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“What’s There to Rejoice In?”

Dec.11, 2011 Is.61:6-11/various


On this third Sunday in Advent, traditionally the readings and worship have carried a theme of ‘joy’ - as reflected in the pink colour of this week’s Advent candle. And rightly so, for, while Jesus said others would know we are Christians by our love, it’s also true that joy should be one of the distinguishing characteristics for those who have been redeemed by the Son of God and are waiting with hope for His coming again in glory.
    We are ‘about’ joy. For instance: Leon Bloy said - “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Samuel M Shoemaker went so far as to state, “ The surest mark of a Christian is not faith, or even love, but joy.” Or, to put it another way, Billy Sunday quipped: “If you have no joy in your religion, there’s a leak in your Christianity somewhere.”
    Yet, as an editorial in The Citizen remarked this week, it’s all too easy for any ‘good news’ to get lost in the media’s quest to sell papers based on ‘bad news’. Yes, in many ways, the world is in a mess. The Eurozone teeters on the brink of monetary collapse. Countries, like households, haven’t learned to live within their means. And we are all too aware of the grief and suffering that disease wreaks in our neighbourhoods. Yet even in the worst circumstances, families facing tragedy (such as Mr Nonkes’) find that Christ’s victory over the grave enables them to face the worst with faith and hope based on the promises in God’s word.
    Unfortunately, many congregations have forgotten the reason they have for joy; they have slipped into patterns of stoic glumness. There’s not much expression of joy apparent. Vance Havner writes, “Today the same church member who yells like a Comanche Indian at a football game sits like a wooden Indian in the house of God on Sunday.” Even church leaders and pastors can fall into this trap. Famous Britisher Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.” (!)
    So today let’s embark on a quick Bible survey to rediscover the grounds a Scriptural worldview holds out for having joy.


