O come all ye miserable

What is Christmas all about?  We look forward to Christmas and all it brings, yet it’s hugely complicated and complex.  It’s like an articulated lorry.  Christmas is the cab, but with it comes the huge 44 tonne articulated trailer of expectations, traditions, and busyness that Christmas pulls around with it.  There’s the expectation of seeing the family – all of them at some point, of food cooked to perfection, of family time without conflict or needle, and certain family traditions that have to repeated year after year.

So often what comes with Christmas is what we mistake for Christmas.  So what is Christmas all about?  The angels sum it up beautifully “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  Christmas, the birth of Jesus brings not just a flicker of a smile, not just a temporary warm fuzzy feeling, not just joy but great joy, literally ‘mega-joy.’ It’s another of those great Christmas words.   It is on Christmas jumpers and cards and decorations; joy.  But what does it mean and how do we embrace it?  And how can we know great joy not just at Christmas?

Joy is a strong word.  It means to be glad, to be happy, to rejoice and celebrate.  And the Bible isn’t anti-joy, God isn’t a killjoy, the Bible is full of joy because God is the giver of joy.  It begins with God creating a world that is “very good” – overflowing with bounty and beauty.  And God puts Adam and Eve into that world to find joy in it.  That’s still true isn’t it?  Just think of 5 things that bring you joy, 5 things that make you happy?  Go on, stop and actually do it!.  They were all created by God because God is generous and provides things that bring joy.

As you read the Bible you see joy and rejoicing in all sorts of things.  There’s the joy of birthday and wedding celebrations.  There’s joy at feasting and celebrating victory in battle.  There’s joy in good wine.  Proverbs tells us a wise son bring joy to his parents.  In Song of Solomon there is joy and rejoicing in marriage and the intimacy it brings.  God is a joy giving God, every moment of joy we experience, from the joy of celebrating a last minute winner, to the birth of a child, or the joy of that first mouthful your favourite meal cooked to perfection, is given to us by a joy giving God.

But the Bible is also honest about the problem we have with joy.  Joy leaks.  It’s like a balloon or tyre with a slow puncture, it gradually lets us down.  In the world this side of the fall we’re tempted to seek joy in the gift when every gift was always intended to point us to joy in the giver.  And therein lies the problem, things bring us joy but that joy is only temporary.  We’re like a bucket with a hole, we have to constantly top our joy up to maintain any semblance of it.  Constantly seeking new joy.  But parties end, celebrations finish, our children aren’t always wise or delightful and nor are our parents, marriages are hard and so is intimacy, food spoils, wine turns, and reality intrudes.  Joy leaks.  And the danger is we become consumed by our search for joy, insatiably hungry for something it just can’t give us.

The joy we experience is meant to point us not to the gift but the giver.  But because of sin we tend to forget the giver in pursuit of the gift.  In the garden the real joy was relationship with God, but it is easily lost.

That’s not unique to us, it’s a universal problem.  It’s the problem of Israel.  They knew great joy.  They knew the joy of being saved miraculously from slavery, and brought through the Red Sea – we tend to think seeing a miracle would change everything but Israel are proof it doesn’t – because they soon grumble and moan and fixate on gifts not giver.  They’re given a land with houses built, vineyards dug and cities walled, but they soon become fixated on the gifts, trying to fill their bucket but unsatisfied because they forget the giver.  They’re gifted great prosperity and security under David and Solomon, they know joy, they celebrate, but it soon leaks away and they find themselves worshipping idols in their pursuit of joy as bad king follows bad king and they’re easily led away from God.  Until they end up exiled, but God brings them back to the land, but they never quite achieve the joy they crave.  It always falls just short, they always want more.That’s not just Israel’s story, that’s our story.  The search for happiness, for joy, fuels so much of what we do.  And we gain tantalising tastes of it, but our joy leaks.  That’s so often the story of Christmas isn’t it, the anticipation of the joy doesn’t always deliver.  It is good but it doesn’t satisfy, by the 3rd of January it has faded away.  But God wasn’t finished with Israel or us.

