejoice in God and praise him.
And that leads into the third thing I want you to notice: their response to the news of Jesus is not just joy, but joy and praise. Mary says in perfect Hebraic parallelistic poetry, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” The verbs “magnify” and “rejoice” are parallel to one another, showing that, even if these two things are not identical, they are closely related and inextricably linked. What does it mean to rejoice in the news of Jesus? Certainly, there is an internal emotional aspect to it, but the act of rejoicing involves an external physical expression. In the case of the unborn John the Baptist, he is incapable of speech so he responds the only way he can: by “leaping” within his mother’s womb. Elizabeth expresses her Spirit-inspired joy by speaking prophetically things no human had yet told her. Mary expresses her joy with a spontaneous poem or song that we today call the Magnificat, which is its first word in its Latin translation, Magnificat anima mea Dominum. So what I’m saying is that praise of some sort is the external expression of the internal reality of joy.
Fourth, their joy is not simply mindless euphoria. Mary’s song gives some substance to the joy all three are experiencing. Why are they rejoicing? Because God has looked on the humble situation of his servant, he has done great things, he has shown mercy, he has brought down the powerful and raised up lowly, he has fed the hungry and sent the rich away empty, and, most of all, he has remembered Israel and his promises to them. The reason Mary and Elizabeth rejoice is because they see in the Spirit that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel. Joy is something that is experienced by the whole human being: mind, heart, and body.
(8) And there were shepherds in that region living outside and keeping guard by night over their flocks. (9) And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were exceedingly afraid. (10) And the angel said to them: “Do no fear, for behold I am announcing to you a great joy which will be to all the people, (11) because today a savior has been born to you, who is the lord Messiah, in the city of David. (12) and this is a sign to you: you will find the infant swaddled and lying in a manger.”
(13) And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the armies of heaven praising God and saying: (14) “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among the men of his good pleasure.”
(15) And it came about, as the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds spoke to one another: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and let us see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” (16) And they went hurrying and found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger. (17) Seeing them, they made known concerning the thing spoken to them concerning this child. (18) And all those hearing marveled at these things being spoken by the shepherds to them. (19) But Mary kept everything, pondering these things in her heart. (20) And the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God over all which they had heard and seen, just as it has been spoken to them.
Again, we see joy and praise, side by side and over and over. The angel says, “I proclaim to you great joy!” The word proclaim is euangelizomai, which is actually a verb form of the noun we translate “gospel” or “good news”. To euangelizesthai is to proclaim good news. This verb has “great joy” as its object, which means that to give a full English translation requires a rather awkward double object. This is why the KJV says “I bring you good tidings of great joy.” “I bring good tidings” is a single word. But the idea of the whole phrase is this: I’ve got good news that will bring you and everyone who hears it great joy. The root of the word for “joy” here is different, actually, than the root of the words we see in the earlier reading. But even though they are different words, the idea is the essentially the same. The coming of Jesus brings great joy. Why? Because Israel now has a savior, a Messiah. The day has finally come when God is going to turn around the fortunes of Israel and fulfill his promises. This baby who has just been born is the one through whom God’s eternal reign on earth through Israel is going to come to pass.
Again, joy and praise go together. We see the angels themselves joyfully praising God over Jesus. Then the shepherds go search out Jesus in Bethlehem, see the truth of what the angels had proclaimed, and go on their way, glorifying and praising God. Even though it does not explicitly that they were filled with joy, this is what we are meant to understand. I cannot imagine that they went about glorifying and praising God in a morose manner or a purely business-like manner. They weren’t sorrowful. It was good news they were spreading. Joy produces praise, which spreads the joy and produces more praise. This is the natural pattern, the domino effect that started with the coming of Jesus.
This is because we have good news, and it isn’t just good news for Israel. God’s plan for Israel, which Israel glimpsed in their prophetic hopes and expectations, is cosmic in scope. It involves and benefits the whole world, mediated through Israel. So whether the world realizes it or not, the gospel of Jesus is news that fulfills their deepest and truest hopes, the kinds of hopes that they get a glimpse of in their romantic ideals of Christmas joy and peace. Matthew’s birth narrative shows us more clearly the joy that Jesus’ coming brings to the nations of the world.
