This time 30 years ago, I gave my life to Christ after watching a church Christmas play. In that modern sanctuary transformed into ancient Israel, Scripture came alive and for the first time, I felt the Holy Spirit stir my soul.
As I watched Jesus lead a flawless life and weave the law and love together perfectly, the realization of my own sin pierced deep within my heart.
When I saw Him arrested and whipped and hanged on a criminal’s cross to die, I knew I'd been ripped from His hand like the skin torn from His body.
I had done this to Him too, somehow – nailed Him right to that cross with the hammer of disobedience.
Yet in my gut-wrenching guilt, the strangest, most unexpected thing happened. In the void of my own darkness, the Light of Christ sparked a flame within me. Joy began to flicker like a Christmas Eve candle.
Where I would have expected rejection, shame and even terror, I found mercy.
And mercy is the mother to joy.
“How joyful is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1).
Repenting and returning to the God who loved me, died for me and forgave me set ablaze an eternal joy within my heart (John 3:16, Romans 5:8).
“Then I will come to the altar of God, my greatest joy” (Psalm 43:4).
Joy is not born from the apex of accomplishment or the ecstasy of control, or even the abundance of provision, but in the stark humility of surrender.
Joy is supernatural contentment, born when we lay ourselves down on the altar of God, on His mercy seat, and receive His grace.
Because joy is really grace recognized.
“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God” (Ephesians 2:9).
More than 240 times, Scripture tells us to rejoice or have joy in the Lord. In fact, several passages tell us to “rejoice always” (Philippians 4:4, 1 Thessalonians 5:16). Surprisingly, the bulk of these exhortations come from the Old Testament, when the Israelite people were awaiting their Messiah and in the throes of captivity.
They were enduring plagues and being chased by Egyptians and wandering the wilderness and striking rocks for water, yet God told them to rejoice.
Is “rejoice always” a cruel commandment given by an unsympathetic God? Or is it a call to encourage, a divine reassurance by an all-knowing, all-loving Father to keep running the race - because He knows how glorious the finish line really is?
God knows what you’re going through in this very moment. He not only knows but can empathize with all your weaknesses and worries (Hebrews 4:15).
“He was despised and rejected - a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief" (Isaiah 53:3).
God sees you in that hospital room. In that broken home. In that cancer clinic. He is with you at the gravesite, holding your hand as you cling to dear life and let your loved one go. He is with you when you're wandering, restless, despondent and sorrow stricken. He is with you in the day-to-day grind that fills your heart with heaviness and tries to drain your joy.
God told the Israelites to rejoice, because He needed them to keep looking for grace. He was telling them, all while parting the Red Sea and sending manna from heaven, grace is coming! Don’t despair – trust Me and rejoice! The King of the world is coming to rip open the temple curtains and flood the darkness with Light.
God tells us, through His Word and His people, to keep rejoicing because Grace has come and will never stop coming for us.
“Indeed, we have all received grace after grace from His fullness” (John 1:16).
Jesus has made the presence of God readily available to us. In His presence is where we receive the present of joy.
Yet we can’t fully understand or appreciate joy without first knowing sorrow.
Light only seems as bright as the darkness it breaks through. Relief is only as great as our discomfort. Peace is magnified when worry surrounds us. Mercy is greatest when our sins are great.
“My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to You because You have redeemed me” (Psalm 71:23).
King David was a man well acquainted with sorrow, some of which he brought on himself. His sin and regret and worry were great. Yet, he may have enjoyed the Lord more than any other person in history as a man after God’s own heart. David was a master at exchanging the honest cries of his heart for joyful songs of praise.
“Restore the joy of Your salvation to me, and give me a willing spirit" (Psalm 51:12).
King David’s joy grew greater as he recognized God’s favor on him to “redeem his life from every difficulty” (I King 1:29).
If you have been ransomed by the blood of Christ, then you have cause to rejoice.
Like the mother of Jesus, we can rejoice in advance of an outcome or answered prayer, expectant of how God is going to reveal Himself to us, provide for us and protect us, even when the way forward seems unclear.
