Good news of great joy.
Those who are Christ’s have every reason to rejoice.
I’ve always tried to imagine what it must’ve been like to be in that field on the outskirts of Bethlehem with the shepherds on the night Jesus was born (Luke 2:8). An incredibly normal night of tending sheep was suddenly interrupted by the beaming brilliance of the “angel of the Lord.” Midnight turned into midday, as the rays of the angel’s glory — a glory representative of the One who sent him — “shone around them,” setting that little moonlit hill where the shepherds and their flock were resting ablaze with the brightness of heaven’s holiness. I wonder what those shepherds were thinking in that moment? Luke tells us that they were “greatly afraid,” that is, filled with terror. It’s no wonder, then, that the angel’s first words are, “Fear not.” The night sky is looking more like high noon, as a haloed figure begins sharing some news about some baby being born a few hundred yards away in the village down in the valley. I’m pretty sure those shepherds had to rub their eyes more than a few times to make sure they weren’t still dreaming. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Or is this just the spoiled gefilte fish talking?” I imagine one of them saying. “Man, I didn’t realize I was that hungover,” another remarked.
But, of course, this was no dream and they weren’t tipsy. An angel really was standing in front of them, detailing the precise birthplace of the “Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). And to make sure those panic-stricken shepherds got the point, the solitary angel was, then, suddenly flanked by “a multitude of the heavenly host,” who sing in unison the triumphant chorus of the Messiah’s arrival: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). Imagine the biggest choir you’ve ever seen, then multiply that by a factor of ten, and you’d still be estimating low on the number of voices that abruptly appeared to that bunch of lowly herdsmen. Indeed, the Greek word for “multitude” is where we get our word “plethora,” which is suggestive of a large or excessive amount. Which is just to say, that motley crew of shepherds were given, perhaps, the most incredible display of heaven’s glory since Elisha’s assistant in 2 Kings 6, as angels too numerous to number heralded the news of Jesus’s birth.
One of the most fascinating elements of this announcement, though, is how it is phrased. As the angel descends and begins to declare the glorious news of the Messiah’s arrival, he is sure to frame that proclamation with the appropriate amount of splendor. “Fear not,” he begins, “for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). It is significant, I think, that the leading ingredient in the news of the Messiah’s nativity is “joy.” And not only that, but “great joy.” As fierce as was the shepherds’ fear, that’s how fervent the angel’s invitation was to rejoice. Why? Because the “Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” had been born (Luke 2:11). I think what is lost on us is how intrusive and invasive this announcement of joy was — that is to say, what made this “good news of great joy” so joyful isn’t only the fact of the Messiah’s arrival, but also circumstances in which this announcement was made.
You see, this declaration of joy came at a time when Jewish spirits were, by every conceivable measure, at historic lows. Israel at this time was under Roman occupation, after Pompey the Great marched into Jerusalem in 63 B.C. and seized control of the capitol city of God’s people, putting them under the tyrannical rule of Caesar and desecrating the Lord’s Temple in the process. At the time of the shepherds’ angelic encounter, then, Israel was already in its second generation of being dominated by Rome, with the paganism and perversion of Roman culture influencing Judaism in a variety of ways. If you were a devout Jew, there wasn’t much to be joyful about. You could read the prophets and, perhaps, find messages of joy peppered within messages of judgment. But, for all intents and purposes, there was little evidence for joy and even scarcer reasons to be joyful. Which, in a manner of speaking, though not nearly as intense, corresponds to our own day.
Americans have not been occupied or overrun by any sort of tyrannical authority — that is, I guess, depending on your view of Washington right now — but, even still, if recent surveys are to be believed, this is the least happy American citizens have been in nearly fifty years. I’m not always one for surveys and polls; I recognize their limits. In fact, whenever I’m asked to take one of those surveys at the end of service calls, I rarely (if ever) agree to them. I have zero interest in rating how well Cathy helped me today, thank you very much! Be that as it may, I do have a moderate interest in reading the results of surveys, as, I think, they can give us broad, sweeping snapshots of what’s happening with society as a whole. Case in point: Gallup, a global research firm, released a poll at the beginning of last year (February 2022), which sought to answer the question, “How happy are Americans right now?” Well, the answer: not very. In fact, the results showed that less than 4-in-10 Americans, approximately 38%, said that they were “happy.” Other data from the General Social Survey returned even worse results, showing that “Americans [are] more miserable than [they’ve] been in half a century,” as one analyst put it.
