The season to “Rejoice”

This is a compilation of the studies on “rejoice” and “joy” previously posted, along with some added notes.

prepared for Greensboro Mennonite Fellowship
December 21, 2014

Intro: regarding the Scripture readings: Joel 2:21-27; Lk.1:26-38 and 46-55.
I changed the O.T. reference because the ones suggested were only dealing with King David’s ascension to power. Christmas focuses not on King David, but on King Jesus, who, although genetically related to David, came to establish a much more far-reaching Kingdom – not only in time and place, but also in its purpose and accomplishments! Notice how the prophecy is reflected in Jesus’ “inaugural” in Lk.4 when he was announcing his purpose.
You may have also noticed that this part of Joel’s prophecy immediately precedes the one Peter quoted in his Pentecost sermon. Jesus’ arrival was the first installment of its fulfillment; the Spirit’s coming to create and empower a faithful brotherhood was the second, and the final triumph of the King of Kings will finish it off – and each stage is intended to cause “rejoicing” among his people!

Notice also that the folks who put the bulletin passages together used Mary’s response to her angelic visitor two weeks in a row. I used to be bothered by her statement, “My soul doth magnify the Lord”. “Magnify”? How can a mere person make God appear to be any bigger than he is? But someone – probably one of the “scientific-types” that I have lived with all these years (a husband and four sons) — pointed out that a “magnifying” lens really doesn’t make anything bigger: it just enables us to see better – greater detail, more intricacy, more beauty. The change is in our perception, not the object of our examination. And until it all wraps up, we will always need to see the Lord more clearly! I think we are all expected to do this “magnifying” to and for and with each other, so that “(our) spirit may rejoice in God (our) savior!”

At any rate, the recommended response to all of these is the same: “Rejoice!”

As is frequently the case, “rejoice” is a term used to describe widely varied ideas, all the way from simply being “glad” about something, through boasting or bragging, throwing a party, celebrating good fortune or expressing gratitude for blessings, to breathless awe at recognizing the hand of God at work.
The four different original words represented are not easily sorted into categories: it is not rare to find yourself asking, “Why did the writer make that choice?” Often two of the words are used together, as “joy and gladness/celebration”, “rejoice with joy”, or even three, in the announcement to Zachariah, (Lk.1:14) “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth”.
So rather than trying to sort out vocabulary, it probably makes more sense to look at the situations and conditions represented. A few are rather easily disposed of, as less than relevant to the promise of the season.

The idea of boasting or bragging, virtually always viewed in a negative sense in classical usage, does appear Biblically in warnings not to take personal credit for what the Lord has done, or for one’s “spiritual” experiences, but it is also used when Paul is trying to leverage relief effort (“Don’t make me sorry I bragged about you” – II Cor.7), and to encourage people’s obedience to the Lord.

Another word is only occasionally connected to God – a frequent translation is “make merry”, and primarily describes the luxurious feasting of the wealthy in several parables, the partying of those who killed God’s faithful witnesses in Rv.11:10, and even of idol worship, but also simply of frivolous behavior, although it is also used of the celebration at the return of the prodigal son.

The more usual (and more positive) word for “celebration”, used in the LXX of coronations, and classically of paying honor to a god, in the NT speaks primarily of the joy of those who have become faithful (like the jailer in Philippi), or in recognition, or expectation, of God’s faithfully fulfilling prophetic promises.

Far more common – and probably therefore more ambiguous — is the use of chairo and its noun form, chara (usually rendered “joy”). It can be as simple as the standard greeting or leave-taking (perfunctorily wishing someone well), or as profound as an admonition to acknowledge – and live up to — one’s position in Christ, and many levels in between. Some of its uses are understandable on a purely human level.
There are frequent references in both the OT and NT to the “joy” of a good harvest.
A shepherd “rejoices” when he finds a lost sheep, and a woman at the recovery of her dowry coin, or the safe delivery of a child.
The Magi “rejoiced” when they saw the star, perceiving that it would lead them to the King they sought.
Zachariah was told that his neighbors would “rejoice” at the birth of his son.
Jesus mentions “rejoicing” at a wedding.
Paul speaks of “rejoicing” at the arrival of encouraging friends, or a gift from a supporting group, as well as hearing of the faithfulness of many folks in the churches.
The men who find treasure in a field, or a valuable pearl, “rejoice” at their good fortune.
But even the conniving council of priests were “glad” (same word) when they contracted with Judas for Jesus’ betrayal, and Herod was “glad” for the chance to see Jesus when Pilate sent him over.

