Where does joy come from? The classic Christmas carol “Joy to the World” reveals the answer. While joy is being studied by social science and written about more than ever before, we can only find real, lasting joy from the one who was born of a virgin 2,000 years ago. He brought joy to the world that can be found in the midst of some of the most difficult days.
I want to start today with a real simple question — “When was the last time you experienced joy?” Not just any joy, but deep, real, lasting joy. The kind of joy you can’t help but contain. The kind of joy that sort of just spills out of you.
I can still remember the experience of great joy as a kid when we would have something called a snow day.
If you grew up in California you may not be familiar with snow days.
It’s when the weather drops below 32 degrees and these little pieces of white frozen water fall from the sky.
And if enough accumulates, people go a little nuts. Entire cities will shut down.
People are scared to drive, kind of like when we get a little rain in California.
Where I grew up in Chicago, this would happen with some frequency.
I can remember so vividly that feeling of excitement that just kind of exuded out of me as my sister and I would gather around the TV, waiting for the news that school had been cancelled and we would have a snow day. The joy of that moment!
Another question is — “How much joy are you living with today?”
Right now, this moment, how would you rate yourself on the joy scale?
Well, recalling the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem, this is what Luke writes:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:8-10)
Good news that will cause great joy.
Now it’s interesting, largely because the angel uses this word, we talk quite a lot about joy this time of year.
It’s on coffee cups. It’s on tee shirts. It’s on the pillow I saw at Target last week.
It’s this sort of universally sought after and accepted word in our culture.
I learned this week that the tears of joy emoji is the most commonly texted and tweeted emoji in the world for the last several years.
Some of you won’t remember anything else I say today except that.
Everyone agrees more joy would be a good thing. Whether they’re part of a faith community or not, we can all get behind that.
And not just the feeling, but deep, abiding joy. Joy with legs. Joy that can hold all of what’s going on in your mind and heart today. Joy that can hold the weight of this world and the challenges we face. Joy that doesn’t wane when our circumstances change.
Now, despite our culture’s commitment to that word during this time of the year, for many, we don’t experience more joy.
We actually experience more anxiety, more activity, a more acute sense of loneliness… and more emptiness when it’s all over.
In the midst of all that, in the midst of this frantic season, there are these rather mysterious messengers of God — angels, we call them — who light up the sky with this simple but profound message: “I bring good news that will cause great joy.”
Notice the angel doesn’t say, “I bring good news and great joy.”
It’s because of the good news that there will be great joy — if A, then B.
This tells us that true joy is always a response, always intertwined with, always connected to, the good news.
There’s a great thinker many of you know, C.S. Lewis. He wrote a book called Surprised by Joy. Lewis had a brilliant mind. He had a reputation for being unfailingly honest. In this book, Lewis recounts his search for joy.
He spent many years of his life as a very committed and a very thoughtful atheist. He grew up in a church, and he rejected the narrow-mindedness of what he saw and experienced as a kid.
In this book, Lewis recounts how it was largely this word joy that led him back to faith. He could find no other lasting source of it outside of this person, Jesus.
See, Lewis discovered after years of searching that what the angel said was actually true. Great joy goes hand in hand with the good news. If A, then B.
Part of my hope for this message is to reconnect those two things, to reconnect joy with its source.
Which brings us back to the angels.
The angels show up at this scene with a message of great joy.
…the glory of the Lord shone around them…
Now because we hear that part of this passage of Scripture so much this time of year, it’s easy to kind of pass it by, but it’s so important.
The word glory is the Greek word doxa, which has a meaning with more depth than we normally give it. It implies a weightiness, a heaviness, or an abundance.
Some of you may be familiar with the basic principle in physics that says two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
That means if two bodies need to occupy the same space at the same time, the denser or heavier or greater of the two will always win out. It will always displace the other.
What does that have to do with angels, joy, and glory? A lot actually.
You see, this principle helps us understand that this word doxa, glory — what we celebrate this time of year, what the angels came to communicate — was this new reality — God had become human in the person of Jesus. Immanuel, God with us.
We might think of it as this sort of beautiful collision between heaven and earth. Up there has come down here. Our human reality has collided with this new God reality.
You see, when that collision happens, the weightier of the two, the weightier of those two realities — the glorious reality displaces the human reality.
The angels are like living proof of this, living proof of what happens when God gets a hold of a life.
The glory of God shines through us, in us, and around us. It’s living proof of what happens when God displaces our own little human realities of worry, of fear, of shame, of regret. It displaces that.
And that’s the good news of Christmas.
