The Promise is Joy
13Then Isaiah* said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman* is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (God with us).
This is one of God’s Promises to be with us… a promise of hope. But what is one of the possible human responses to the Promise of hope; one that God wishes to inspire in us?
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.
John the Baptist even while in his mother’s womb recognizes the Promise of God and responds as a person should when encountering the presence of God… with unrestrained joy.
True joy comes from our acknowledging and responding to God’s Promise… Jesus… Immanuel; God with us… and God wants us to live lives of joy… to acknowledge and respond positively to God through faith in Jesus.
…do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
Just as God is love, God is also joy; where love and joy abound there can be no room for fear for “perfect love casts out fear” 1 John 8:18
Joy 1 a : the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires b : the expression or exhibition of such emotion 3 : a source or cause of delight
Joy is spoken of often in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments (joy in one form or another—including rejoice—is found almost exactly 400 times. Compare this with love-586; glory-468; mercy-310; and faith-275) and in different ways depending upon the situation the writer found themselves in (this includes happiness from married life and family to particularly harvest. Overwhelmingly though, these examples are related to God—some attribute or action of God in relationship with God’s people and our response of joy.
In the Old Testament, difficult times (times of war, famine, poverty, oppression etc.) the experience of joy became the anticipation of God’s deliverance from whatever it was they were being subject to either because of their faith or their lack of faith and so joy became a central theme in their eschatological hope—their hope in God’s promises of salvation in the coming of God’s anointed or Christ and again in the coming Son of Man.
As Christians, we understand and believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise and hope and so the source and object of joy.
This is a key theme in Luke’s gospel beginning with the angel’s announcement to Zechariah in the temple, that he and his wife would have a son and they would have “joy” at his birth because of who he was and what he would do in relation to the coming of Jesus; again in the passage for this morning; the pronouncement of the angel to the shepherds; throughout his ministry and his resurrection. As seen in John’s gospel, our relationship with Jesus is a source of our joy as believers.
The Apostle Paul argues that our joy in Christ can be experienced even during trials and troubles in life as an expression of our faith. He understands them to be temporary (agreed a subjective term but from God’s perspective all of existence is temporary) and as such should not dampen the joy we experience in life. In addition he believes that these difficult times suggest that the pending completion or consummation of God’s promise and our hope and so should heighten our joy. In circumstances where our hardship can be understood as being experienced because of our faith, Paul argues it is an extension or reflection of Jesus’ own suffering and so cause for more rejoicing.
God wants us to experience joy… Jesus tells us that he wants his joy to be in us so that our joy may be complete. Paul reminds us of this when talking about the character traits of Jesus that we receive when given the gift of the Person of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—and the fruit of the Spirit, one of which is joy!
I think we also need to stop and think for a moment about the character and nature of God… God’s attributes. Scripture tells us that God is love, God is peace and so also God is joy. God not only evokes these responses in us but God is the source of them for God “is” these things. We experience them in different ways as human beings but in God they could be considered interchangeable but most certainly they are so intimately inter-related as to be indistinguishable… much like the Triune nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
These ideas are important because they help us think about how we can understand and experience joy in our own lives.
Think about people’s situation and response from the passage from Isaiah and in the early part of the gospel when God breaks into their lives.
Ahaz—king of Judah is going to be besieged and is in fear for the future; Zechariah—aging, he and his wife Elizabeth past child bearing years and childless, without hope; Mary—a young girl engaged to be married and with bright prospects for the future only to hear that that future all of a sudden doesn’t look to bright; Joseph—Mary’s betrothed… he has just found out his fiancée is pregnant and faces disgrace
God comes to each and says do not fear… the promise is that God is or will be with them and will see them through whatever is going to take place. And what does God say to each of them… do not be afraid…
Their response? Ahaz refused to accept God’s word out of fear. Zechariah questioned and doubted. Mary and Joseph accepted God’s word and acted upon it. But nowhere in these passages is the word joy mentioned, so why bring them up? The passage from Nehemiah is my clue.
Ezra instructs the people not to grieve; which here literally means “not to worry.” That the joy of the Lord will give them strength… will give them courage to do what they need to do.
Think back to the situations that we listed before. Ahaz worried and did not act on God’s word. Zechariah while he certainly wasn’t the example of faith of Mary and Joseph did not doubt any longer. Mary and Joseph, accepted God’s word to them and acted. In a sense you could say that they acknowledged God’s joy in choosing them and that joy provided them the courage to act in faith.
Think back to God and God’s attribute of love casting out all fear… all worry and read that with the passage from Nehemiah in mind and the responses of the folks.
This can help us to understand how Paul talked about he experienced joy during all of the trials and hardships of his ministry for Jesus… the joy of the Lord was his strength.
Does this mean that when we have feelings of happiness when things are going right we should not call it joy? To quote the Apostle Paul… “By No Means!” Of course we can experience joy and celebrate the blessings in life that involve success and good fortune! The Bible is full of examples of those. But we should not limit our understanding of joy and God’s desire for us to experience it to only that understanding.
The reason, I believe, that we sometimes don’t understand that joy can be experienced during difficult times in our lives is that we misplace the source of our joy as well as the object of our joy. The Bible is clear that God is both. And as Christians we experience that in the Person of Jesus Christ… the incarnation of God… Immanuel… God with us… that is God’s Promise to us.
The question we may ponder, especially in light of everything that’s going on in the world around us… political unrest, international conflict, questionable economy, unemployment, the reality of death in our own families and communities… the question we many ponder is, “how do I respond?” Do I refuse to believe God’s Word to me? Do I doubt and question? Or do I take courage in God’s Promise… do I take courage in the abiding presence of Jesus… and live in faith… with joy? For myself, for my family, for those near and for those far away. For the Promise is for all that the Lord our God calls.