25 December 2022

Joy. What even is it? And how do you get it?

Ah, Christmas, a season that teases us with good times, pleasures and happiness - to have a holly jolly Christmas, to have yourself a merry little Christmas, tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la. Apparently, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. You might be getting a few days off work, off your diet, maybe reunited with friends and family, the emails slow down, or you just ignore them, you sleep in, take a trip to the beach or the boxing day test match. Ham, more ham. Perhaps you really love today and this week. 

Or perhaps it’s NOT the most wonderful time of the year because it’s the time when you most feel the absence of family. You skipped putting up the tree because no one would see it, or you did but there are no presents under it and no feast to enjoy with others. Perhaps you are cleaning up from floods, or longing for rain in east Africa, or longing for peace in Ukraine. Whether you experience all those Christmas feel good vibes this year, or feel like its escaped you once again this year, I wonder if you would notice two things:

1. All those hopes for the comfort of connection and intimacy, and inclusion with other, to come and sit around a table, eat good food, laugh to sing, to delight others with a gift, to feel loved with a gift or a card or kind word, to feel like you can truly relax in safety - are all universal desires woven into our humanity. We all desire this.
2. And those common desires point to an even deeper, often unspoken belief that IF the world could be put right, IF communities and families and IF our lives could be put right, these are the kind of delights we would know. Let me say that another way – our desire in Christmas for happiness, pleasure, connection and love are signposts pointing to a world we were all made for and hope for. And when we catch a glimpse of that world and that life, and feel it’s impact in some small way – we have a word for that. Do you know what we call it? It's one of the most elusive, slippery, misunderstood words in our Christmas vocabulary. Do you know what it is? 

The funny thing about joy is that we use the world but when pressed, don't really know what it means. Joy is quite hard to define, it seems to resist definition like trying to define a colour. So, we often just think joy = really happy - like those crazy Argentinians after winning the world cup last week. We reduce it to feeling of happiness or delight. But is that it? I don't think so.

When Christians sing “joy to the world”, when we think about joy, yes it is a kind of happy emotion but this joy is not tied to happiness. This joy’s existence is not limited to being on the winning team, or life going to plan, or having your desires satisfied.

Reading through many instances of the word joy in the New Testament, a definition of this joy starts to form:
  • An angel announcing to the shepherd’s good news of a great JOY – about the in breaking of God, a saviour, the birth of a messiah, the Lord.
  • Wise men we read are OVERJOYED at seeing a star that would lead them to a great king – the king that the heavens above would even be moving for.
  • Simeon, an old devout man of God, joyfully praising God at the sight of the baby Jesus saying I can now die in peace because I have seen the one who will be the light to all nations.
  • The parables Jesus told of discovering God’s kingdom like a treasure found in a field or a fine peal – and in the JOY of discovery, selling everything to have it. Or the joy finding of a lost coin, or sheep or son.
  • The 72 disciples returning from a day of ministry with great JOY at seeing how the work of the devil was overpowered by the name of Jesus
  • The JOY Jesus spoke of in heaven when one sinner repents and Jesus himself, for the JOY set before him, the joy of saving a broken world.. endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. What I notice in all these instances is that 
These instances reveal to me that joy is what people encounter when they behold, or better still, get involved in something of real substance, beauty or eternal significance in God’s vision for life...because as they do, they catch a glimpse of the world as it is in heaven, a glimpse of the world made right and the life they were made for and long for. 

Unconvinced? Well, when do people experience misery and despair? Usually when the world is not as it ought to be – when their lives collide with tragedy or suffering. And so by contrast, when do they experience a kind of joy? When the world is as it ought to be and they collide with a flourishing life, with love, beauty, selflessness or compassion.

This I think is why joy is so hard to have in a broken world. This is why you may feel like you never feel joy. Unlike “happy” or “pleasure” which we can somewhat orchestrate, joy is, as CS Lewis put it, "never in our power." Joy finds you more than you find it. You can’t buy it or manufacture it. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it and touches down like lightening for a flash then seems to go just as quickly. Again, as CS Lewis wrote many years ago in his autobiography, “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be'”.

If you have ever known or encountered true joy, even for a moment, you want it again. But how? Here are 2 ways to invite Joy to touch down into your life this Christmas and beyond it:

1.Behold – God’s world come and coming. “Behold” means, to fix your eyes, to focus with attention and care; don’t miss it! Paul encouraged the church in Philippi to rejoyce always, and as a way of living that he encourages them to think about "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Behold them, fix your thoughts and vision on them!

Those magi, shepherds and Simeon –they searched, and saw and they beheld– fixed their eyes on not just a baby in a manger – but who this baby would be and do, and in doing so caught a glimpse of on earth as in heaven. A revelation of the glory of another world coming in Christ – a king, a messiah a lord. 

Behold Jesus! Every one of those witnesses to the birth of Jesus had something to get over or see beyond when they beheld that baby in a peasant stable, and all through history that’s still the same. Joy needs a different kind of vision. Whatever historical or cultural clutter you have today, whatever reluctance or disappointment or misapprehensions – the invitation is to come and see, to behold the wonder of Jesus for yourself  for this is the greatest intervention of love and miracle the world has known. As Dorothy Sayers famously wrote of Jesus:

The most high is coming low, God is coming down, becoming one of us. God is greater than we thought and we are more sinful. For whatever reason God chose us to allow us to be limited, suffer, sorrows and death, he has nonetheless the honesty and integrity to take his own medicine and step into it himself. He can ask nothing of us he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience. From the trivial limitations of family life and the cramping limitation of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation and defeat and despair and death. He was Born in poverty, died in disgrace, suffered infinite pain and he thought it all well worth his while. 

2. Become - join in on God’s kingdom coming. In John 15 Jesus explicitly says that he desires that His JOY to be in them and explains that the secret to living in joy is in keeping his commandments. He says “If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and remain in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you." (John15:10-12)

So, inviting joy into my life can take place as we see differently and it can take place when I join in. Join in what?

Letting Jesus love you - Love one another Jesus said, just as I have loved you. Let this be your foundation in life - that God delights in you with a steadfast love. That your worth, meaning and purpose flow from realising just how much God loves you. And in the overflow of His love...

To love others with that same sacrifice and generosity. As we do Jesus says, we join in on the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven….and that’s when we experience Jesus’ Joy. I have found that the closest I get to joy in life is when I see others touched by compassion, grace, generosity, and love. When I see people seeing a glimpse of the world as it ought to be in the faces, hands and feet of those who are bringing it. Jesus next words in John 15 unpack that further, he says.. "greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends."

And this is what I hope you see for yourself – the greatest love and life we can behold is Jesus. He was born into poverty, died in disgrace, suffered infinite pain and he thought it all well worth his while. He thought it all JOY to enter into our humanity, to let heaven and earth collide, and lay down his life to give us a way into His joy. So that, no matter what happens, whether it’s a holly jolly Christmas or its not the best time of the year - joy is a gift available to us all, as we each behold God who became one of us, as we receive Jesus as our king who loves us, and join in with Jesus in loving others with the same love we’ve received.

Ahh we so easily settle for self-made happiness when we can invite joy into our life. Like those first witnesses, come let us adore HIM– and as you rightly behold Jesus – you glimpse the true joy of Christmas. If you want to encounter true joy, invite Jesus into your life this Christmas! Jesus doesn’t offer happiness or pleasure, but joy to the world. May his Joy be in you this Christmas and in the year ahead.