To begin, many times the Bible reminds us it’s reason enough to rejoice IN GOD: He alone, in Himself, is cause for joy, and gives joy to His people. “And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy.The women and children also rejoiced.The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.” (Ne 12:43) “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.” (Ps 4:7) “I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.” (Ps 9:2) “Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight.I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.” (Ps 43:4) Leaders are included as those who ought to rejoice: “But the king will rejoice in God; all who swear by God’s name will praise him, while the mouths of liars will be silenced.” (Ps 63:11) This extends all the way to the lower echelons of society: “Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.” (Isa 29:19) (see also - Ps 97:12; 149:2)
His character:
Believers can rejoice in God basically because of WHO HE IS - His character, His holy and good divine attributes. This is summarized by referring to God’s “name” - a shorthand way of referring to the person as they are essentially. “They rejoice in your name all day long; they exult in your righteousness.” (Ps 89:16) “Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.” (Ps 105:3) Now, Psalm 100 starts off on a very joyful note, but it’s not until the closing verses that it lists the reasons FOR rejoicing – these reasons turn out to be God’s qualities: “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs...[WHY? SKIP TO V5] For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” (Ps 100:1-2,5)
In His Presence:
Scripture also suggests God’s very presence, being close to Him, seeing His beauty and adorable-ness in might, is cause to rejoice. “Splendour and majesty are before him; strength and joy in his dwelling place.” (1Ch 16:27) “He prays to God and finds favour with him, he sees God’s face and shouts for joy...” (Job 33:26) “I have set the LORD always before me.Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure...” (Ps 16:8-9) There’s pleasure just in being near God: “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Ps 16:11) “And I— in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.” (Ps 17:15) “Surely you have granted him eternal blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence.” (Ps 21:6) And Psalm 46 has a verse that seems mysterious, but in light of the New Testament, points to the Holy Spirit living inside those who believe in Christ as the source of their joy: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.” (Ps 46:4)
    There is joy in the presence of the Lord. Vance Havner notes: “In John 20:20 we read, ‘Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.’ Here we have the secret of Christian joy: it turns upon those two words, ‘then’ and ‘when.’ It does not read, ‘Then were the disciples glad when they saw themselves or their circumstances...’ We do not even read that the disciples were glad when they saw a particular doctrine about the Lord...We are glad only when and as we see the Lord.”
    The king of a particular country travelled often, but one day a man living near the palace remarked to a friend, “Well, it looks like the king is home tonight.” “How do you know?” asked the other. The man pointed up toward the royal house. “Because when the king is home;” he said, “the castle is all lit up.”
    Is that little metaphor true of us? When the King is at home in us, are we ‘lit up’ with joy? A city on a hill can’t be hid. If you go out in the countryside at night, you can often tell where Goderich or Kitchener or some other distant town is by the light up in the sky – not because you see the city directly, but because you see the light reflected. So our joy as Christians draws attention to Jesus’ presence within.
    God’s Presence results in deeds in our midst; God shows Himself great by the way He works in our lives. “Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world.Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.” (Isa 12:5-6)
Immanent in the Messiah:
As the Old Testament progressed, excitement began to build as the prophets predicted a Messiah or Christ, an ‘Anointed One’ who would lead God’s people into His victory. God would in fact be present among them through the person of the Messiah. “"Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you," declares the LORD.” (Zec 2:10)
    Before Jesus was crucified, He told His disciples that He would be present with them again miraculously after rising from the dead; and His presence would bring them special joy. “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (Joh 16:22)
    The Apostle Peter, writing to the early church, described how their faith in the One they couldn’t see still inspired joy: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy...” (1Pe 1:8)
In communion / connection:
The New Testament writers began to speak of God’s Spirit coming not just ‘upon’ people but dwelling inside us; Paul could say, “Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:20) So Christians experience God’s presence in a mystical sense as right with us, and deeper than that, inside us, in a close communion or inner connection. Oswald Chambers said, “The joy that Jesus gives is the result of our disposition being at one with his own disposition.”
    This mystical union for the person who trusts in Jesus may be experienced most intimately in prayer. A very key passage for Jesus was this one from Isaiah 56: “these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations."” (Isa 56:7) You will recall how Jesus risked the wrath of the religious leaders by ‘house-cleaning’ the temple of mercantilists on that basis.
    Other New Testament passages suggest that joy is the hallmark of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling: “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” (Ac 13:52) “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Ro 14:17) “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, [2nd in the list!] peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness...” (Ga 5:22)
    Many people have been taught J-O-Y means Jesus first, Others next, and Yourself last. (While that emphasizes love for neighbour and humility, it’s a shame if it somehow becomes a saying by which we put ourselves down.) But in a Christmas sermon in 1998, Pastor Phil Toole in Scottsdale, Arizona, put it differently:
“The ‘J’ stands for Jesus,” said Pastor Toole. “The ‘Y’ stands for you. Do you know what the ‘O’ stands for? It stands for zero.Just what it says—nothing.What I am saying here is the way to stay close to Jesus and keep joy in your heart is let nothing between Jesus and you.”


Along with rejoicing in God for Himself and His inherent qualities, the Old Testament’s predominant note is rejoicing in the salvation or deliverance God brings about, saving His people. You may recall Hannah’s struggle with barrenness before God enabled her to conceive Samuel: “Then Hannah prayed and said: "My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high.My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.” (1Sa 2:1) In the psalms, the focus is often on God’s rescue of Israel as a nation from its enemies: “O LORD, the king rejoices in your strength.How great is his joy in the victories you give!” (Ps 21:1) The prophet Isaiah: “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.” (Isa 9:3) Coming to the New Testament, the Jesus-event is kicked off by the angel announcing its significance to lowly shepherds: “But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you...” (Lu 2:10) A WHAT? A Saviour - Jesus, Jeshua, saving people from their sins.
On a Personal level:
Bible verses celebrate God’s help or deliverance on a personal scale as well as for the group-at-large. “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy...” (Ps 30:11) “But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, "Let God be exalted!"” (Ps 70:4) “I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her saints will ever sing for joy.” (Ps 132:16) In Acts 8, Philip’s ministry saw many people in Samaria delivered from evil spirits, and many paralytics and cripples healed; “So there was great joy in that city.” (Ac 8:8)(See also: Ps 9:14; 13:5;35:9; 51:12; 105:43)
God’s deliverance also carries a sense of being protected from harm in an ongoing way. “But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy.Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.” (Ps 5:11)
There’s also God’s provision for people’s physical needs. “Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given you the autumn rains in righteousness. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before.” (Joe 2:23)
The Old Testament speaks of God’s restoration of people’s fortunes after disaster or invasion. “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!” (Ps 14:7) “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When God restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!” (Ps 53:6) “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Ps 85:6) “the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD...For I will restore the fortunes of the land as they were before,’ says the LORD.” (Jer 33:11)
God’s comfort is also a cause for joy; note the word ‘for’ highlighting WHY we rejoice: “Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.” (Isa 49:13)
There’s also an element of being redeemed, bought-back, set free from the dominion or slavery of enemies or evil: “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you— I, whom you have redeemed.” (Ps 71:23) Think of the Ethiopian eunuch after his encounter with Philip the Evangelist in the desert: “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.” (Ac 8:39) Or, there’s the jailer in Philippi after the earthquake when Paul preaches to the household and the whole family is converted: “The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God— he and his whole family.” (Ac 16:34) For any believer, there’s a joy that fills our heart when we first come to trust in Christ as Saviour: Paul says, “...we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Ro 5:11)