The best example I can think of is a newly engaged couple where, after years of looking for the love of their life, they have finally found one another.
A former student of mine got engaged recently. When she called to tell me the news, I knew before the words were even out of her mouth what had happened.
There was this excitement, this weightiness. It was just seeping out of her. She couldn’t help it because she was living in this new reality. It was a glorious time.
Then the wedding planning began, and ever since then there has been weeping and gnashing of teeth.
See, at Christmas, realities collide. That’s the good news. That’s the heart of the good news.
A fair question for us today is what is the source of this reality, of this new good news? What is it that makes it so good?
Around this time of year, we sing the Christmas carol “Joy to the World” that was written in 1719 by a guy named Isaac Watts.
Watts composed 750 songs during his lifetime. Apparently it takes that many to get a good one.
“Joy to the World” is the most published Christmas song in North America. Again, this is just an indicator that our world is starved for more of this word.
Watts based his song on Psalm 98, a psalm that’s important for us because it names what this good news is all about.
The psalmist writes:
Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. (Psalm 98:1-3)
This psalm speaks to what this collision with this new reality is like. It speaks to the Savior Jesus and what he will do.
He will go to the cross and overcome death, and his victory will be your victory. He will extend this invitation to everyone. He will extend it to shepherds, to Jews, and to Gentiles, to the prostitutes and tax collectors, and to you and to me. It’s for everyone!
He will guarantee a love over your life unlike anything you have ever known or experienced before. It’s a love that’s unconditional. It’s a love that knows no limits. It’s a love that seeks after and saves that which is lost.
Then he will be faithful. He will not stop pursuing and breaking into this world until peace, until shalom has been restored, until every tear is gone and every heart is full.
There’s this new reality, and the result of that is joy.
That’s what Peter is talking about when he says in 1 Peter 1:8
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.
The psalmist said it this way in Psalm 16:11:
In your presence is fullness of joy.
Now I want to take just a moment and contrast that picture of joy with what we often see in our culture.
In our culture joy is often described as happiness or an emotion we feel in response to a particular circumstance.
And the problem with that is we become victims to our circumstances. We become dependent on something other than the good news to bring us joy.
Back in the nineteenth century, there was this great psychologist named F.B. Meyer. He was one of the first to help us understand this connection between joy, our emotions, and our spiritual life.
Meyer had this helpful observation. He writes:
So when we accept the fact of [Christ’s] existence deeper within us than our own and make it one of the aims of our life to draw on it and develop it, we shall be conscious of a glory transfiguring our life and irradiating ordinary things.
In other words, the only circumstance affecting our joy is our acceptance of the fact that Christ’s existence is in us. Our worlds have collided, which means that has eliminated everything that’s happening around us.
In the book of Nehemiah, Ezra is reading from the Book of the Law to the people who are assembled.
He read from it facing the square before the water gate from early morning until midday in the presence of the men and the women and all who could understand, and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
In other words, the people are learning — some of them for the first time — about what God’s will is for human beings, and they listen to it for hours.
Then we’re told a few verses later about the people’s response. Look at verse 9:
Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra, the priest and scribe, and the Levites, who taught the people, said to all the people, ‘The day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
They were aware of the gap between their behavior and God’s will, and so they mourned and they grieved.
Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’
“For the joy of the Lord is your strength” — this is a classic biblical statement about joy.
The people’s first response is grief, and grief is important and there is a time to grieve. But grief is not a source of strength. Joy, Nehemiah says, godly joy, is strength. It is power.
Nehemiah knew that if people experienced the joy of God, they would be motivated from the inside to pursue God. He knew that if they were experiencing the joy of the Lord, then sin would just cease to look good to them. They would not be attracted to it.
He knew that the joy of the Lord was a source of energy. Joy is strength. Godly joy is strength.
A great picture of joy comes from The Lord of the Rings trilogy written by J.R.R. Tolkien. In the third book of the trilogy, there’s this scene where everything is just falling apart for the good guys.
They’re trying to destroy the ring and save Middle-earth, but it’s not going well.
Then one of the heroes of the story, Gandalf, does something no one would predict. He starts to laugh.
One of the hobbits who is sort of on Gandalf’s team is watching. Initially he is a bit miffed. He’s caught off guard by Gandalf’s behavior, like, “Why is he responding this way?”
Then Tolkien writes:
Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.
Joy unspeakable and full of glory.
See, what the angels know, what the psalmists know, what Nehemiah knows, what Gandalf knows is that in spite of our circumstances, there is this greater and truer reality that has come to bear on earth. There is a good news that cannot be thwarted by circumstances or by emotion.
A great Quaker theologian said it this way.