(10) Seeing the star, they [the wise men] rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy. (11) And coming to the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they worshiped him, and they opened their treasure boxes and offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Again: joy and praise. Here the praise isn’t prophetic speech, singing a song, or contagiously proclaiming the good news. Here it is offering gifts and worship. The wise men gave Jesus gifts that represented the most valuable things they had to offer. And they didn’t do so begrudgingly. They gave the best they had to offer because of their joy. Praise is the natural product of joy.
At every point, in both Matthew and Luke, the birth of Jesus was an occasion for joy, not only for Israelites but for the whole world. This is really why Christmas should be a season of joy. Not because cold weather or short days produce joy. Nor is it a season of joy because we give gifts. Like the wise men, we give gifts because of joy, or at least we ought to. And it is also because of joy that we proclaim to the world the grounds for and the realization of their hopes of peace and brotherhood. The single most defining characteristic of all the faithful who heard the news of Jesus’ coming was joy.
What is the Joy of the Kingdom?
So what is joy? More specifically, what is the joy of the Kingdom? Is it happiness? Yes, at the very least it is happiness. It certainly isn’t less than happiness, but I think it is really a whole lot more. The joy that motivated all the characters in birth narratives in Luke and Matthew, and the joy that the New Testament tells us ought to be one of the defining characteristics of the Christian, is the indescribable feeling of total satisfaction and happiness that comes when we get even the briefest of glimpses of God’s vision for humanity. It is a steadfast optimistic upward gaze that isn’t dependent on material circumstances or anything that we can control. Why? Two reasons: (1) because it derives from what God does, which cannot be overturned or thwarted; (2) because what God wants for us is perfectly good. In other words, our joy is the sense of happiness and security that is built on God’s sovereignty and his goodness. We are joyful because God is who he is, and because that cannot change the joy of the Christian cannot be destroyed, even by suffering. Peter talks this in 1 Peter 1:3-6:
Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ who, according to his great mercy, gives us new birth unto a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, unto an inheritance that is incorruptible, undefiled, and unfading, which has been kept in heaven for you who, by the power of God are guarded through faith in a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last days, in which you rejoice, even if for a little while you have to suffer in various trials so that the proven character of your faith, which is more valuable than gold that is tried by fire but that nevertheless passes away, might be shown unto praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Peter isn’t alone in seeing good coming from sufferings, and in joy abiding even through those sufferings. In fact, both James and Paul say that sufferings are actually an occasion for joy, not a circumstance despite which we can feel joy. James 1:2 says, “Consider it complete joy whenever you fall into various tests, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Romans 5:1-3 says:
Therefore, being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope.
The word for “boast” is in many ways a synonym for praise-filled rejoicing. This isn’t self-justifying boasting. This is boasting that has reached the end of itself and understands that all its hopes are realized Jesus. So both James and Paul are saying, “If you are suffering, rejoice! Because of Christ, that suffering is redeemed and is producing good things in you.” In Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians, it is producing the eternal weight of glory. And James, Paul, and Peter are all agreed in saying that the joy of the Kingdom is not something that comes and goes with the capriciousness of life. It abides and even grows during life’s difficulties.
So this differentiates joy from the reality that we tend to refer to when we use the word “happiness”. Happiness is a brief and comparatively shallow positive emotion. You can be momentarily happy even when dealing with depression, but in the blink of an eye it goes away and leaves the vacuum of depression again. Joy, on the other hand, is abiding because it is felt in our deepest selves. In our efforts to differentiate joy from happiness, we should never make the mistake of thinking that joy is somehow not connected to positive emotions. The reactions of the unborn John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Mary, the angels, the shepherds, and the wise men all show positive emotion – overwhelming positive emotion. As I said before, joy may be more than happiness, but it certainly isn’t less than happiness. Another way to say this is that the opposite of joy is despair. The fact that we can be at some fundamental level happy and peaceful even in our sufferings is what makes Christian joy so amazing and so different from mere happiness.