The Bible itself prompts joy when we read it, understand it, and by the Spirit’s illumination sense God speaking to us directly through its pages. God’s Word provides a sound structure and solid framework for our lives. From the very intentional time of starting off on a Scriptural basis for the returned exiles in Nehemiah, after a special high wooden platform is built for the priests and Levites to read the Book of the Law and interpret it so everyone could understand: “Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.” (Ne 8:12) Psalm 119 is a long poem highlighting the excellence of God’s teaching: “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.” (Ps 119:14) “I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.” (Ps 119:16) “Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” (Ps 119:111) “I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil.” (Ps 119:162) Jeremiah the prophet felt this way about what God revealed to him: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O LORD God Almighty.” (Jer 15:16)
    Norman Vincent Peale once visited a friend in the hospital. He had previously had one leg amputated and now he had lost his other one.Nevertheless, he seemed happy and enthusiastic. “Everyone tells me you are the happiest person in the hospital,” said Dr Peale.“You are not putting it on, are you?” “No, no, I am as happy as can be.” “Let me in on your secret,” Peale asked. “Do you see that little book lying over there on the table?” the man said, pointing to the Bible. “There is where I get my medicine. When I feel a little low, I just read that Book.”


Besides our deliverance from judgment and God’s wrath, we can also be joyful on account of the portion He has prepared for us in heaven, which no earthly disaster can touch. Jesus said to the disciples, “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Lu 10:20) Paul wrote to the Romans, “...we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” (Ro 5:2) “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Ro 12:12) To the Colossians: “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” (Col 1:12) Here’s one that sounds very odd in our materialistic culture: how would we accept our possessions being taken away? “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Heb 10:34)
    Real joy comes from knowing our ‘portion’ is not the best this life can offer - but instead savouring life with God in our spirit, and anticipating what’s He’s prepared for those who love Him. C. S. Lewis wrote, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” Elsewhere Lewis added: “Joy is never in our power, and pleasure is.I doubt whether anyone who has tasted joy would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasure in the world.”
Answered prayer:
Jesus encouraged His followers to ask for their needs to be met, so they might experience the joy of answered prayer: “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” (Jn 16:24)