Because out God is a joy giving God. And the good news of Christmas is that great joy has come and it lasts.

As the angels proclaim “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  It’s because Jesus fulfils the promises God has been making.  In Isaiah 9v3 God promises the Son he gives will bring light into the darkness and wise rule that will increase their joy.  In Isaiah 25v9 God promises that one day he would save his people and they would rejoice in his salvation.  In Isaiah 51God promises he will look with compassion on his people, bring her joy and gladness that overflows in thanksgiving and singing because his righteousness draws near and his salvation is coming and will last forever.  In Isaiah 61 we read of God sending one who would be anointed by the Spirit, free captives, bind up the broken hearted, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, comfort those who mourn and clothe his people in garments of salvation and give them his robe of righteousness and they would rejoice.  Isn’t that staggering!

All those promises make a messianic mosaic along with the rest of the Old Testament, a picture built up over thousands of years of God’s promise to bring joy to his people.  But did you notice something?  The promise of joy was always connected to the promise of rescue, of salvation.  Because God is the source of joy.  We will only know real joy when we know the source of joy.  Sin separates us from God but God’s plan is to reconcile us to himself, not by giving us a list of things to do, not by putting us on the naughty or nice list, but by sending one who will give us his robe of righteousness, who will rescue and reconcile us to God.

And here’s the more amazing thing, the prophets didn’t just promise a day when God’s people would find joy in God come to them, salvation and righteousness gifted to them by faith, amazing though that is.  The promise is much bigger than that. Sometimes we short change salvation, by thinking Jesus saves us and pays off our debt to God.  We think of it like a massive debt we get into, so someone generously pays it off and we have a bank balance of zero, so we can start again without that debt hanging over us.  Too often that’s how we wrongly think about the salvation God promises.  Jesus pays our debt and gets us to zero, now I have to start earning God’s favour.  When I do good my spiritual account goes up, when I fail it’s like a spiritual direct debit.  God is pleased with me when I’m in the spiritual black.

But turn to and listen to Zephaniah 3v14-17.  God makes his people amazing promises, he promises that they’ll shout and be glad and rejoice because he has taken away their punishment, and he removes enemies and fears, God will save them, but listen to what comes next: 

“He will take great delight in you; 

in his love he will no longer rebuke you, 

but will rejoice over you with singing.”

God promises not just to send a saviour, a rescuer, who would reconcile his people to God.  This salvation would be so great that it wouldn’t just reset his peoples account to zero, but fill it with righteousness so that God delights in his people.  Isn’t that mind blowing?  It’s no wonder the angels proclaim good news that will bring mega joy – Jesus is the Saviour who saves from sin, reconciles, and credits us with his righteousness and makes us a delight to his father, not just at the point of our salvation, but as his people ever after as we follow him however imperfectly.

Is that how you picture God as he looks at you?  Delight, rejoicing with singing over you.  You should!  Christ’s riches are credited to our account and that is the source of our unending joy, the joy of the Lord is our strength.

Israel as the angels proclaim this are full of people who teach that in order to please God you must do this or that or the other.  They weigh people down with burdens, they were the dementors of joy, they sucked joy out of relationship with God as swifty as a spoonful of cinnamon sucks all the moisture out of your mouth.  Can’t we so easily slip into that mode?  But the angels proclaim such wonderful news.  The one who can bring you mega-joy is in the manger wrapped in cloths, go and see him.  The one who lifts burdens, who heals hurts, who gives you his righteousness has come and when you trust him God delights in you.

Maybe you need to let that truth wash over you, fill your heart, drive out the guilt, reset your thinking, and lead you to awestruck praise?  Our relationship with God gifted to us by faith in Jesus is not tenuous, it’s not always balanced on a knife edge depending on our behaviour, in Christ God delights in his people because they are clothed in his righteousness.  So praise him.  Anchor your joy in him. That’s how and why we’re free to make much of Christmas, that’s why we have the best news in the world to share with a world that is desperately seeking joy.

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