This, to be sure, is very alarming. Despite the legitimate questions concerning these kinds of polls — like, “How can you measure happiness on a scale?” and, “Can you actually quantify how happy people are with numbers?” — a quick glance at the newspaper or your newsfeed will more than prove the data true. I think it’s pretty safe analysis to say that we, as a people in the United States of America, are more unhappy than ever. We are experiencing record highs in frustration and disappointment, along with record lows in satisfaction and contentment, leading to a veritable epidemic of emotion, anxiety, and depression. Part of it, I’d say, is just the fact that we see more and know more about more people more than any other time in the history of the world. Information overload is killing us. The advent of social media makes the problems that plague us seem more rampant and in your face, while at the same time feeding and coddling the very problems which swindle our joy. This isn’t to say that Facebook is the ultimate thief of joy, but it certainly hasn’t helped. And all of this hits even closer to home because it seems as though the myopic malaise that has glazed over society, writ large, has, likewise, seeped into the church.
Despite the proven research that regularly attending worship services can positively impact your happiness, it’s hard to tell sometimes. If you were to glance at the general demeanor and behavior of some who go to church, you might be led to believe that Jesus didn’t walk out the grave on that third sunrise. Otherwise, what’s with all the long faces? Jesus, you might recall, asked that very same question to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:17). Why are you so sullen and sour? Why do you look like a bunch of Eeyores moping around the Hundred Acre Wood? Their reasoning, of course, was because their Teacher was dead. They had seen him suffer the horrors of Roman crucifixion only a few days prior, dashing whatever hopes and dreams they might’ve had in what this Teacher from Nazareth was going to accomplish (Luke 24:21). Their gloominess, though, as Jesus proceeds to tell them, is owed to the fact that they had apparently forgotten — or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, didn’t quite understand — their Teacher’s words regarding the resurrection. Sometimes, I think churchgoers have more in common with these Emmaus road disciples than they would ever care to admit. The demeanor of some Christians almost gives the impression that the tomb is still sealed.
Who or what is to blame for our collective joylessness? Who is the culprit? What has swindled our joy? Our first reaction is, what? To look to the people next to us or the circumstances around us and throw the blame there, on them, on that. We’re very adept at scanning our surroundings in order hold something or someone else responsible for how we’re responding. In fact, this is the first sin after the Fall in Genesis 3. If you remember, Adam and Eve both eat of the fruit, causing sin and death to intrude upon the good creation God had made. And when God comes to find them and ask them what the deal is, what is Adam’s response? “It’s this woman, God, the woman you gave me! She made me do it!” Eve follows suit, blaming the serpent — and so it has been for countless centuries. We love playing the “blame game.” Our unhappiness is someone else’s fault. Our joylessness is the result of some other circumstance. Our problems are always outside of us. One of the hardest pills to swallow, though, is just the fact that that is not entirely true. We’re the culprits, we’re the ones to blame, we’re the swindlers of our own joy.
Emerson Eggrichs, a counselor and speaker and former pastor, and author of Love & Respect, says, “Your response is your responsibility” (284). In context, he’s talking about how you and I respond to our spouses. But I’d contend that it is also applicable to all of life, too. Your spouse can’t take your joy from you. Nor can your unruly kids, or your tattling siblings, or your hard-nosed parents, or that frustrating co-worker, or that annoying neighbor. Not even who does or doesn’t get into office can take your joy from you. Now, to be sure, we let these things influence our joy. But, in the end, if our joy is lost because of something a politician did or a parent did or our spouse does, all that’s being revealed is the fact that our joy is misplaced. How you and I respond in fretful and frustrating circumstances reveals where our joy truly lies. When we get out of sorts because of what someone else does, we’re inherently saying that our joy rises or falls on that person. When we become joyless because of what does or doesn’t happen in Washington, we’re pinning our joy to an institution that’s roughly as stable as a spoonful of jello.
