“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
— Jesus, John 15:11
Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.
— G K Chesteron
Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light.
— C S Lewis, The Great Divorce, a citizen of heaven speaking to a visitor from hell
As we wrap up 2020, joy seems to be in short supply. Most of my friends are out of sorts, tense, troubled, and lonely.
For 10 months, pandemic updates have controlled the landing page of the news outlets. Add to this a large measure of tense politics. Combine with rage and anger about injustice. Sprinkle with obsession about masks and arguments about statistical accuracy. No wonder we all have a massive case of indigestion, and far worse. Saying joy is in short supply wins me the Captain Obvious award.
How can we pause to celebrate Christmas in such a time?
As I reflected on this I remembered an occasion when Christmas broke through the worst war that had ever been known at the time. It was The Christmas Truce of WW1. The picture at the top is from that year. Soldiers on both sides dropped their weapons, met between the lines, and celebrated Christmas. They intuited that the message of Christmas was greater than the war to end all wars.
Is Joy even possible?
If soldiers on the front lines of the Great War stopped their killing to celebrate the birth of the Christ, then maybe the joy of the Christ is greater than all the troubles of 2020. What if the reasons for joy are not based on our lives being in good order, our loved one’s safety being secure, our politics being well-mannered, and our economy humming along? What if those soldiers knew something we may have forgotten?
Simply to suggest this may sound like I am out of touch with reality. You may even say it seems grossly insensitive and thoughtless. How can I talk about joy when people are dying every day? When there is systemic injustice in our nation? When Antifa and the Proud Boys have brawls on the streets?
Joy stronger than the darkness
It is all a matter of which has the last word: evil or the triumph of God’s grace in the crushing of our sin. Darkness is not greater than the revelation of the light of God’s powerful and merciful work of redemption. To see with the eyes of a Christian Mind, we must stop fretting about masks long enough to remember that joy is grounded in unchangeable truth. No pandemic can dilute it.
Not based on denial but on knowing all
Our day of instant news from all around the globe swallows us with the ubiquity of injustice, poverty, and violence. Through social media, we can even watch the explosion of the building in Beirut seconds after the eruption. Yet, next to God, we know very little of the darkness that shadows the lives of every member of our species. He sees it all: every corrupting conversation in the private rooms of members of Congress, every word or fist of abuse, every pang of loneliness and despair. And he does not need twitter to keep up.
Since that is the case, with infinite awareness of reality,God sends this message to the lower castes of Jews in the first century:
““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.” (Luke 2:10–11 ESV)
Not based on well-wishing from far off
Will such joy make us calloused and indifferent? Not God’s eternal joy. The triumph of his joy does not insulate us from life’s traumas because it did not insulate him from them.
God’s message of joy was not sent from a distance, from a remote and safe happy place, detached and disengaged with the world of woes.
“Things are great here, sorry for the mess you are in, cheer up.”
Absolutely not. His message of joy was directly coupled to the sending of the Eternal Son into the world of tears and darkness. As Dorothy Sayers put it, God entered history. He himself experienced the problem of evil. He took his own medicine.
Joy is not escapist or sentimental
Many years ago, at a Christmas party, one of our neighbors made the rounds, serving up the adult beverages. They, quite clearly, had personally sampled the diverse offerings. As they passed by, they offered to fill our glasses yet again. “Here is some more Christmas cheer,” they quipped. Joy was, for them, escape in the stupor of inebriation.
Sentimentality is another form of fake joy. By sentimentality I mean our tendency to strip the story of its darkness, and to turn the message of the angels into an ancient version of chicken soup for the soul. You know what I mean. Those children lighting the candles at the worship service just make us feel so warm inside. Dreaming about a white Christmas, and the re-watching of It’s A Wonderful Life, give us a sense of well being and good will.
But the season will end, life will return to what it has been. Worst of all, we will discover that all those warm feelings did not for one instant change our irritability, our addiction to porn, nor will they bring peace to a marriage that is filled with bitterness.
There is a place for lifting our moods
That is not to say that we must all become dour or, even worse, hyper-spiritual. No, we can do those things which renew our happiness, and do them as we must. Who doesn’t find a mood lift when they watch this flash mob or another? I was so glad for Some Good News. We needed John Krazinski to put those videos together in the early months of Covid. There is nothing wrong with escape into a good book. Such stimulus has a place, as long as we keep it in its place. It may be short-lived but I say we should let it have its short life.
The ground of joy is more than mood alteration
The angelic chorus was not a flash mob and their message was not a religious expression of “The Happy Song” (as much as this particular song makes me tap my feet and lifts my mood). What was being offered was not a belief that “happiness is a truth.” No, the angels spoke of world altering actions initiated by God. If we considered the reasons the angels gave for joy, we would find ourselves dancing just like the people in a flash mob. And we would never stop.
The joy evoked by the angelic messengers was both grounded in reality, and also a reality greater than all the sorrows of the world. Let me explain.
Why is the angelic message such good news?
First, this was a message direct from the true God. He sends angels because they are less threatening to us (and even then, people cower before angels). They did not speak on their own initiative. God gave them the words to say. Remember, this is the same God who sees the deep darkness and anguish of every member of the human race. Knowing all, he told us to rejoice.
