If a pilot of an aeroplane says he has ‘no joy,’ he doesn’t mean he is sad and depressed. He just means that he can’t see or hear something. So if the ground controller says ‘You have traffic at 3 o’clock’ (which means on his right) and the pilot cannot see the other aeroplane, he replies ‘No joy.’ It is often used to mean ‘I have no contact,’ which means ‘I do not understand or cannot receive your communication.’
Interestingly, in pilot language the opposite of ‘no joy’ is not ‘I have joy’ but ‘ Have you in sight’ or ‘Read you loud and clear.’ Pilots don’t have one word for the opposite of ‘no joy.’
Sometimes we are like pilots. We have lots of ‘no joy’ in our lives; but we have few or no words to say we have joy, because it happens for us so seldom. Yet joy is one of the characteristics of faith as described in the bible.
In contrast to the rituals of other faiths of the Middle East, Jewish worship was essentially a celebration full of joy. In the English bible translation we use for our readings, the word ‘joy’ appears 365 times. That is enough joy for one dose of it for every day of the year.
Someone has worked out that the Hebrew language, the original language of the Old Testament, has more words for joy and rejoicing than any other language, and it happens to be a language that has few words overall. In the Old Testament, there are 13 parts of words, found in 27 different full words, which are used for some aspect of joy or joyful participation in worship.
The most frequent occasions for joy in Old Testament times were feasting and offering sacrifices to God; celebrating God’s power in creation through the harvest; enjoying prosperity or personal triumph, especially in the recovery of health; celebrating national victory; and rejoicing in God as part of public worship.
Physical expression of joy is often mentioned too. These include the sounds of singing, shouting, noise, uproar, a loud voice, singing praise; there are words for musical instruments (pipe, harp, trumpet, flute, or stringed instruments); and words describing motion (dancing, clapping, leaping, or stamping of feet).
Mary broke into song at the thought of having her very special baby. She said, ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.’ She rejoiced, she expressed the joy that was in her. In our second reading today, St Paul begins by saying, ‘Rejoice always.’ He is saying express the joy that is within you, look at it and let it come out.
Both Mary and Paul were good Jews, steeped in the traditions of their ancestors. Jesus grew up in this tradition. Children can be naturally joyful. This may be the reason why he saw a little child as containing the essence of God’s kingdom. 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 their life. Joy would have been like a circle for them: God gives us joy, and we return it back to God in our worship of him. So the Old Testament is the book of joy, as the New Testament is the book of Good News. It is, writes St Paul, God’s will for us to be joyful, to pray continuously, and to give thanks in all circumstances.
How do we get on the joy bus? Someone else will ask, how do I spot the joy bus, so I can make sure it doesn’t come anywhere near me?
Most people follow the religious traditions of their ancestors. I remember choosing to be an Anglican because, among other things, I enjoyed the beauty and solemnity of the worship. I felt that it put me in touch with the church of the ages. I was listening to a human standard of joy, but looking back, I would say it was God drawing me closer to him.
If we are to have a full faith, we must move on. We must come closer to our Creator. There is where all joy will be found. Do not quench the Spirit, says St Paul. There are all kinds of interpretations of what he meant by not quenching the Spirit. He could have meant our spirit or the Holy Spirit. Either way, we could be holding back from the best that is yet to come.
When we make demands on other people to make us happy, to prop us up, to do what we want them to do before we will be happy; when we make demands on God to just give us what we feel we want or need before we will be happy; when we refuse to let go of the list of wrongs we believe others have done to us – we are quenching the spirit, the action of God’s grace in us. Because what we are saying is, I cannot possibly be happy or joyful right now, and God has no joy to give to me, and his Spirit is ineffective in me. But this just flies in the face of the sovereign will of God’s promises in scripture.
Finding and receiving God’s joy is not just putting on a happy face or shoving down our fears and worries. Our own spirit cooperates with the Spirit of God in the working out of our salvation, and our joy. God will not hit us over the head with it. 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 the writers go on to the next higher level of joy, to the bold statement that joy can be met in suffering as well as in the simple presence of God. In accepting the virgin birth, Mary was to enter into a life with suffering, but there in that place 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.
Says the writer in the letter to the Hebrews, ‘For the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.’ (Hebrews 12.2)
Jesus wants his joy to be in us. At Christmas we are looking for joy. We hope to recover the magic and joy we remember from our childhood. Such joy can only sustain us in the short term. Joy that is long-lasting comes down from God in the person of his Son.