As we try to voice what happened in Newtown, Connecticut last week, there just are not words that can fully articulate the tremendous grief and unexplainable sorrow. Connecticut officials have confirmed 27 people—including 20 children—died after a lone gunman entered an elementary school and started shooting. How can there be joy when we have so many questions? How can we be happy when there is so much sadness? How could we possibly be celebrate this Christmas?
It’s reported that many are taking down their Christmas decorations. But the deep woes of this life don’t make Christmas less palatable. They make it more urgent.
Then an angel of the Lord stood before [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David. -Luke 2:9-11
While the shepherds were going about their normal, daily routine, Luke tells us that the appearance of the angel and the radiant glory of the Lord terrified them. The Greek for “terrified” (lit, “they feared a great fear”) stresses the intensity of this fear. At first, they were anything but merry.
Still today, there is no shortage of things that cause us to fear great fears: violence on the streets and in our schools, economic crises and fiscal cliffs, healthcare reform and personal health concerns, relational struggles and family splits. There are so many things in this world that that we have to endure that quite frankly, terrify us.
We have an unspeakable joy that transforms our lives, however, because of God’s good news. What is the good news? The angel tells us: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you.
This birth that brings forth joy lifts us up above our circumstances and focuses our attention on the very character of God. Great joy doesn’t come from within our hearts or from our circumstances. Great joy comes from God who longs to reign in our hearts and transform how we view our circumstances.
First, we have unspeakable joy because this baby born is Bethlehem is a Savior, which is expressed in His name, Jesus. We have joy in victory over death. Throughout Luke “joy” (χαρά) is often associated with salvation. In the angel’s announcement, it’s the event of Jesus’ birth that is the source of the shepherds’ joy.
If our greatest need had been information,
God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology,
God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money,
God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure,
God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness,
so God sent us a Savior.
-Roy Lessin, Dayspring
Secondly, we have unspeakable joy because He is our Messiah, the Anointed of God, the Deliverer of Israel, the long-expected King. We have unspeakable joy in a future glory, in our future inheritance, that is ours because He is coming again. This kind of joy looks beyond the present to our future salvation and to our sovereign God, who works out all things for our ultimate good, which is Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:28–30).
Third, we have an unspeakable joy because He is the Lord, God manifest in the flesh, Immanuel, God with us. The Christmas carol, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing reminds us,
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Because Jesus left His throne in heaven to humble Himself as a servant, we have unspeakable joy in our daily lives.
At the end of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, he narrates the Savior’s ascension into heaven.
Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. And while He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up into heaven. After worshiping Him, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they were continually in the temple complex praising God. Luke 24:50–53
The disciples returned from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem joyful because they finally understood the good news of great joy. The joy and praise filling the disciples following Jesus’ appearance and ascension to heaven has continued in the life of the church for nearly 2,000 years. The good news of great joy has been passed down from generation to generation regardless of the bad news that continues to circulate. The shepherds, the wise men and the disciples of Jesus set a good example for us. We, too, should worship, rejoice, and praise God with joy as we eagerly await the fulfillment of all that He has promised.
This kind of joy that comes from the good news is distinct from mere happiness. Joy like this is possible, even in the midst of sorrow – regardless of circumstances.
As the author of Hebrews explains, Jesus Himself endured the cross of crucifixion for the joy set before Him and never lost His joy in the midst of betrayal, poverty, injustice, loneliness, pain, suffering, slander, and even death (Hebrews 12:1-3). Jesus was single-minded in His mission to pursue God’s glory in heaven and our salvation on earth. He lived without things we typically associate with joy—health, wealth, sex, and comfort—yet He is the freest person who ever lived. Whenever we have a tendency to grow weary and discouraged, we should think of what He went through. Our trials and fears will seem trifling by comparison.
Joy to the World, one of the most cheerful and well-known of all Christmas carols, emphasizes the reverent but ecstatic joy that Christ’s birth brought to mankind. It was not originally written as a Christmas carol, however, but as a response to the desire for Christ’s second coming. For centuries hearts had yearned for God to reveal Himself personally. At last it happened as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It truly was, and remains today, good news of great joy that is for all the people.
Heavenly Father, like the shepherds, we are kneeling at a manger. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. This Christmas, we ask You to heal us, help us, be born anew in us. Bring Your joy into our world and into our hearts.