Jesus’ gracious acts of healing or other restoration mark a transition to a different level of “rejoicing.”
The 70 disciples Jesus had sent out to preach returned all excited (“with joy”) about their successful campaign, but Jesus admonished them that their “rejoicing” was misplaced – it should rather be focused on the privilege of participating in his Kingdom.
Jesus was “glad” for his disciples’ sake that he was not present when Lazarus died, so that they could see beyond that event. Later, his words proved true in their joy over his own resurrection.
The whole town was said to be “rejoicing” at the miraculous things that happened in Samaria when Philip was preaching there.
There was “rejoicing” among the churches Paul visited enroute to Jerusalem when they heard of the conversions among the Gentiles
The Gentile churches “rejoiced” at their gracious acceptance by the Jerusalem Conference.
The Ethiopian eunuch and the Philippian jailer “rejoiced” at their commitment to the Lord.
Paul and the other writers of epistles express joy or rejoicing at the faithfulness of their correspondents.
And of course there are numerous scenes of the rejoicing of the faithful around the throne in Revelation. In scenes of triumph and celebration, “rejoicing” is no surprise.

But more prevalent than any of these is the use of the word in situations that one would NOT expect to produce “rejoicing”. And this, completely absent in classical literature, is the truest message, not only of the season, but in the whole of our life in the Lord.
It is easy and appropriate to “rejoice” — to celebrate – when things are going well: whether we perceive it as a result of the Lord’s intervention, as the outcome we desired or hoped for in any situation, or simply a beautiful day!
The thing that sets NT admonitions to “rejoicing” apart from anything ordinary – indeed, seems totally contrary to “normal” expectations — is that the vast majority of these are focused on situations where everything seems to be going WRONG!

Early on, Jesus had advocated “rejoicing” in the face of persecution and abuse (Mt.5 and Lk.6) as a result of one’s faithfulness to him, looking past the present reality.
He had prayed that his own “joy” would remain among his followers, even as he faced imminent torture and death. He repeatedly returns to this theme through John 14-16, also looking beyond what his listeners can see at the time.
A similar theme recurs in Ac.5, when the disciples are said to have “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor” for the name of Jesus.

Peter seems to have identified quite deeply with this message, as much later, probably near the end of his life, he wrote:
“Keep on celebrating about that [him] , though right now, for a while, you all may have to be grieving over various trials …. Continue to love him whom you have not seen, being faithful toward him whom you don’t see now, and celebrating with indescribable and glorious joy!”
Please notice that this is NOT, as some folks through the centuries have tried to present it, a shallow promise of “pie in the sky bye and bye” as a reward or antidote for misery in life here and now. There is NO HINT of advocacy for abject submission to evil, as if it were “God’s will”! IT IS NOT!!! James, in his own epistle, makes that abundantly clear. Peter immediately moves on to employ our future hope as an incentive to determined (even stubborn!) present faithfulness, encouraging the brotherhood (notice that the entire message is written in the plural) to live presently as an incarnation of Jesus’ triumph!
Sometime, sit down and s-l-o-w-l-y read Peter’s whole letter as a single message, paying attention to the way he weaves together suffering and celebration, abuse and glory, and how intimately both are connected to the interaction of the Body of believers. This is absolutely essential to maintaining our “rejoicing” in the face of difficulty, misfortune, suffering, or even outright evil. WE NEED EACH OTHER!!! Sometimes desperately!

Paul, too, juxtaposes these apparently contradictory ideas as he speaks in
Rom.12:12   of “rejoicing in hope [confidence]” producing patience in trials
II Cor.6:10 of being “sorrowful, but always rejoicing”
Phil.1:18, even from prison, rejoicing at the faithfulness of the church
Col.1:24 even when he is being abused on their behalf
and in both letters to the beleaguered church of Thessalonica of the joy imparted by the Holy Spirit despite the turmoil that surrounded (and resulted from) their faithfulness.

The letter to the Hebrews (10:24 and 12:12) connects the prospect of eventual triumph to one’s reaction to persecution, with Jesus’ own focus on the eventual outcome.

Perhaps the most vivid contrast, though, appears in Rev.18, at the economic collapse of Babylon – which throughout Scripture has served as a label for all the world powers that have chosen either to oppose or to ignore the genuine King . While the participants in Babylon’s excesses and luxury are mourning, in despair at the system’s destruction, the message to God’s people (v.20) is to rejoice – to celebrate, recognizing that it is the gracious intervention of God on their/our behalf! Interestingly, the word chosen here is the one more frequently used of throwing a party! Is that what you do when the stock market tanks?
At first that seems odd – but perhaps it is a deliberate reinforcement of the counter-cultural nature of the life to which we are called! The same choice of wording was made in Rev.12:12, celebrating the vindication of the martyrs by the destruction of the dragon and his minions.

So where does this leave us? And how is it connected to the celebration of the Christmas season? It is really rather simple:

The coming of Jesus was promised, many centuries before his arrival. He came! The God of the whole universe came, walking as one of us, among his people, in kindness and incredible love. REJOICE!!!

After demonstrating as well as explaining how his Kingdom was intended to work, he left us, as he had promised, with a “Coach”, the Holy Spirit, to form us into his winning team, to enable his “demonstration project”, and to help us hang in there, together, regardless of any temporary consequences. REJOICE!!!

Having seen his fulfillment of all his earlier promises, we can have total confidence in the fulfillment of the third: He will come again, and rule forever as rightful King!   REJOICE!!!




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