Sometimes we short change salvation, by thinking Jesus saves us and pays off our debt to God. We think of it like a massive debt we get into, so someone generously pays it off and we have a bank balance of zero, so we can start again without that debt hanging over us. Too often that’s how we wrongly think about the salvation God promises. Jesus pays our debt and gets us to zero, now I have to start earning God’s favour. When I do good my spiritual account goes up, when I fail it’s like a spiritual direct debit. God is pleased with me when I’m in the spiritual black.
What is Christmas all about? We look forward to Christmas and all it brings, yet it’s hugely complicated and complex. It’s like an articulated lorry. Christmas is the cab, but with it comes the huge 44 tonne articulated trailer of expectations, traditions, and busyness that Christmas pulls around with it. There’s the expectation of seeing the family – all of them at some point, of food cooked to perfection, of family time without conflict or needle, and certain family traditions that have to repeated year after year.
So often what comes with Christmas is what we mistake for Christmas. So what is Christmas all about? The angels sum it up beautifully “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” Christmas, the birth of Jesus brings not just a flicker of a smile, not just a temporary warm fuzzy feeling, not just joy but great joy, literally ‘mega-joy.’ It’s another of those great Christmas words. It is on Christmas jumpers and cards and decorations; joy. But what does it mean and how do we embrace it? And how can we know great joy not just at Christmas?
Joy is a strong word. It means to be glad, to be happy, to rejoice and celebrate. And the Bible isn’t anti-joy, God isn’t a killjoy, the Bible is full of joy because God is the giver of joy. It begins with God creating a world that is “very good” – overflowing with bounty and beauty. And God puts Adam and Eve into that world to find joy in it. That’s still true isn’t it? Just think of 5 things that bring you joy, 5 things that make you happy? Go on, stop and actually do it!. They were all created by God because God is generous and provides things that bring joy.
As you read the Bible you see joy and rejoicing in all sorts of things. There’s the joy of birthday and wedding celebrations. There’s joy at feasting and celebrating victory in battle. There’s joy in good wine. Proverbs tells us a wise son bring joy to his parents. In Song of Solomon there is joy and rejoicing in marriage and the intimacy it brings. God is a joy giving God, every moment of joy we experience, from the joy of celebrating a last minute winner, to the birth of a child, or the joy of that first mouthful your favourite meal cooked to perfection, is given to us by a joy giving God.
But the Bible is also honest about the problem we have with joy. Joy leaks. It’s like a balloon or tyre with a slow puncture, it gradually lets us down. In the world this side of the fall we’re tempted to seek joy in the gift when every gift was always intended to point us to joy in the giver. And therein lies the problem, things bring us joy but that joy is only temporary. We’re like a bucket with a hole, we have to constantly top our joy up to maintain any semblance of it. Constantly seeking new joy. But parties end, celebrations finish, our children aren’t always wise or delightful and nor are our parents, marriages are hard and so is intimacy, food spoils, wine turns, and reality intrudes. Joy leaks. And the danger is we become consumed by our search for joy, insatiably hungry for something it just can’t give us.
The joy we experience is meant to point us not to the gift but the giver. But because of sin we tend to forget the giver in pursuit of the gift. In the garden the real joy was relationship with God, but it is easily lost.
That’s not unique to us, it’s a universal problem. It’s the problem of Israel. They knew great joy. They knew the joy of being saved miraculously from slavery, and brought through the Red Sea – we tend to think seeing a miracle would change everything but Israel are proof it doesn’t – because they soon grumble and moan and fixate on gifts not giver. They’re given a land with houses built, vineyards dug and cities walled, but they soon become fixated on the gifts, trying to fill their bucket but unsatisfied because they forget the giver.