There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. Psalm 4.6-7.
Do I have joy in my heart this morning? Yes, I do. Thanks be to God!
But what is “joy”? I don’t know. I find it almost impossible to describe. I just know it came into my heart over half a century ago along with Jesus and it has been there ever since. He was, and he remains, the Joy-Bringer. Years ago, in the mid-seventies, Jamie Owens-Collins brought out a lovely album of Christian songs called “Laughter in Your Soul” and that is about as good a definition of joy as I know. The Hebrew is simchah which means “joy, mirth, gladness” and the Bible is full of that word and other related words from the same s-m-ch root — samach, “rejoice”; sameach, “joyful, merry”. And in the Bible, the reason for joy is almost always the Lord and his salvation. “Restore to me the joy of your salvation,” prays David (Psalm 51.12).
Sometimes that salvation is a straightforward matter of physical deliverance from one’s foes: “Then they returned, every man of Judah and Jerusalem, and Jehoshaphat at their head, returning to Jerusalem with joy, for the LORD had made them rejoice over their enemies. They came to Jerusalem with harps and lyres and trumpets, to the house of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 20.27-28). More often, however, it is the salvation that lies in moving from death to life, from being lost to being found, in becoming one of God’s people and a part of his eternal kingdom. “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the LORD!'” (Psalm 40.16). Joy is the joy of exodus, of rescue, of coming home. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, the psalmist records that “he brought his people out with joy” (Psalm 105.43). Paul says that the kingdom of God is about “joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17).
C S Lewis who, according to the title of his autobiography, was “Surprised by Joy” when he became a Christian, went on to write that “joy is the serious business of heaven.” God himself is the most joyful person in or outside the universe: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16.11). And God is committed to restoring joy to this sad and broken and downcast planet. “These things I have spoken to you,” says Jesus, “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15.11).
The joy of the Lord, the joy of Jesus, is not at all dependent on circumstance, as this morning’s reading makes plain. Happiness may depend on “grain and wine abounding” but joy doesn’t. “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3.17). That is because the source of all joy is Jesus and he is always there, always loving, always true.
And it is because all joy springs from God himself that Nehemiah can tell the returned exiles: “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8.10). When I let loose the joy that Jesus puts in my heart, when I give free reign to it and let it burst out in praise, I actually become a strong person. Joy actually brings victory over situation and circumstance. G K Chesterton once wrote that “joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian” and so it is.
I know, of course, from my own experience that I can if I will suppress the joy that is within me. To rejoice is an active verb. Rejoicing is something I can either do or not do. I can look at the grey skies, look at the rain, look at my bank balance, look at the difficulties of the day ahead and I can, by refusing to rejoice, force underground the stream of joy that is in my heart. I will be a fool to do so. Joy is my secret weapon against whatever the day might bring. That is why Paul tells me to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4.4). The first step in doing that is, I find, to look upon the Jesus I have still to see. When I do that, Peter tells me what will happen: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1.8).
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with mirth,
His praise forth tell;
come ye before Him and rejoice.