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ADVENT JOY (Advent 3: 2019)


The first Salvationists literally jumped with joy. General William Booth told them that if they felt the Holy Spirit move them they could leap in a hymn or a prayer. They leapt! Dr John Farmer, the organist at Harrow School, used to tell how he adjudicated once at a great music festival and heard a Salvation Army band in action. His musical soul was offended by the drummer and the man with the French horn. He is said to have appealed to the drummer not to hit the drum so hard, to which beaming bandsman replied, ‘Oh sir, I’m so happy I could burst the blessed drum!’ When Dr Farmer turned with a word of similar appeal to the man with the French horn the enthusiast held up the much-twisted instrument and said, ‘But Sir, I’m so full of joy I want to blow this thing quite straight!’

There are several words for ‘joy’ in the New Testament but the most common word (that has the same root as the word ‘grace’ perhaps giving us a clue as to the source of such joy) signifies an overwhelming sense of ‘gladness’ (in contrast to weeping and sorrow). Rick Warren helpfully defines Christian joy as ‘the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation’. This kind of joy is at the very heart of the Advent/Christmas Season. When the angel announced the birth of the Christ-Child to the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem he did so by announcing, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that is for all people’ (Luke 2:10) – the same kind of joy illustrated above. The Apostle Paul tells us in his Letter to the Galatians that this kind of joy is not something worked up from within, not something dependent on favourable circumstances, but something welling up from within born of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23). Difficult to describe such joy is a ‘felt experience’ that stems from the presence of the Holy Spirit at work within us in our hearts and lives. It is ‘better felt than tellt’ as a Scottish divine once put it.

The lot of these shepherds in the Nativity narrative was not a happy one. Their job was to look after the Temple flocks of sheep (used in ritual sacrifices) and they were held in low esteem even amongst their own people, considered unclean they were ostracised and excluded, and yet it was to such people that the ‘Good News’ was first announced (which should encourage us all, especially those of us who feel rejected by others or who suffer from low self-esteem). The supernatural origin of this joy we are speaking of here is evidenced by the fact that (having immediately gone to see this Child for themselves) they ‘returned glorifying and praising God for all the things they had seen and heard’ (Luke 2:20). What is more we too can experience such joy for ourselves because, as the angel announced, it is ‘for all people’ (Luke 2:10) and not just for the chosen few. As William Barclay suggests, ‘In a worried world the Christian should be the only person who remains serene. In a depressed world the Christian should be the only person who remains full of the joy of life. There should be a sheer sparkle about the Christian life!’ It is not only members of the Salvation Army that can ‘leap for joy’ … it is for all who will receive the good news of the Gospel for themselves.

Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) was a Protestant Christian missionary in India, who opened an orphanage and founded a mission in Dohnavur in India where she served in India for 55 years without furlough caring for hundreds of girls originally dedicated to temple service as prostitutes. For the last twenty years of her life she was bedridden. Rather than believing that her significant years were now over, and giving in to her circumstances, Carmichael actually was to discover that the best years of her life were ahead of her, such was her genuine joy in the Lord. During these twenty years she wrote many books that have blessed millions and entertained many visitors in her room. It is said that joy so filled her sick room that everyone who visited her came away praising God. In her book Gold by Moonlight, Carmichael testifies that ‘Where the things of God are concerned, acceptance always means the happy choice of mind and heart of that which He appoints, because (for the present) it is His good and acceptable and perfect will!’

O happy day that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Saviour and my God!

Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
And tell its raptures all abroad.

Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!
He taught me how to watch and pray,
And live rejoicing every day;
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away!

’Tis done—the great transaction’s done;
I am my Lord’s, and He is mine;
He drew me and I followed on,
Rejoiced to own the call divine.

Now rest, my long divided heart,
Fixed on this blissful centre, rest;
Here have I found a nobler part,
Here heav’nly pleasures fill my breast.

High heav’n that hears the solemn vow,
That vow renewed shall daily hear!
Till in life’s latest hour I bow,
And bless, in death, a bond so dear.

~ Philip Doddridge (1702-51)

Jim Binney

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