Third Sunday of Advent: Joy

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
    of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
    the covering that is cast over all peoples,
    the veil that is spread over all nations.
    He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
    and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
    “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
    This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
-Isaiah 25:6-9

There are two species of joy in life: the joy of anticipation and the joy of arrival. We tend to focus on the latter – the rush of joy we feel at the tearing of wrapping paper, the first bite of steak, or the moment of birth. The time arrives, the thing longed for is here, and our hearts rise up and sing. This focus is normal, I suppose, but it can leave us feeling confused about Christmas.

The angels appear in the skies outside Bethlehem, and what they proclaim is “glad tidings of great joy.” The shepherds go out from the house rejoicing. Simeon and Anna rejoice. But what is striking about all of this joy is that it is for something that has not yet arrived.

The joy of the angels and shepherds is not simply the joy of birth. Oh, absolutely, it is Christ's birth that elicits the song. But babies were born all the time in Bethlehem, and the shepherds weren't regularly waking the town with their jubilation. The rejoicing wasn't even at the thought of divine incarnation, that God was somehow made present. What loosed the tongues and lifted the hearts of those around the manger was the thought that, through this baby, salvation was coming.

This passage from Isaiah is not about the Messiah's birth. It's message is caught up in it, certainly. The prophets often see the future all intertwined, with the Prince of Peace and the suffering servant and the end of all evil set side by side. Yet what it pictures – Mount Zion laden for feasting, death being finally destroyed – those are events that still lie in the future. Jesus has come to usher in these things, but they won't be realized until He comes again.

On that day there will be the final rejoicing, that of arrival. “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:9) We are of course not there; we are still in the waiting.

Yet the joy found on that day is connected with the joy of Mary and the shepherds and the saints. What they are celebrating is the joy of anticipation, and it is the knowledge of that future arrival of God's promises that causes them to celebrate this birth. Because while it is not yet here, Jesus stands as a marker that it is truly coming.

My wife and I have three children. Like all children, they love the merriment of Christmas. They love the treats and the candles and the presents. What is striking, though, is the celebration that accompanies not simply the arrival of those things but also the anticipation. The barrage of excited questions about when the candy will be made. The wriggling excitement when they should be sleeping, looking forward to the discovery of gifts under the tree. Their joy doesn't begin with the arrival of Christmas; it also rests in the anticipation of it.

This is the character of all Christian joy in this age. We often wonder how it is that we can rejoice in the midst of the darkness. The answer is not some game of make-believe, a pious pretending that things right now aren't as bad as they in fact are. It is not the spiritual platitudes of gnostic souls, pretending this world holds no power over them.

True Christian joy in this life is the joy of anticipation. It is not the celebration that healing and wholeness have arrived, but neither is it simply a hope in maybe's. Because this child has come, and because of the work that He has done, and because He now sits in heaven at the Father's right hand, the future is secure. The veil wrapped over the earth will be torn asunder. The tears we now cry will be dried. Death, that hound that dogs our heels, will finally be put down, and we will be delivered from its teeth.

On that day we will rejoice with the arrival of new creation. In this season, while that is not yet ours, we can rejoice in anticipation. We can face all that is broken square in the face and, though our hearts break for the wrongness of it, we can laugh the deep laughter of those who know it will be made right. In this season we rejoice in anticipation of that coming day when the salvation begun in Bethlehem at last arrives.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let ev'ry heart prepare Him room,
and heav'n and nature sing,
and heav'n and nature sing,
and heav'n, and heav'n and nature sing.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found,
far as, far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of His righteousness
and wonders of His love,
and wonders of His love,
and wonders, wonders of His love.

-Isaac Watts, Joy to the World