Joy in a Joyless World

Yesterday, in many churches, the congregation celebrated the third Sunday in Advent and lit what they called “The Candle of Joy.” In just a few days, Christians worldwide will gather to celebrate the birth of Christ. Many congregations will sing “Joy to the World,” the first verse of which reads as follows:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing, And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing. [1]

“Joy to the World” celebrates in song the birth of the savior of the world (v. 2), who will conquer the power of sin and death (v. 3) and rule the world with truth and grace (v. 4). If this is true, then indeed not just Christians but everyone should sing, “Joy to the world! the Savior reigns!” The world of political manipulation., violence, war, and dearth is over. A new kingdom has begun its entry into the world. Unfortunately, the world does not recognize the birth of this Savior of Love, the Prince of Peace, by whom, in the act of Divine love, provision was made for the undoing of sin, death, and the consequences of human finitude, selfishness, and evil.

Joy to the World

The hymn “Joy to the World” comes from a verse in Psalm 95, which happened to be my meditation psalm this morning:

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our Salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. The Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land (Psalm 95:1-5).

The meditation for this week is all about joy. Joy involves happiness, but it is more than mere “happiness.” Joy is an excellence of achievement, success, or well-being. It is not just being healthy and whole but the joyous recognition that we have achieved health and wholeness. Joy is a state of peace recognized by the one experiencing it as something final and absolute. (at least for the moment) Joy is the recognition of the reality of the Shalom God intends for the whole world, that state of perfect justice, beauty, and health for which all human beings long.

This particular Christmas, it may be difficult to feel joy for many people, myself included. In just a few weeks, I will turn 73 years old. I can feel the increasing weakness and fragility of an aging physical body. The antics of our government and prominent educational institutions, the ballooning indebtedness of our society, and evident moral and aesthetic decay are not reasons for joy. The increasing manipulativeness of elites signals difficult times ahead. The wars in the Middle East and Ukraine are not reasons for joy nor is the increasing antisemitism of Western societies. [2]

The emergence of a new round of antisemitism and opposition to almost any religious values reminds me of the words of Martin Niemöller:

First, they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak out for me. [3]

I am afraid we live in a time similar to the time of Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a time to speak up, hoping that one day we can experience the joy of good success in a noble endeavor.

The Apostle Paul also lived in a day and time when it was challenging to sing “Joy to the World,” yet he encouraged his churches to experience the joy of Christ. In First Thessalonians, after his rejection and mistreatment there, he writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 16-18). In Philippians, Paul writes from prison, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Over and over again, Paul speaks of the importance of Christian joy in his letters. Near the beginning of his ministry in 1 Thessalonians, he speaks of joy, and near the end in prison in Rome, he speaks of joy. He is not, however, speaking of merely human joy.

In his letter, James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). This verse reveals to us that Christian joy is not a circumstantial joy. It is not a joy that comes and goes with feelings of health or disease, success or failure, affluence or poverty, peace or war.  Christian is the joy of faith that comes from believing and living based on the promises of God.

In the Old Testament, the symbol of the kind of joy based on God’s faithfulness to his promises is found in many places. One of my favorites is found in Isaiah 51:

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you;
for Abraham was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. You see, the Lord comforts his people; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like the Garden of Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:1-3).

Isaiah 51:11 goes on to conclude with the words of one of my favorite praise chorus from my younger years:

Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing into Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away (Isaiah 51:11).

Christian joy is a joy based upon the promises of a faithful God. It is faith that at the end of the Abrahamic journey of faith, there will be joy as God’s kingdom is finally a reality in our lives and in the lives of those we love, indeed in the lives of all people of whatever race, color, or creed.

The Faulty Vision of Modernity

A contrary vision has captured our sad and dark world—a vision of a perfect earthly kingdom created through technology, bureaucracy, and the ideas of an intellectual and material elite. This elite and its followers no longer hear the muffled cry of a baby born in a manger in an obscure village in Palestine 2000 years ago, long before the modern world. A kind of spiritual deafness has engulfed our world. Sometimes it engulfs me as well.

