Joy is a Christmas word and is the opposite of grief.
Joy is certainly one of those stock phrases of the season. You could send a Christmas card to people with the simple word “joy” emblazoned on the front and a picture of your family inside and it would be enough. But what does “joy” mean? Joy must be like happiness, but somehow deeper.
Perhaps we can gain some wisdom if we think about the opposite of joy which would be grief. Grief is related to sadness, but sadness is short – your team loses a chance to make the playoffs, you score a grade lower in a class than you were thinking, you couldn’t get tickets to the Star Wars opening this past weekend. Grief is different. You mourn when you lose someone you love, when your marriage falls apart or when your dreams are shattered. You move through these and you can learn to cope in this new reality, but you are never the same. The mark of that grief never leaves you even as we move through the good times of life, a tinge of the reality lose is with you. So joy is like that on the other side. There is a satisfaction, a peace, a rejoicing deep in our souls that is there even when we go through hard times. Joy is a happiness that leaves a mark, a goodness that stays with you. We know only too well what causes grief. What could ever cause us joy?
The hymn “Joy to the World,” hints at the source of joy.
The Hymn invites us to joy as we make room for God
Joy to the world, the Lord has come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing
And heaven and heaven and nature sing
Joy to the world the savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and flood rocks hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy
So here is an invitation to joy in two parts:
“Let every heart prepare room.” God has come but you need to open your heart to him. In one sense this invitation can have an odd connotation. To “prepare room” in your heart for God makes it sounds like you are doing God a favor, as if this is like adopting a puppy from the rescue people: “Do you have room in your heart for Sparky?”
And at the same time the one coming into your heart is not a puppy, but the king and the one who causes heaven and nature to sing. The second verse says “field and floods rocks hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy.” God has come to us. We must invite him in and yet he is one that causes all nature to rejoice.
What does scripture say?
Isaiah 55 invites us to meet our deep longing by returning to God.
For those of you who know something about Isaiah, the verses that talk about the child born of a virgin and named Immanuel are in Isaiah 7-11. Another famous passage in Isaiah is in chapters 52-53, where it talks about the suffering servant: “we all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way and God has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Here we are looking at Isaiah 55 where the prophet talks about receiving God forgiveness, recovering from the wilderness and returning to God.
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.
Here Isaiah is inviting us to drink what we need and eat what we need, all without cost. He tells us to stop spending on what does not satisfy. In other words Isaiah is saying “let every heart prepare him room,” but instead of you doing God a favor – making a little room for the big guy – you are coming and drink. This invitation is a matter of life and death. This King who has come to earth is the thing you are hungering for, the one your soul is thirsting for. Do not spend your money on what is not bread. And just so that we don’t lose him in the metaphorical language he says in verse 3, “give ear and come to me, listen that you may live.”
So responding to God at Christmas is not about making a little room in your heart for God, as if he would make a good holiday even better like snow on Christmas eve or a warm fireplace on a cold night. He is saying, responding and receiving God is a matter of life or death, of drinking water or dying of thirst. The price has been paid “God has laid on him the sin of us all.” It has been paid but you still need to respond.
These terms are all figurative language for the acknowledgement of your need for God through Jesus: make room, come and eat, receive Jesus.
Ok so why all the nature imagery, why “field and flood,” why “and heaven and nature sing?”
Your salvation prefigures the restoration of all the earth.
Look what it says in this passage later when it pictures the people returning to the land of Israel after the end of their exile.
12 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn bush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”
Here is joy again: “You will go out with joy.” Why? Because you are going home and the exile is over. This is someone coming home from the hospital having finished up chemo and declared cancer free; this is someone getting out of prison or someone who has finished a dangerous tour of duty coming home. It is a college student coming home, finals finished and all that is left now is to do a month’s worth of Christmas shopping in three days.
You shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace and all nature will respond. Why is this imagery?
The key word is thorn bush – it is a sign of the curse on the earth. God created the world, all of nature, good. And he created us for fellowship with himself. We broke that relationship and we bring a curse to the physical world as well. Natural disasters and disease are marks of the brokenness of the physical world. One day, at the end of time, God will remake heaven and earth and all cruses, crying and pain will be over. Every time one of us responds to God’s call of reconciliation –we make room in our hearts — it is a picture of the perfect new world to come. That is why with the eyes of faith we can see the hills clap their hands.
The hymn says “he has come to make his presence known, far as the curse is found.” The curse brings broken relationships, pain and sickness, and damage to creation. So every time we help someone reconcile with God through Jesus we are doing Kingdom work; every time we bring reconciliation between two people we do kingdom work and every time we care for creation we do Kingdom work.
But for today what we want to remember that our reconciliation with God brings joy to God, to us and to all of creation. The knowledge that we have opened our hearts to God, the creator of the universe, the one our hearts and souls long for, is the foundation of joy because it is a relationship that he initiated. That relationship never ends and one day he will bring us into his presence in a new heaven and remade earth. This is the knowledge and peace that sits deep in our hearts and brings us joy. This joy softens the mourning of life, carries us through superficial disappointments and allows us real peace even in times of uncertainty. God knows me, God is for me, I am forgiven because of the price he paid for me.
Conclusion – make room for your heart for your king
Will you make room in your heart for the God of all creation? Will you drink from the fountain of life, eat from the bread of life and give your life to the God who died for you?