If you are the pilot of an aeroplane, and you say into your radio that you have no joy, you are not telling the other person how you feel. What you mean is that there is something you cannot see or do. So if the ground controller tells you that you have an aircraft off to your right but you can’t see it, you say ‘no joy.’ In pilot language the opposite of ‘no joy’ is not ‘I have joy’ but ‘Have you in sight’ or simply ‘Roger.’ Pilots have no words for joy.
Sometimes we are like pilots. On a typical day we have lots of ‘no joys.’ Some of us have no words in our vocabulary to express joy. Yet joy is one of the chief characteristics of religious faith as described in the bible.
In contrast to the rituals of other faiths of the East, Jewish worship was essentially all about joy and celebration. The Hebrew language of the Old Testament is known for having few words overall. At the same time there are more words in Hebrew for joy and rejoicing than any other language.
The most frequent occasions for Hebrew joy are when holding a feast and offering a sacrifice. So there is joy when celebrating God’s power in creation through the harvest; there is joy when one has prosperity or a personal triumph, especially in the recovery of health; there is joy when celebrating a national victory; and there is rejoicing in God as part of public worship.
The physical expression of joy is often mentioned also: there is singing, shouting, making noise or an uproar, in a loud voice, and singing praise; there are words for musical instruments (pipe, harp, trumpet, flute, or stringed instruments); and there are words for describing motion (dancing, clapping, leaping, or stamping of feet).
Mary the mother of our Lord broke into a song of joy at the thought of having her very special baby. She said, ‘My soul gives glory to the Lord. My spirit delights in God my Saviour.’ She was expressing the joy that was in her. In our second reading today, St Paul says ‘Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Give thanks no matter what happens.’
Both Mary and Paul were good Jews, steeped in the traditions of their ancestors. Jesus grew up in that tradition. It may be the reason why he saw a little child as having what it takes to be a representative of God’s kingdom. Children can be naturally joyful. The problem is, somewhere along the road of life we grownups seem to get off the joyful bus and get on the other one instead.
If we were able to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem in the centuries before Jesus, we would find that the ritual worship there proclaimed God as the source of joy. The good Jew would have regarded the act of thanking God as the supreme joy of his or her life. Joy would have been like a circle for them: God gives us joy, and we in return give it back to God in our worship of him. The Old Testament is a book of joy, just as the New Testament is the book of Good News.
How do we get on the joy bus? Someone else may ask, how do I identify the joy bus, so I can make sure it doesn’t come anywhere near me?
Most people will follow the religious traditions of their ancestors. I remember choosing to be an Anglican because, among other things, I enjoyed the beauty and language of the worship. I felt that it put me in touch with the church of the ages.
Eventually, though, if we are to have a full faith, we must move on, closer to the creator. It is in God himself where all joy will be found.
St Paul says, ‘Don’t try to stop what the Holy Spirit is doing.’ We could be holding back from the best that is yet to come.
Sometimes we make demands on other people to make us happy - we want them to do what we want before we can have joy in our hearts; sometimes we make demands on God to give us what we want or need before we can have any joy; sometimes we refuse to let go of the list of wrongs we believe others have done to us, and so we have no joy – in these many ways we may be blocking the Holy Spirit, who longs to fill us with the joy of God. What we are saying is, God has no joy to give to me, and his Spirit is ineffective in me. This goes against the sovereign will of God’s promises in scripture.
Finding and receiving God’s joy is of course not just putting on a happy face. As Anglicans we believe in the cooperation of our own spirit with the Spirit of God in the working out of our salvation, and our joy. We don’t believe that God will force himself on us. Mary had a choice to make when she was visited by the angel: whether she would receive the bundle of joy from God or not. In choosing to receive that little bundle, she worked with God’s Spirit.
The one real difference between joy in the Old Testament and joy in the New Testament is that New Testament writers go on to the next higher level of joy. They make the bold statement that joy can be met in suffering as well as in the simple presence of God. The New Testament writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, ‘For the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.’ (Hebrews 12.2). In accepting the virgin birth, Mary entered into a life with suffering. But there in that place of suffering she would be filled with the very joy of God himself. This is the higher understanding of joy, that in our suffering we can expect to meet with God and find his joy.
This is what someone else has written about St Paul’s words on rejoicing:
Rejoice always. Period. Not "Rejoice, unless you don't happen to like your priest." Not "Rejoice, unless your friend steps on your toes." Not "Rejoice unless things don’t happen to go your way." And not "Rejoice when things are going good." Instead, "Rejoice Always.”
I read on the internet this morning a well-known actor who said, ‘You can gain a tremendous amount of joy from the sun coming up.’
Paul in his wisdom couples rejoicing with an appeal to us to pray always and give thanks in everything. Maybe this is the way to joy. Think on what you are truly thankful for in your life, moment by moment. Be always offering up those little prayers of thank you’s. This is the work of God in you. This is God letting you know how much he loves you.
The coming of Christmas is a time for us to seek and find true joy in the coming of our Saviour.