I don’t trust the theology of any person who doesn’t laugh. — Elton Trueblood
Isn’t that great? — I don’t trust the theology of any person who doesn’t laugh.
Here’s the deal — it’s not a flippant, out of touch laughter. It’s not a forced laughter. It’s a laughter that rests knowing all will be well, that joy is not an emotion I have to conjure or manufacture. I am held just as I am today, just where I am within the pervasive well-being of a God whose victory is my victory.
And the best part about this good news is it’s for all people.
It’s for the person who feels like they can’t get a break.
It’s for the person who feels like they’re just waiting.
It’s for the person who is living overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, or fear.
It’s for the parent who is just tired.
It’s for the woman who has suffered a miscarriage and is living with great grief.
It’s for the man who feels like he’s just living one day to the next without any greater sense of purpose in his life.
You are held as you are in this pervasive reality. There’s unspeakable joy for you this Christmas.
Alright, in the time we have left, we’ll look at four ways we can make this experience of authentic joy more tangible in our lives this Christmas season.
And the first thing is:
Say yes to this new reality.
The biblical word for saying yes is repentance. It literally means — to think differently after being with. Isn’t that a great definition?
In the gospels, John goes around announcing Jesus’ coming. And as he does so, he tells people, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” There’s that phrase “good news” again.
Good news is the cause of joy, and repentance is the gateway to good news.
Christmas represents this collision of worlds. It represents God’s reality entering our reality, but we have a choice to make — will we go on being the same, or will we say yes to this new reality? Will we think differently moving forward?
Now, this also requires that we say no as well. Say no to our own kingdom. Say no to our own pride. Our own selfishness. Our own indifference. Our own entitlement.
You see, those are some of the biggest barriers of joy we will experience in this life.
Instead, we say yes to this new God reality. It’s marked by forgiveness, selfless love, compassion, concern for the least of these.
Maybe today there’s an area of your life where you know you need to repent.
You need to think differently about something you’ve said or done… or haven’t done.
Just say to God: “I’m sorry. I’m going to think differently about my life. I’m going to let more of your glory in.”
To name it and say yes to this new reality is not just something we do when we first decide to follow Jesus, and then we never do it again.
You see, every day we have a choice to make. Will we let this glory in? Will we let more of God’s way in?
Think about how incredible it would be if we all made a commitment to that, and Blue Oaks was a place that was known for its great joy.
In the first century, when people heard that word Christian, they first and foremost associated it with joy, not judgment, not an agenda, but real joy.
What if that same glory that radiated from the angels that night was the same glory that shone through us throughout our community? It can happen.
Well, saying yes to this new reality is where it starts. That’s when more of his glory starts flowing through us.
The second way we live joyfully this season is to simply:
You see, there’s a reason the angels are the most joyful characters of all. It’s because they’re perpetually living in this new reality of Jesus.
Then contrast the angels with the innkeeper, who we indirectly meet earlier in that story. We meet him when Mary, Joseph, and newborn Jesus are in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now it’s not entirely fair to be too hard on the innkeeper. We know from the story that there’s a Roman census taking place, so there are people flooding into this tiny town of Bethlehem. There was probably only one inn for all of those people.
The simple reality is it’s full. There’s no more room.
This is not an overt rejection from the innkeeper.
This is not a confrontational no to Jesus.
But I want to suggest that it’s something more dangerous.
It’s — “My life is too full. My schedule is too packed. There are too many parties to attend, too many gifts to buy, too many family members to feed, too many religious services to be a part of. Sorry, but no.”
I wonder how many of us are saying no to Jesus today because we’re too busy, too full, no vacancy. But also no joy.
See, saying yes to God is important, but then we’re called to structure our lives in a way that we continue to make space for God in our lives.
It’s interesting. As you read through the Christmas story in the Gospels, people always had to give up something to gain joy.
The shepherds had to walk away from their sheep so they could hurry into Bethlehem.
The magi who visited Jesus had to say no to Herod. They had to blatantly disobey him — something that would have been dangerous in that day — so they could say yes to Jesus, so they could say yes to joy.
What will you say no to this Christmas to make space for joy?
How will you be less like the innkeeper and more like the angels?
Let me give you some simple ways you can do this.
Maybe it means saying no to answering work email when you’re done with work for the day so you can spend more quality time with your family.
Maybe it’s no to phones at dinner so you can be present.
Maybe it’s no to talk radio in the car so you can say yes to singing Christmas music like we mentioned last week — those old and faithful songs that give us space and a way to remember what it is Jesus has done and respond.