The joy of the Kingdom is the greatest thing that humans can possibly experience, because it comes from the fulfillment of hopes that are built into our very DNA. We were born to hope for Jesus, and we were born to rejoice because of him. Being joyful was God’s purpose for humanity from the very beginning, because God is a joyful God. When all things are put aright, when all evil is done away with and only goodness remains, joy is the natural everlasting state of humanity. Joy is an important of God’s glorious plan for humanity.
Another way of looking at it is this: joy is part of the wealth and glory of the Kingdom of God. That’s what Paul says in Romans 14:17: “For the Kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” What is the substance of any earthly kingdom or nation? What is it that an earthly kingdom possesses by which we can judge its power or importance? It is first of all material necessities like food, and secondarily it is security for those necessities. Security includes overabundance of those necessities, which is what wealth is, and military power, which is the ability to defend what it possesses against foreign powers or to take what it wants from foreign powers. Food, gold, and weapons. That is what any earthly kingdom consists of. This is how an earthly kingdom survives, influences outside forces, and grows its influence and wealth. And if you take away those things, the kingdom comes to an end, right? But the substance of the Kingdom of God is totally different. It is not food, gold, and weapons. Righteousness, peace, and joy are what sustains us, how we influence the nations, and how we grow.
It is righteousness, peace, and joy, but not the kind that can be fabricated apart from God. It is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The Kingdom of God can never exist apart from God himself, because it consists of God’s very Spirit. This is why the character that the Holy Spirit produces in us includes joy. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. If the Spirit is having its way in your life, you will be a joyful person because God is a joyful God and you are sharing in his character. If the Spirit is not operating in your life, the best you can hope for is brief tantalizing glimpses of joy such as one experiences in that sense of longing for the ideal Christmas, that feeling of being homesick for a place we’ve never been. I believe that this sense of longing for an ideal we’ve never actually realized is a capacity we are created with. It is a gift from God intended to draw us closer to him. But without the abiding joy of the Holy Spirit, without submitting yourself to God and seeking joy in his plan, all those brief glimpses end up producing is a growing sense of despondency over seeing how humanity could be but for some reason never quite is.
The problem with the world is that it wants the joy without the Kingdom. It wants the wealth of the Kingdom without subservience to the King. It regards Christmas joy as a part of the season rather than as a part of the Kingdom of God, and because of that it desperately insists, it needs to believe that if we can just work hard enough to put aside our differences and adopt a generous attitude, we can manufacture the joy that we know must exist somewhere out there. And despite the fact that we’ve never proven that we are anywhere close to capable of bringing about righteousness, peace, and joy in our own power we insanely persist in our self-delusion. Like an addict to his drugs, we turn to materialism, to buying ever bigger and better things in order to artificially infuse joy in the season, even though at the very same time we recognize materialism is a dead end. We rage against stores starting Black Friday on Thanksgiving, for example, at the same providing enough demand to justify stores opening on Thanksgiving. Another way we desperately try to manufacture our own joy is by the increasing secularization of Christmas, apparently thinking that the problem, the reason why we cannot realize total peace and joy in our own power is religion itself. If we could just remove all vestiges of religion and make Christmas a fully humanistic holiday, we would have no reason not be unified. But this too is self-delusion. We are simply incapable of making ourselves joyful.
Now I see signs of cynicism taking over. It is becoming increasingly common for advertisements, comedians, and TV shows to joke about Christmas being a time for family arguments. And they say it as the sort of biting joke that everybody knows is true even if we don’t want to admit it. At the heart of cynical jokes like this is a desire to justify oneself, to make one’s own negative experiences seem normal so that you don’t have to feel bad about them anymore. In other words, they are saying: if we cannot have Christmas joy without Christ, then Christmas joy just isn’t possible, and we all need to just realize this and get over it. So the continual increase in our society every Christmas season of anxiety, depression, suicide, anger, materialism, and now cynicism, is really just our society going in a way through the various stages of grief as it comes to face-to-face with its own inability to manufacture Christmas joy without Christ. The hope of Christmas joy is dying.