Second, knowing the universality of evil and suffering, God sends a universal message. It is for everyone. “All peoples “means all races, all ethnic groups, all ages, all economic status, all nations. Perhaps the recent global joy at the approval of a vaccine is something of a parallel. Hear this: Christianity is the most inclusive and welcoming message ever. Any and all may know redemption in Christ.
Christianity is the most inclusive and welcoming message ever.
Third, the news is that God has acted on his promise. What promise is that? When sin entered the world, death and misery spread to all in a global pandemic that would last through every generation of our race. It kills everyone. The woes of each individual and nation in every epoch began then and there. What many people do not know is that no sooner than the pandemic of evil began than God promised that he would send a conqueror to end it.
The promise was simple, but pregnant with meaning. This future deliverer would do violence to the prince of darkness, crushing his head as one crushes the head of a snake. That meant conquest and the end of sin. From that day forward, the human race lived with an anticipation of a better world. We still do. Tragically, in our defiance of God, we came to believe we could create it on our own.
This future deliverer would do violence to the prince of darkness, crushing his head as one crushes the head of a snake.
Fourth, the promise was a Person. From that first pregnant word, God added details, describing the lineage, birth, life character, and certain rule of the person. Through that person, God promised that when he finally consummates his kingdom, they will not hurt or destroy in any part of his perfect rule.
Fifth, the promised Savior would come into the world, the painful world we know, and from within defeat all his and our enemies. He would deal once and for all with sin, our sin.
The whole picture
Let’s put this together. God sees and knows every form of evil in the world. And God says he will provide the person that ends the rule of darkness. That person will do all this as someone who is like us and lives in the same world as we. That is the message of the angels.
Better than feel-good
And, say the angels, God has done so. He himself (that is the meaning of “Lord”) has come as Savior (rescuer from danger). The coming of the Son of God in the womb of Mary is greater news than the end of the war in Europe, or the discovery of a vaccine for Covid. It is greater because he will end all wars, all injustice, all disease, even death itself.
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,” (Isa 9:7 ESV)
Scouring the world of evil
How many times have I heard someone say, “If God is just, why doesn’t he put an end to this evil?” The “evil” we want him to target, like a smart bomb, ranges from domestic violence, to corrupt politicians, to injustice. In other words, we want a better world in which evil and wickedness do not prosper. More than that, we think the way to rid the world of such things is for God to do a clean sweep (or maybe for us to do so through cancellation).
To achieve his purpose, he did the unthinkable
But that is not how God saves. Do you know why? Because if God brought full justice to the world tomorrow at noon, where would you and I be at 12:01? You see, most of us want justice against others, but not for us. We, after all, are decent folk. It’s them, the bad people, God must deal with. Yet I find most people, in their most honest moments, know that they are among the bad people.
if God brought full justice to the world tomorrow at noon, where would you and I be at 12:01?
God knows that too. So, in the fullness of his goodness, he puts down the darkness of sin by bearing the darkness of sin in himself. He breaks the power of injustice, by submitting to injustice. The Father gives the Son, and the Son gladly offers himself, for love of sinners like us. Who could have imagined such a thing? By the sacrifice and death of Jesus, he brought about the death of death. He offers himself as Redeemer to all who will turn from their labors at fixing themselves and entrust themselves to him as Savior.
The outcome is certain
It is a sad thing that Christians are not known for being hope-giving and joyful people. As people who take sin and evil very seriously, we can sound morose. How can that be if we know the One who has triumphed? Perhaps we forget the certainty of Christ’s conquest and the certain outcome of his victory.
This was not so in the early church. While they were a tiny minority, increasingly hated and subject to hostility by their peers and their government, what most characterized their lives was joy. Such was their joy that one of their early leaders described it as “unspeakable” and ”full of glory.” Through Christ, they had come to know unconquerable gladness.
Can you see why we, even in 2020, have reason for joy?
This is not a feel-good message that briefly warms my heart. It is truth, historical fact, that God has acted in Jesus to bear the sins of every member of the race, to carry their sorrow, and to pay the price that sets anyone free. And he offers it without cost. More than that, he will ultimately usher in a new creation, a new world free of sin, inhabited by those who trust his promise.
Let’s go back to 1855, to another dark time
Five years before the Civil War, our nation was torn by political strife and violence. Decades of contention over the end of slavery was coming to a head. In that time, a Christmas song was written. The song, for the most part, gets this story right.
O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
There is the story – of humanity waiting for rescue while being sinners and suffering in the world of sin.
In a later stanza, the author goes for the jugular.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
He got that right. In the wake of his achievement on the cross, Jesus powerfully remakes the hearts of those who trust him. They now see the slave as their brother and insist that through Christ oppression will cease. By that same power, he teaches us to love one another. This is not a natural love. The Bible does not engage in moral cheer-leading (let’s just love each other). When someone is in Christ through faith, the very love of God comes to their hearts. He forgives sin and will make his people into a new creation.
So, what do we do?
The author of these words captured the message of the angels and the meaning for his own day. The Savior born was not here to teach us to believe that happiness is a truth, but to conquer sin and end its dominion in the world. Is it any wonder the song invites us to worship?
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
That is how I want to end 2020