Summary: The angel proclaimed ‘good news of great joy.’ Sounds great! But what exactly is this good news? What kind of joy should we experience? Do you have that joy?
In the lead-up to Christmas this year we’re focusing on four great themes: hope, peace, joy and love.
Many churches have Advent candles and they associate these four themes with the first four Advent candles. The fifth candle is for Jesus. The last two Sundays we looked at hope and peace; today we look at joy.
Our key verse is Luke 2:10 – one of the best-known Christmas verses:
‘And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY that will be for all the people.”’
‘Good news of great joy’? That sounds good! But suppose I ask you, what exactly is this good news? Or, what kind of joy should we experience? Or, do you have that joy? What would you answer?
IN A MUDDLE WITH WORDS?
Paul talks about people who get into quarrels about words. We don’t want to do that! But I think we need to spend some time on the word ‘joy.’ Briefly, there are three ways to understand this word. They aren’t the same, and if we get into a muddle we just create a difficulty for ourselves.
Let me start off with what I’ll call A POPULAR UNDERSTANDING. In this understanding, joy is something for a special moment. It makes you want to leap in the air and shout ‘Yay!’ We talk about ‘a burst of joy’ or ‘our hearts swelling with joy.’ We watch a sunset. We see our grandchildren after a long time. Joy!
Second, there’s A DICTIONARY UNDERSTANDING. The Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most authoritative dictionaries there is, says that joy is ‘a vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction; the feeling or state of being highly pleased or delighted; exultation of spirit; gladness, delight.’ Let me break it down. The dictionary actually gives FOUR definitions of joy! In the first, joy is a vivid emotion. That’s the same as the popular understanding. But the dictionary gives three further definitions of joy. Joy can be a ‘feeling or state of being highly pleased or delighted.’ It can be ‘exultation of spirit.’ It can be ‘gladness, delight.’
So the dictionary definition of joy is much broader than the popular understanding. This helps me to resolve a problem I have.
What’s the problem? Paul wrote a list of ‘fruit of the spirit’: love, joy, peace, patience and so on. Joy is second in the list. The fact that joy comes second makes me wonder if it’s a particularly important fruit. So, I know I should have joy. It’s something the Holy Spirit should be producing in me. But I evaluate myself. I ask, ‘Do I have joy?’ I’d be very inclined to say no! I’m often grumpy and bad-tempered. Maybe I’m tired; maybe I’ve got too much work. I definitely DON'T have a feeling of joy that makes me want to leap in the air and shout ‘Yay!’ But that’s looking at joy in the popular understanding. The dictionary shows me that there are other forms of joy. A ‘feeling or state of being highly pleased or delighted’ is also joy - and I can honestly say that I have that. So, I have joy. I just don’t have the popular-understanding kind of joy. The joy I have is a quieter joy. I might not even describe it as joy, because I have it in my head that joy is a heart-swelling, leap-in-the-air kind of emotion.
But there’s a third understanding. You’re probably thinking: ‘popular understanding, dictionary understanding … what’s left?’ The answer is, A NEW TESTAMENT UNDERSTANDING. We have the word ‘joy’ in our verse. It’s written in English. But that's the translation of a word which was originally written in Greek. The meaning of a word in one language often doesn’t map exactly onto the meaning of the closest word in another language. The way the Bible uses the word joy is different from the popular understanding and different from the dictionary definition.
‘Joy’ is ‘chara’ in Greek. It’s probably pronounced ‘khara’ but I’ll stick with ‘chara.’ Are any of you thinking that ‘chara’ sounds familiar? Maybe you know the word ‘charis.’ That’s the word from which we get ‘charisma’ and ‘charismatic’ and the name ‘Charis.’ ‘Charis’ means ‘grace’, ‘favour’ and ‘kindness.’ And ‘chara’ means ‘joy.’ Curious! What’s the connection between favour and joy? It isn’t difficult. When someone shows us favour, we usually experience joy. ‘Charis’ produces ‘chara.’ In the Bible, it is pre-eminently God who shows people favour.
THE NEW TESTAMENT UNDERSTANDING of joy is a feeling or attitude that comes from recognizing that God has shown us favour, that he’s given us a gift, that he’s bestowed grace.
I asked three questions at the beginning. My second question was, what KIND of joy should we experience? I think we can now suggest an answer. We often feel joy when we receive a gift, especially when it’s something we really want. A Christian’s joy is very like that. We recognize that God has freely given us an enormous gift. Maybe when we first realize what God has done, we’re bowled over. Maybe we have a leap-in-the-air kind of emotional response. But after a while, we settle down. The joy is still there but now, it’s a quieter kind of joy. It’s still joy, but it's expressed in a different way.