Again, your response is your responsibility. No one can steal your joy from you, except you. Why? Because our joy isn’t ultimately found in our spouse, or in our kids, or in our parents, or in our favorite politicians. Rather, our joy is irrevocably, unshakably found in the Lord Jesus Christ, who says, quite plainly, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Part of Jesus’s mission, you see, was to bring the joy of heaven down to earth. Such is his prayer in John 17: “Now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). In the giving of himself, Christ desires to give us his joy. And this brings us back to that scene in Luke 2, where the angel declares that the announcement of the Savior’s birth is inherently an announcement of “great joy.” Christ the Lord born in a manger is the commencement of God giving us his joy.
All of which leads me to ask: what does God’s joy look like? When the angels say that they’ve come to herald the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” what does that mean, exactly? What does “great joy” look like? This brings us to the prophecy of Zephaniah, where, in the final seven verses of his oracle, the prophet of Yahweh gives one of the most astounding declarations of joy and salvation in the entire Bible:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord. (Zeph. 3:14–20)
After two-and-a-half chapters of judgment-filled prophecy, Zephaniah closes with a resounding invitation for all of Israel to rejoice and sing with all that they are and have in triumphant song — which might not sound so surprising, but it definitely is when you understand the context in which this prophecy was given. As we’re told in the opening verse (Zeph. 1:1), these words were first declared during the early days of King Josiah. If you recall, Josiah inherited a throne that was rife with idolatry and corruption and perversion, he being the grandson of the reprehensible King Manasseh. Those were joyless days in the kingdom of Judah, with two generations of drastic social upheaval and spiritual decline spoiling any sense of blessing Judah might’ve experienced. Zephaniah’s words, then, are words of fierce warning concerning the “day of reckoning” that was looming for the people of God (Zeph. 1:2–6). As this prophecy draws to a close, however, Zephaniah’s tone shifts dramatically, from one of impending disaster to one of approaching deliverance.
For all the reasons Judah might’ve had to be joyless, the Lord gives them more to rejoice in, and it all centers on the Mighty One who will come and bring about all that God has promised (Zeph. 3:17). This Mighty One, the One who is “in your midst,” is One will “take away the judgments” and “clear away the enemies,” removing any reason they might’ve had to fear, once and for all (Zeph. 3:15). Whatever guilty verdict was against them, the Mighty One would take care of it. Whatever deceitful scheme the adversary had concocted, the Mighty One would put a stop to it. There is no enemy strong enough to withstand “the Lord your God [who] is in your midst.” He would come to be among his people — and he’d come as a valiant warrior, by whose strength the oppressed will be delivered, the lame will be liberated, and the scattered will be recovered into one joyous assembly (Zeph. 3:18–19; cf. Isa. 61:1–3). Therefore, the people of God had no cause for despair and every reason to rejoice (Zeph. 3:16), because the Lord, the King of Israel, was going to make all of this happen.
In the span of three verses, the Lord declares “I will” some six times (Zeph. 3:18–20). “I will gather . . . I will deal with your oppressors . . . I will save . . . I will change . . . I will bring you in . . . I will make you renowned.” Each of these declarations are indicative of the sure determination of God that his purposes will be realized. “This is going to happen, you can count it,” we might reckon the words. Consequently, this joyous restoration of God’s people from mourners to rejoicers is something that God himself accomplishes. And he’s assuring them that he will. In fact, the whole world would soon witness the tremendous re-making of God’s people (Zeph. 3:20). Their redemption and restoration would be accomplished “before [their] eyes.” God, says the prophet, isn’t going to leave any room for doubt that the deliverance of his people is complete and certain in him. And the point is, this is precisely what Jesus comes to earth to accomplish.
Every single syllable of Zephaniah’s words, here, are fulfilled, and made true, in Jesus. He is the Lord who is in our midst, who comes to dwell among us (John 1:14). Don’t let his infant form fool you: he is no less the King of Israel and the Lord of Glory while bouncing on Mary’s knee. Though a baby, he is, even still, the Mighty One through whom every fear is cast out and every oppressor is vanquished. In Jesus, evil is dealt with, once for all. Those same little hands which reached out for the comfort of his mother’s love are the same hands that would soon be pierced by nails as he hung on a cross in order to demonstrate the love of God for the world. In Jesus, the “judgments” are removed and the ordinances that are against us are canceled (Col. 2:14–15). He takes it all away by taking it on himself.