The followers of this new ideology, left and right, do not listen to hear the voice of angels. They want to hear the cry of the scion of a wealthy and influential family in London, Moscow, Peking, Pretoria, Riyad, Tehran, Tokyo, Washington, or some other capital city. They want the advice of the great universities of the West, almost all formed by devout Christians. They want the development of a new and greater technology that will create their vision of a perfect world—at least for them. They ultimately and inevitably want to hear the cry of an Alexander the Great, not an obscure baby born to be a Suffering Servant, despised and rejected by most of the human race (Isaiah 53:3).

The reasons for the rejection of Christ by Western elites are complex. The development of Newtonian physics and modern technology gave birth to the dream of a world run by human scientific reason where everything could be rationally organized according by human scientific and technological wisdom. For 300 years, this was the dream of most intellectuals. The dissenting voices of Romantics were heard, only to eventually produce the figure of Nietzsche and the glorification of human will, the Will to Power. This, in turn, created the intellectual foundation for another Alexander the Great. This figure had gone by many names: Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol—name your poison. The vision cast by the Enlightenment only began to decay when the reality dawned on a few that no such paradise was being created either in the capitalist West or the Communist East. Today, there are few true believers, but many true users of the Gospel of Power and Greed.

The New Vision

Interestingly, for over a century now, we have known that the picture of the world as nothing but matter and force is not an accurate picture of reality. Reality is much more like an organism than it is like a machine. We live in a universe of unimaginable rationality and universal relationality. It is a world in which not a sparrow falls from the sky without consequence. It is a world in which every act of love or hate is felt not just somewhere but everywhere It is a world where meaning can be found at every level of reality, from basic particles to the complexities of human civilizations.

There is plenty of room in this new vision of reality for freedom, love, grace, and other things values. This new world vision has space for real truth, justice, beauty, and goodness. There is also room for God and a God who rules in self-giving love and grace to restore his troubled creation. In this new vision of reality there is plenty of room for wisdom and love, and a savior that rules with grace and peace, if only people will listen to the voice of angels and the announcement of the kingdom. Angels can sing in this new world.

This vision means that Christians will not gather this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and sing “Joy to the World” in vain nor as deluded participants in a dead and dying religion. Instead they gather as participants in a “New Heaven and New Earth,” looking forward to that day in which the world will freely recognize its self-centered and destructive ways and bow in humility before the power of Divine Love, of a love that never commands or demands but offers itself for the beloved. It is true, you see, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”(John 3:16). He gave. That is why we give gifts on Christmas Day. God gave us his Beloved Son, and so we give human gifts in response to that love.

The tens of thousands of congregations worldwide that will gather this Christmas Day, large and small, are what Paul called the “First Fruits” of the gift of Christ (I Corinthians 15:20-23).  Christians of every age are those who, by grace, are called to become children of God in order to proclaim and live out the birth of the Kingdom of Christ in the world—not an earthly kingdom of kings, presidents, prime ministers, chairpersons, and the like, with armies and great bureaucracies to enforce their decrees, but a heavenly kingdom of love most graciously offered and given without any demand of a response.

We can sing “Joy to the World” this and every Christmas because the One Who Was, Is, and Will Be, the Alpha and Omega, the Bright and Morning Star, has been born into the world. His kingdom has begun and he does rule, and will rule the earth in grace and truth despite what we fallen human creatures make of his creation. We can sing “Joy to the World” because this obscure rabbi and traveling teacher and healer is the Rock of our Salvation, a deliverance he enacted for us in human history and continues quietly and in love to work out in history, not just for a few but for all people and the entirety of his creation.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs,

All Rights Reserved

[1] Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” (1719).

[2] I want to be sure that it is understood that all racism and prejudice against people for reasons of color, creed, political views, race or otherwise is contrary to the vision of Christ and the nature of the God of Love..

[3] Martin Niemöller, First They Came…”  (downloaded from various sources December 18, 2023). This quote has many different versions because it came from various oral presentations. I have used the most inclusive version I could find.

2 thoughts on “Joy in a Joyless World”

  1. Not once have I read one of your postings and not been blessed, simulated, and challenged. This is no exception. “We live in a universe of unimaginable rationality and universal relationality.” If only the weekend works willingly enter that universal relationality and receive the joy of which you wrote so eloquently – and accurately. Thank you, Chris … yet again. Have a blessed and joyful Christmas!

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