There are some things that are difficult to put into words. So the florist tells us to "Say it with flowers" and the jeweller would prefer it be said with a ring.
"Joy" is rather like that. What is joy? It is delight, rather than just "happiness". There is a sense of excitement and celebration about it too. It may include laughter, but not in the sense of a funny joke. It is a much deeper word than that - a contentment and well-being and certainty that can exist even when outward circumstances seem unfavourable.
S.S. Smalley says that in the Old Testament "Joy is related to the total national and religious life of Israel, and is particularly expressed in terms of noisy, tumultuous excitement at festivals, sacrifices and enthronements… Spontaneous joy is a prevailing feature of the Psalms, where it is a mark both of corporate worship and of personal adoration. Isaiah associates joy with the fullness of God’s salvation. In later Judaism, as a result, joy is a characteristic of the last days."
"Expressed in noise, tumultuous excitement…" Zechariah was looking forward to the King God was going to send. His words are expressly recalled as Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21.5). "He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth."
"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!"
The angel said to the shepherds, "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; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger" (Lk 2.10-12).
"Great joy for all the people…"
For the people of Bethlehem there was the busy-ness of getting ready for excessively large crowds of people - distant relatives, yes, but so distant that the connections had long since been lost.
And there was the oppressiveness of Roman rule. This census was for the express purpose of raising more taxes. True, the Romans maintained roads, kept law and order. But the Jews could do that for themselves. The Roman ways and food and gods were an offence to them.
And there was the struggle to live in poor circumstances. That was their life, of course. They hadn’t known it any different. Yet it was a constant struggle.
Yet as a people they still clung on to divine promises. A Messiah will come - some day. We wonder how long they could keep that hope alive. The hope is still alive in Israel today. The so-called Golden Gate was one of the entrances to the Temple Mount. It has been blocked off by the Moslems and a cemetery is in front of it. Our guide said to us, "That is where we Jews expect the Messiah to enter Jerusalem."
"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; he is Christ the Lord."
Yet in David’s town immediately after these events there was great sadness. Herod heard from the wise men from the east that "the King of the Jews" had been born. He was jealous and killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years of age and under.
For all the people… And how does all of this add up to "great joy for all the people" - not just Jews - anyway?
The angel was announcing the birth - for us all - of the Saviour, Christ the Lord. Come for all, because all are sinners and all need his unique saving work. Come for all, because he is not just the Jewish Messiah but the fulfilment of God’s promises to the whole human race. Come for all, because he is rightfully the true Lord, deserving all honour, receiving obedience due.
Great joy for all the people. Let’s receive it ourselves - whatever our personal circumstances may be. Let’s give it out to others. It’s a joy to be shared!
Prayer:Lord Jesus, we live in a world of selfishness and greed, of ambition and conflict. We wonder where it will all end. Then we remember that your coming was to bring good news of a great joy for all the people. Forgive us that too often we try to celebrate Christmas without remembering your birth. Forgive us that too often we try to live our lives without depending on the forgiveness and new beginning you made possible through your death. Forgive us that we forget your promise to be with us always. Thank you for your persistent and constant love. Amen.
The Gift of Joy
Into a broken world he came,
No place to stay,
not good enough -
in feeding trough
the infant lay -
the gift of joy!
Amid the limits of our frame,
by deed and word,
the life of love,
the word of life
for all who heard -
the gift of joy!
Aloft in public view and shame,
in agony
on cruel cross
to bear the loss
for you and me -
the gift of joy!
Jesus lives! Now hear the Name,
the cot too small,
the nails too weak.
To all who seek
he gives his all -
the gift of joy!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Burdekin Blue Care devotions, 11 December 2001