Joy is very different from happiness; it’s an inner attitude fuelled by one’s relationship with Jesus, not an emotion that comes or goes depending on happy or disagreeable circumstances. The Bible expects Christians to be able to have joy continually. Paul commanded, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1Th 5:16-18) So as you can see, it’s not just Paul’s command, but God’s will for us - His intention.
    Habakkuk 3:17-18 really stands out in teaching how joy is possible even when there’s nothing circumstantially to be ‘happy’ about. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Hab 3:17f)
    Jesus outlines how joy can be ours even when we’re persecuted: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.” (Lu 6:22-23) You’re in noble company!
    Paul the apostle knew how to have joy despite trouble: “I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.” (2Co 7:4) He could even say, “...for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2Co 12:10) James puts it even more bluntly: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds...” (Jas 1:2)
Even When Suffering:
Here we come across one of the most astonishing and notable features joy for the Christian: joy can be had even when suffering. That just doesn’t make sense in the eyes of an ordinary person! Suffering - and joy?!! But look at how Paul describes the experience of the believers in Thessalonica: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” (1Th 1:6) Writing to the Corinthians, “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” (2Co 8:2) And Peter could tell the church, “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (1Pe 4:13)
    James Guthrie, Scottish Worthy, went to the scaffold because of his faith in Christ. In telling his story, Jock Purves writes, “James Guthrie ever kept through his busy life his own personal fellowship with Christ in the fresh joyous bloom of his new birth, as if he had been but a young convert.” Waking about 4 A.M.on the day he was to be executed, Guthrie spent time in personal worship, and was asked by his friend James Cowie how he felt. “Very well;’ replied Guthrie. “‘This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.’”


What EFFECT should joy have in our lives? How will we EXPRESS it? Repeatedly, Scripture links joy with singing, shouting - giving voice to the joy Jesus has put within us. Rabbi Elimelekh said, “It is good if man can bring about that God sings within him.”
From the Psalms: “Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!” (Ps 32:11) “I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her saints will ever sing for joy.” (Ps 132:16) The prophet Isaiah: “And you will sing as on the night you celebrate a holy festival; your hearts will rejoice as when people go up with flutes to the mountain of the LORD, to the Rock of Israel.” (Isa 30:29) “and the ransomed of the LORD will return.They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads.” (Isa 35:10) “Sing for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the LORD has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel.” (Isa 44:23) Zephaniah: “Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!” (Zep 3:14)
    Coming to the New Testament, Paul and James similarly suggest music is key to expressing our joy. “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord...” (Eph 5:18-19) “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” (Jas 5:13)
    Composer Franz Joseph Haydn, recalling his struggles while working on a certain sacred work, wrote, “I prayed to God—not like a miserable sinner in despair— but calmly, slowly. In this I felt that an infinite God would surely have mercy on his finite creature, pardoning dust for being dust. These thoughts cheered me up. I experienced a sure joy so confident that as I wished to express the words of the prayer, I could not express my joy, but gave vent to my happy spirits and wrote above the Miserere, ‘Allegro’.” (Note: the Miserere was a penitential section based on Psalm 51, starting ‘Have mercy on me O God’, and would normally be performed at a more slow and sombre tempo; instead, he instructed it to be performed ‘allegro’, quickly..) Haydn’s resulting music was so ebullient in temperament that it was actually criticized by the sterner members of the church.His reply: “Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving Him cheerfully.”
    When Haydn pondered the reality of a God who really cared for him, he said his heart “leapt for joy.” He could not prevent his music from expressing the same exuberance — even when the music was conveying the faith’s more sombre themes.
Expression important:
There’s something about expressing it that makes joy complete – kind of like when you’ve had a good meal, the experience isn’t complete until you’ve praised the cook and told everyone around the table how satisfying it was. Jesus’ high priestly prayer suggests expression is linked to joy: He says to His Heavenly Father, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” (Jn 17:13) Likewise John says in his letter, “We write this to make our joy complete.” (1Jn 1:4) There was something about EXPRESSING it that completed, rounded-out, the joy.
    As we express our joy, that has impact on the world around us. Charles Spurgeon comments: “Holy joy will oil the wheels of your life’s machinery.Holy joy will strengthen you for your daily labour.Holy joy will beautify you and give you an influence over the lives of others.”
    The famous missionary CT Studd once traveled to China on a ship whose captain was an embittered opponent of Christianity and who often studied the Bible for the sole reason of arguing with the missionaries who frequently sailed on his ship. When he learned that Studd was aboard his ship, the captain lit into him. But instead of arguing with him, Studd put his arm around the captain and said, “But, my friend, I have a peace that passeth all understanding and a joy that nothing can take away:” The captain finally replied, “You’re a lucky dog,” and walked away. Before the end of the voyage, he became a rejoicing believer in Jesus Christ. Let’s pray.