In a Christmas season when we may be experiencing stress, difficult days, or loss, what does it look like to choose joy? During Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, use these meditations to reflect on different facets of biblical joy through Scripture passages and familiar Christmas carols.
Week 1: Hope in Jesus’ victory
READ: Habakkuk 3:17–19
LISTEN: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
These verses that close out the prophet Habakkuk’s writings can be some of the most challenging in the whole Bible. We’re tempted to ask, “Really, God? Even if there’s nothing in my bank account and my loved ones are sick or dying? ‘Rejoice’ then?” The Bible’s answer is yes. And the bracing lines of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” tell us the same thing: Amid “the gloomy clouds of night” and “death’s dark shadows,” God’s people are called to “rejoice!”
Why? Because Emmanuel — God with us — is on His way here. This hymn is an embodied ache of living in our fallen world. And we’ve felt those pains even more acutely than usual the last couple years, haven’t we? Yet we sing this somber hymn alongside upbeat carols like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” at Christmas to remind ourselves that Jesus was born to deal with a very specific problem: death’s erosive power over our lives and world.
Biblical joy, in the words of Habakkuk and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” is rooted in the hope of the incarnated Jesus’ certain victory over the hold death currently has on all we love. With His coming, Jesus disperses the clouds and “put[s] to flight” the shadows. Habakkuk can declare, “I will be joyful in God my Savior” (v. 18) because of the hope that the Savior will put death itself to death — by His own birth, death, and resurrection.
How does reflecting on Jesus’ world-changing birth reorient your circumstances this Christmas, whether you’re rejoicing or suffering? Where is God showing you how to rejoice in Him?
“With Jesus, even in our darkest moments the best remains and the very best is yet to be.”—Corrie ten Boom
Week 2: Delight in God’s goodness
READ: Psalm 98
LISTEN: “Joy to the World”
This hymn’s title says it all! When we sing, “While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains/ Repeat the sounding joy,” we’re proclaiming a truth straight from Psalm 98: The entire creation, from a speck of seaweed to the grandest mountain, calls us to revere our glorious God — and joins us in praising Him. Both Psalm 98 and “Joy to the World” tell of jubilant, irrepressible praise to the creativity and power of the Creator. It’s wildly worshipful.
When was the last time you “shout[ed] for joy to the Lord” because of His glory? This repeated shouting in the psalm and the “sounding joy” of the hymn aren’t some forced admission of God’s provision. Rather, they’re the overflow of a heart that delights in God because His goodness is abundantly evident everywhere we look in the world. And God’s character — His holiness, salvation, righteousness, love, and faithfulness — is a legitimate cause for joy, too.
The Bible portrays this kind of joy as a transformative force that has its source in God’s pure goodness. God “has done marvelous things” — thus “all the earth” is exhorted to “shout for joy before the Lord, the King” (vv. 1, 4, 6). Simply because “the Savior reigns,” humans and nature are called to sing, to use their whole selves in exuberant, imaginative worship of God. And that worship will show the world the “wonders of His love.”
What in your life fuels your joyful worship of God this season?
Week 3: Receive the Son’s reconciliation
READ: Colossians 1:15-20
LISTEN: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
“Peace on earth and mercy mild/ God and sinners reconciled.” These gloriously simple words from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” sum up the joy of the incarnation and the foundation of our Christmas celebrations. In some of its earliest known uses, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “reconcile” was used reflexively, “to restore oneself to friendly relations with another.” Yet it’s the central truth of our faith that we can’t achieve the reconciliation we need most: between ourselves and God. And that’s why Paul’s praise song to Jesus in Colossians 1 culminates in the glorious proclamation that “God was pleased … through [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things” (vv. 19–20). Restored relationship with our Creator doesn’t depend on our efforts — praise God!
When we consider the depths that separated us from God in our sinful nature, we sing “Glory to the newborn King!” at Jesus’ birth. This gift of reconciliation prompts the response of joy in us — joy that’s based on a right understanding of our fundamental need for restoration with the One who is “the firstborn over all creation” (v. 15). If God required us to raise ourselves up from our sin, we’d be doomed. But from first to last — from birth to death to victorious resurrection — it’s Jesus’ work that gifts us our “friendly relations,” our rightness, with God. As the hymn says, His birth brings “light and life to all” and, when His life culminates in resurrection, we receive “healing in his wings.” So we celebrate with the angels that “Christ is born in Bethlehem” and find joy in our reconciling Son of Righteousness.
Colossians 1:16 says all things were created for Jesus. How does His work of reconciliation change how you see your life, your relationships, or your struggles?
“Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. … Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”—Henri Nouwen
Week 4: Adore the Christ’s birth
READ: John 1:14
LISTEN: “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
A distinction is commonly made between a Christian’s joy and happiness — that joy isn’t based on circumstances but on God (see the first week’s reflection), whereas happiness shifts with each small life change. But it’s not an entirely accurate delineation, because there is one crucial moment in history on which every Christian’s joy depends: Jesus’ life, from His birth to His death and resurrection. As The Message translation puts John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” God inhabiting our world is an event that transforms all our grounds for joy. That’s why the lines of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” call God’s people “joyful and triumphant” as we behold Him.
The kind of adoration that this hymn and this verse calls us to isn’t passive, much like joy isn’t just positive feelings. The admiration in mind is active — “Come and behold Him” — and hospitable in the fullest sense. We make room for the miraculous in our lives as we realize the wonder of “the King of angels” coming to us as a child. Contemplating God’s glory revealed in the birth of Jesus, we are moved to choose the joy this beautiful Savior offers. We’re basing our joy not on an earth-bound circumstance, but on the fact that the Creator of the universe willingly bound Himself to earth as a helpless infant — to restore all of creation to Himself.
Amid the busyness of the Christmas season, where can you make room to contemplate the wonder of Jesus’ birth?