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl … For the Mighty One is holy and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things!” (Luke 1:46-51).
The virgin Mary rejoiced in God before the details of her pregnancy were ironed out - before she knew if her family would believe her, if Joseph would accept her and if her reputation would be cleared. She praised the greatness of the Lord and His plan for the generations.
Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is fleeting and contingent upon circumstance. Happiness harkens for neatly wrapped packages of organized families, eight hours of down-comforted sleep and three hot meals a day.
Joy is rooted in the heart of our never-changing Father. Joy lifts us out of the mud and mire and steadies us on the firm foundation of Christ (Psalm 40:2). Joy thrives in our messes.
Can you imagine if Mary threw a fit because there was no room in the inn? But maybe she did, because joy is a fruit of the Spirit, not anything we can muster on our own (Galatians 5:22).
Joy is born in a stench-filled stable, not in a palace of perfection. In the manger of despair, the defiant radiance of joy transcends our tears.
"Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy" (Psalm 126:5).
God equips us to have joy in any situation, not for it. We can have joy in the midst of any horror because we have Him. The joy of the Lord is indeed our strength in our greatest trials and moments of weakness (Nehemiah 8:10, Psalm 28:7).
If you are grieving, lonely, tired, stressed, broke, or broken this Advent season, know that Jesus came, a Messiah in a manger, to bring you joy.
Yes, weeping may last for a night, but there will be joy in the morning (Jeremiah 31:13).
Our purest example of joy lived out in the midst of sorrow is Jesus, “who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross” (Hebrews 12:2).
How could joy be mentioned in the same sentence as the cross? What joy could there be in stepping down from heaven into the hell of fallen humanity, to live a life of rejection and die a death of intense suffering?
But it was for the “joy that lay before Him” that Jesus could endure this tainted life as a spotless sacrifice for us. His eyes were not set on the horizons of Judea but on the hope of heaven and an eternal reign of joy.
“You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures” (Psalm 16:11).
Knowing this joy, I can say no to my children, because their joy does not come from getting all the things on their Christmas list but from giving them all the ways of Christ.
Knowing this joy, I can bury a dear friend and still sing “Joy to the World”, because the Lord has come and I will see her again one day.
Knowing this joy, I can reconcile the disappointments of severed relationships, because the One I serve binds up my wounds (Psalm 147:3).
When we recognize the gift of God, we can enter into joy. We can walk in the wisdom of Solomon, who wrote, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity, consider: God has made the one as well as the other…” (Ecclesiastes 7:14).
We can rejoice even in affliction and heart break and things that will never change this side of heaven, because God is an ever present help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1). Sorrow and sighing, heart ache and regret will flee at the sound of our Warrior’s return. And all that will be left is unending joy.
“And the redeemed of the Lord will return and come to Zion with singing, crowned with unending joy. Joy and gladness will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee” (Isaiah 51:11).
We will be crowned with unending joy in heaven, because we will see all the grace that was given to us on earth and all the grace that is before us for eternity.
But we can and should experience this divine joy on earth right now.
This abiding joy in Jesus should, in fact, be our calling card as Christians on this earth. Our faces should be radiant from spending time in His presence (Psalm 34:5). Our hearts should throb and swell with joy even as we daily take up our cross and follow Him (Isaiah 60:5, Matthew 16:24).
Let the grace of God overwhelm you and joy overtake you.
Because what could be a better testimony to others than the joy of the Lord in the face of despair?
Joy shines through as a bright star in a blanket of darkness.
Joy comes forth in the filth of a stable, which becomes a holy sanctuary.
Joy is magnified in the death of the Son and the resurrection of a Savior.
The spirit of Christmas is the Spirit of joy for what was given by God and what was received by mankind. It’s not about the perfect dinner or the perfect family or the perfect present.
Christmas is about the perfect Person of Jesus, God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us, who came so that His joy would be in us and our joy would be complete in Him (John 15:11).
Abide in Jesus this Advent season, so that you can glorify God and share His great joy with the world.