Adventus, part 4: Embracing a gospel of joy

On most days, and in most ways, I’m glad to be an adult.  But this Christmas, I want to find a bit of the kid in me.  After all, Jesus himself taught that there were some things about being a child that should never be left behind.

When the disciples embarrassed themselves by arguing which of them would be number one in the kingdom (Mark 9:33-34), Jesus took a child in his arms and said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3-4, NIV).

For Jesus to suggest to grown men of his time and culture that they needed to repent and become like children would probably have confused them.  One chapter later, in fact, they demonstrate that they still don’t get it (Matt 19:13-15).  Apparently, the disciples had become a little too impressed with their own importance.

Thus, humility is clearly one of the childlike characteristics that Jesus had in mind.  Other qualities have been suggested: dependence, openness, trust, wonder.  I have one I’d like to add to the list: an uninhibited capacity for joy.

I remember when my son was still a lap-baby, not yet a toddler.  I would do one of those dad-things that makes moms bite their nails.  I’d toss him up in the air, and then catch him on the way down, with his face to my face.  He loved it.  But one game was his favorite.  My wife had embroidered a large, colorful stitchery that hung in our living room.  I would stand facing the framed needlework, about four feet back, with my arms down, holding my son just under the armpits.  Then I would quickly swing him up in front of the embroidery and pause for a few seconds before doing it again.

At the top of the swing, he would laugh and laugh and laugh: that highly addictive baby-giggle that can light up a whole roomful of somber adults.  Of course–overly enthusiastic dads and granddads take note!–if at any point he signaled that he wasn’t enjoying the game anymore, I’d stop; we always went at his pace.  But truth be told, the game wasn’t just for him, it was for me.  His joy was mine; I felt full to a glorious overflowing when he laughed like that, even if just for a few moments.

Kids seem to come wired for joy.  One of my former students had invited me to come lecture at the university where he had become a junior professor.  I stayed in his home, visiting with his wife and baby daughter.  The little girl didn’t know me from Adam–but she was ready to play!  As she sat on the living room floor, I built a wall of throw pillows around her, then lay down and hid for a game of peek-a-boo.  I’d yank down the pillow that was in front of her and make the mock-surprise face (you know the one I mean).  And there it was again: that deep soul-laughter, that full-body expression of joy.  She’d chortle gleefully with everything she had, then pause with that wide-eyed, expectant expression that said, Do it again!  

I gladly obliged, to her delight and mine.

It seems that something is both gained and lost in growing up.  We become realists–sometimes, hardened realists.  Our enjoyment of the moment is seldom completely innocent of our knowledge of what’s wrong with the world, with others, with us.  We smile and laugh, but hold a piece of ourselves back, lest we seem too careless, or make ourselves too vulnerable.

Perhaps that’s the way of it with a more mature joy, even Christian joy.  How many have wondered how the Bible can command joy even when everything seems to be going wrong?  When Paul, for example, speaks of joy, he always seems to do so against a background of suffering.  Indeed, he had little choice, since so much of his life involved being persecuted for the gospel.  But he refused to let his circumstances define him, and he counseled others to follow his example.  Joy is possible, Paul seemed to say, because the truth about what God is doing in, around, and through you is deeper than your suffering.

In that way, I think many of us have made an awkward peace with some concept of Christian joy.  It may not be the full-body glee of the child, but more of a stoic, adult compromise; it’s less of an authentic joy than a joy-in-principle to which we subscribe because the Bible says so.  “Rejoice always!” Paul commands (1 Thess 5:16).  OK, Paul–I guess.  If that’s what you want. 

Thus, a new gospel–the gospel according to Eeyore.

Is that the end of the matter?  I certainly hope not, though I confess to a certain Eeyore-ish bent myself.  The Old Testament prophets seemed to think that real joy was not only possible, but inevitable.  Isaiah in particular looked forward to the day in which God would vindicate his people.  And in that day, not only the redeemed but all of creation itself would be glad and shout for joy at God’s glory and splendor (35:1-2, 10).

Christmas is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s joyous anticipation.  Joy, in fact, permeates Luke’s Christmas narrative throughout.  The fetus who would one day be John the Baptist leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice (1:41-44).  In response, Mary herself broke out into a song of praise (1:46-55).  Simeon praised God for allowing him the privilege of seeing the Messiah before he died (2:25-32).

And, of course, we also have this:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12, NIV)

A message of great joy, delivered by an angel, to the accompaniment of an entire heavenly choir–what a sight it must have been!  The terrified shepherds, unfortunately, probably spent too much time facedown in the dirt to see much of the spectacle.  I sincerely doubt I would have done any better.

But now?  What reason is there to not fully receive the gospel of joy, the joy of the gospel?  Maybe the shepherds aren’t the only ones with their faces buried.

Joy to the world, we sing: the Lord is come; let Earth receive her King!  Like Isaiah, we look forward in hope to the advent of the King.  Unlike Isaiah, however, our hope is for a second coming, predicated on a first coming that was supposed to bring great joy.  Not everyone received him gladly.  Some called for his coronation; others, for his crucifixion.  Next time, his reign will be uncontested, and the joy of the redeemed will be complete.

But for now, I want to know the pure joy in what God has already done.  Somehow I know that if and when I truly get it, when the absurdly lavish grace of Christmas begins to sink in, I’m going to laugh, and laugh, and laugh–in the sheer delight of a Father who gave everything to catch us on the way down.

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