In Jesus, the weak and the homeless, the lame and the outcast, are brought close (Zeph. 3:18). Those whom the world forgets, shuns, and disregards are those whom he delights to gather up and embrace. Jesus had no misgivings when it came to fraternizing with those whom the rest of world deemed “off limits.” From publicans to prostitutes, to lepers and shepherds, the Lord who is in our midst relishes in welcoming we who are lost and sick with sin to come to him and be made new (Luke 19:10; Mark 2:17). He rejoices over the weak and destitute “with gladness” and quiet love and “loud singing” (Zeph. 3:17). What’s more, he makes them precious in his sight, giving them his “renown” (Zeph. 3:19). The Mighty One gives his miserable ones his very own reputation and name. Which, I take to be a veiled reference to the church. What is the church, after all, but a gathering of those who are weak and worn, battered and bruised, coming to delight in what God in Christ has accomplished?
In Jesus, therefore, God comes from heaven to set up an assembly of voices on earth who rejoice in the renown and reputation that he graciously gives them. Accordingly, every church is (or ought to be) an outpost of God’s joy, dispensing and distributing the “good news of great joy” that’s available for all people. No one’s excluded, no one’s cut off. You who are joyless are made to find joy in the God who gives it to you by giving you himself. The angel’s announcement concurs with Zephaniah’s prophecy in declaring that heaven’s light has pierced the darkness of this world, eclipsing its sorrow with the song of never-ending joy (John 1:5, 9).
And to think, that the only evidence for joy Mary and Joseph had was the newborn they cradled in their arms. The only sign Simeon, later in Luke’s nativity account, had observed that “great joy” was in his midst was the month-old baby staring back at him. What, then, does the “joy of the Lord” look like? It looks like gazing into the eyes of a newborn and believing that in him and through him all the promises of Zephaniah 3, and beyond, would finally be fulfilled. It looks like staring into a frustrating and uncertain future and believing in what God has said, despite all evidences to the contrary. There’s no denying that our day is filled with turmoil and trouble, which can quickly cause us brood over what might become of us, our family, our country, our church, thinking the worst. The “good news of great joy,” however, invites us to rejoice in what God has done, and will do, regardless how bad things get.
“The joy of the Lord is your strength,” the Scriptures say (Neh. 8:10). The image behind that word “strength” in Nehemiah is that of “a place of safety,” as in a harbor where boats are docked. When Natalie and I lived in South Florida, I used to work in downtown Palm Beach, which meant that I was able to take walks along the inter-coastal waterway during my lunch breaks. One of the most memorable sights on these walks were the rows of humongous yachts that were docked there. I always found it sad, though, to see footage of those same docks after a hurricane went through, reducing those pristine boats to mangled heaps of metal and rigging. Even if there was no hurricane, though, you could still see those boats bobbing in the water, as the tides rose and fell. The point is, what kept those boats from floating away and getting lost at sea? It was the dock to which they were tethered.
Every boat, no matter how big or how small, certainly felt the effects of the ocean and the variants of the tides. But so long as they were moored to the right dock, they were safe. Accordingly, we are only strong, safe, and resilient as we find our joy not in things “under the sun” but in the One who reigns from heaven’s throne. We are secure only as our joy is, by faith, docked in Jesus. When the Bible says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4), we shouldn’t understand it to mean that we’re required to fake a smile whenever we go. That’s not “joy,” properly speaking. That’s pretend happiness. And you can be sure that the Bible never summons you and I to put on masks of happiness. Instead, the gospel invites us to find our joy in the fulfilled promises of God and the it-is-finished-ness of the cross. “The secret of stable and perpetual joy still lies where Zephaniah found it,” notes Alexander Maclaren, “in the assurance that the Lord is with us, and in the vision of His love resting upon us, and rejoicing over us with singing” (6:1.248). Take heart, church, and rejoice, for the Lord of all is with you and he is for you.
Emerson Eggrichs, Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires, the Respect He Desperately Needs (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).