Each week of Advent is special, but the third week stands out from the others. For one thing, it’s marked with a different colored candle – pink instead of blue. More importantly, it introduces a note of celebration that is muted in the other weeks of the season, because the third week focuses on joy, the simple delight and happiness in what God has done through Jesus.
It takes strenuous effort to grow in hope (week 1), to cultivate peace (week 2), and to deepen faith (week 4). In all three cases we must swim against the tide of the world, resist the weakness of our sinful nature, and bear up under the opposition of the devil. If this were all that Advent had to offer, it might weary our souls just as winter wearies our bones. But thankfully there is more! For nestled in the middle of the Advent season, this reminder of the joy that is in Jesus gives us a Sabbath from the glorious yet hard work that comes with waiting on God.
The angel who told the shepherds of Jesus’ birth called his message “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). After rushing to Bethlehem and seeing the infant king, the shepherds returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). On that night the wonders that Jesus would perform and the lessons that he would give lay three decades in the distance, yet the shepherds still rejoiced. Why? Because the birth of the child guaranteed the works to come. For them, that was enough to cause delight and praise to erupt from their hearts.
Like the shepherds, we anticipate great things from Jesus without knowing when they will occur. Our joy will not be complete until Jesus returns, but that hardly suggests that the joy given to Christians in the present is a paltry thing. In fact, we have greater reason for joy than the shepherds and much greater ability to rejoice, for Jesus has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of a universe to come that will never know sin, decay, and death, and where God will dwell with mankind forever. Jesus has promised that we who follow him will share in that new creation. He has confirmed that promise by giving us the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit delights to bring joy.
Unlike the shepherds, we do not need to run in haste to see Jesus; we hear him from within. Jesus has now come to live in us through the Spirit, and the Spirit prompts us to rejoice in response to God’s word about Jesus. Just as an infant in the womb moves when she hears her mother’s voice, so the Holy Spirit who resides hidden in our souls answers the voice of the Father when we hear or read the Scriptures. The Spirit responds to the word with joy and calls our spirit to join in the celebration. Healthy Christians in turn recognize the voice of the Spirit within, listen in wonder as to a beautiful melody, and lend their voices to the song.
The Apostle Paul witnessed this experience in his time with the Thessalonians:
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, withthe joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
Later in his life, Paul wrote to the church in Rome and spelled out the word that he preached – the word over which the Spirit rejoiced, and in which the Spirit now calls us to rejoice: the declaration of the personal, powerful, and permanent love that the Father holds for each one who follows the Son:
You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:15-17)
What greater reason for joy can there be than to know that you – yes, you – will share richly in God’s new creation as Jesus’ sibling and the Father’s child? That everyone you worship with each week will also share in this glory? That those you mourn who have fallen asleep in the Lord have not been forgotten, but are even this moment beholding the face of the Father and the Son? That untold multitudes of people of every class, race, language, and nation will one day live, work, rest, learn, play, feast, discover, and worship in perfect truth and love? This and so much more joy is contained in that simple phrase that the Spirit whispers: “Abba, Father!” Such joy fortifies us for the hard work of sustaining hope, peace, and faith in this present age. Like a boxer who takes a shot to the jaw and smiles through the sting, a joyful Christian can relish trading blows with the world, the flesh, and the devil. The outcome is not in question, therefore there is joy in the struggle!
…and yet this joy often eludes us.
For some thoughts on why and what to do about it, read part 2.