But here’s the good news: we have good news that saves Christmas joy. That fact is that Christmas joy never went anywhere. It’s been there all along in the face of the infant Jesus. The joy of Christmas, which is really the joy of the Kingdom of God, abides even when you experience tragedy at Christmas or are haunted by tragic memories. It doesn’t come and go because of your ability, or lack thereof, to acquire a giant screen TV at an amazing discount. It fulfills you at the deepest possible level, which is why you long for it even when you’ve never really experienced it. The good news that Jesus has come to take away our sins, to raise up the lowly, and to fulfill God’s plan for Israel and the world is an occasion for joy.
Inheriting the Joy of the Kingdom
So here’s the point: if joy is the natural response of humanity to the coming of the Messiah, and if God’s purpose for humanity is that they be joyful in the Holy Spirit, then citizens of the Kingdom of God can and should be joyful people. I am not saying, “You need to be filled with joy,” as if it were something you could work up if you just exerted enough effort. Nor am I saying that joy is somehow a duty, that if you aren’t being joyful you are shaming God. I am saying that there is no reason why you cannot be joyful, because God wants good things for you. He wants you to be joyful. He wants you to be fulfilled. I am saying that when you are in Christ joy is your inheritance. It belongs to you as a fellow heir of God’s Kingdom with Christ.
If God wants us to be joyful, what can resist the will of God? There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ. So why does it so often seem difficult or even impossible to be joyful? The answer is that we have an enemy whose goal is to oppose the Kingdom at every step. Joy is not only the wealth of the Kingdom, it is also one of the Kingdom’s weapons. Joy is contagious. True Holy Spirit joy is overwhelming, and it pours off of the one experiencing it onto all those around him or her. As we saw in the birth narratives, joy produces praise and compels the joyful one to spread the good news. And when others hear about the good news, they too are filled with joy. So our enemy is intent on stopping the growth of joy wherever he can, especially during Christmas.
It is important to realize that the enemy cannot “take away” your joy. Our enemy does not have the authority or power to take away joy directly. His has one tactic: to distract you, to turn your eyes off of Jesus and onto some other savior or onto yourself. But our enemy is really, really good at this tactic, and we seem to be more than ready to be distracted. Most often we are distracted by our troubles or sufferings. When we suffer it is extremely difficult not to focus on those sufferings, to let those sufferings become the thing you think about all the time. If you are experiencing financial trouble, it is really difficult not to constantly worry about your finances. Sometimes we are distracted no by things we are actually suffering but by things we fear we will suffer. When we read the news and the news is constantly telling us that this or that disaster is about to happen, fear begins to dominate our thinking and joy is driven away.
Often it isn’t so much that we cease to think about Jesus in the face of our sufferings or of the problems of the world. Rather, we begin to try to interpret our Christian faith through sufferings and problems. We become mournful Christians, or overly serious Christians, or fearful Christians. We begin to see the world primarily through a political lens rather than a Christ-centered lens.
To describe and diagnose all these problems really would take another sermon entirely. The point here is that if you are following Christ but are mournful, grave, or fearful rather than joyful, you are not living in the fullness of your inheritance in the Kingdom of God. So how do we possess our inheritance? By persistently focusing our attention on Jesus and on the sovereignty of God. When the enemy wants to distract us with material things or with suffering, to make us think we are on our own or that Jesus is not reigning in heaven right now, our response must be willfully to focus our attention on Jesus, to confess (1) that he reigns in heaven and that God is sovereign, and (2) that God is good and wants good things for us in the present. Refuse to let the enemy distract you from what is truly and exclusively important: Jesus the Messiah and the good pleasure of God. If we can get just a glimpse of God’s plan for us and for creation, and if we can mix that glimpse with a little bit of faith, all other concerns will fade into the background and joy will be ours.
Joy cannot be fabricated. You cannot make yourself be happy in the Kingdom sense. It is not within your power to produce the Kingdom of God. But you can enjoy the joyful wealth of the Kingdom of God, during this season and all year long, by choosing to remember God’s goodness expressed in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. Joy comes from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in the Holy Spirit, let us join with Mary in magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in God our savior.