As I was working on this message, I realized there are some ways I need to do this this season, ways I need to make space.
So for the next couple weeks as we approach Christmas, I’m going to spend the first 10 minute when I wake up in the morning and the last 10 minutes before I fall asleep at night just reading through that gospel of Luke. If I finish, I’ll start over again.
This will be one of the ways I make space this season, staying connected to the source of joy.
Another thing we can do to make the experience of joy more tangible in our lives this Christmas season is:
Pay attention to the doxa, to the glory of the Lord.
Pay attention to the ways in which this beautiful reality of the creator God is already breaking into your life.
See, after having visited the baby Jesus, we’re told:
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:20)
See, the shepherds left their sheep and they’ve just witnessed the birth of the Messiah. They made space for joy. And now they’re traveling home.
Luke is quick to point out that everything looks different to them. They can’t help but offer gratitude, even for the smallest of gifts. They can’t help but worship as they go.
Notice they’re going back to the same jobs, back to the same old sheep, back to the same night shift, but they have a different lens. They’re going with a different vision.
The same can be true for us.
The more attentive I am to what God is doing in the world, the more naturally my response will be joy.
Let me say that again — The more attentive I am to what God is doing in the world, the more naturally my response will be joy.
We practice by paying attention — to a new day, to the people sitting around you in this room, to a sunrise, to the meal before me, to flowers I see in my neighbor’s yard as I’m out for a walk, to the sound of the wind in the trees, to the intricacies of a leaf that’s fallen to the ground, to the sound of children playing.
We pay attention.
And we’re able to say thanks to God for all the ways he’s colliding and breaking in to this world.
You see, if we start to pay attention enough, we start to say thanks enough, and pretty soon we find ourselves submersed in this new reality where we see God at work in all things, and we cannot help but be joyful.
Alright, the last thing we can do to make the experience of joy more tangible in our lives this Christmas season is:
Give it away.
Make it your goal for the rest of the year to spread joy to those around you.
This may be something that you have never explicitly done before.
Paul writes in his letter to the church at Philippi, in chapter 4, verse 4:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice.
Joy is being commanded. It’s being commanded of a community.
Often we take those kind of verses in a very individualistic way and think, “I’m just supposed to rejoice myself through the day,” and that’s certainly true. But Paul aimed it at the community, and part of the implications of that is, part of our job is to pursue joy and to rejoice together and to bring joy to each other.
Periodically, I run across articles that instill guilt in me about things like, “Are you being intentional about saving up enough money for the end of your life?”
They’ll do little charts — you know the kind of articles I’m talking about — where you’re supposed to put so much money aside per month, and if you don’t do that, you’re going to end up on the streets and so on.
Well, very rarely will you see an article that asks the question, are you invested enough in joy? Are you setting aside enough joy every month so that when you get to the end of your life you’ll be able to look back on it and say about it what God said about his creation — it’s good. It’s very good?
I recently read a letter a wife wrote to her husband reflecting on the fact that the date was approaching when her husband had always said, “This is when I’m going to retire so I can enjoy my family.”
But he passed away three years earlier. So that date came, and it brought great pain to her — because he was waiting for the end of his life to make a commitment to pursue joy.
So here’s the specific form I’d like for this challenge to take — take it on as a goal of your life to be the primary joy-giver in the lives of those around you.
Take it on as a goal of your life to be the primary joy-giver in the lives of those around you, especially to those who are closest to you.
I want to close by looking at the angels again, except this is in the book of Revelation. We’re told they’re worshiping God.
Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelation 4:8)
Now to be honest, when I first read that verse, it was difficult for me.
Because I remember hearing as a kid, “This is what we have to look forward to,” and thinking, “It sounds like a never-ending church service. That would be terrible.”
But this is actually a beautiful picture of joy.
I was thinking this week about when Lily, our oldest daughter, was 3 years old. We would go to Valle Vista park in Pleasanton. “The stinky park” is what we called it because it’s right next to the water treatment plant.
They have a twirly slide that we named “The ticket slide” because I would pop out at spots and tickle her as she went down the slide.
She would get to the bottom of the slide, stand up and say, “Let’s do it again. Let’s do it again.”
Let me tell you, we did it again, and we did it again. She would do it all day. She was so content, so deeply joyful.
We can learn a lot about joy from kids, can’t we?
I think of that time in Lily’s life when I read that passage from Revelation, to be so content, to be so safely held, to be so situated in this pervasive and good reality that all we can say is, “Again! Again!”
Repeat the sounding joy. Let’s do it again.
Alright, let me say a prayer and then we’re going to sing about this joy.
Blue Oaks Church