Joy. It’s a Christmas thing. Isaiah predicted its coming. Gabriel announced it to Zechariah. John the Baptizer, while still in the womb, leapt for it. The angels proclaimed it in abundance to the shepherds. And we sing about it . . . a lot. Joy can be found in “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Holy Night,” “What Child Is This?” “When Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” “O, Come, All Ye Faithful” and, of course, “Joy to the World.” With all this joy, one would think that the angel would have said to Joseph, “The virgin will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Imjoyuel’ (which means ‘joy with us’).” Bottom line, there’s a lot of joy in Christmas.
And yet, when we read Isaiah’s description of Jesus and his life, we don’t see a lot of joy.
“He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” (Isaiah 53:2-3)
Underline the happy expressions in those two verses. You haven’t even lifted a pen; and there, you’re done. Equally as easy: now underline the harsh parts in those two verses. If you underlined the entire two verses, congratulations! You’ve completed the assignment. Don’t miss this: Isaiah looks out upon the coming of the Messiah, and he sees no joy. But it’s not only the number of harsh expressions here; it’s their depth. The Messiah will have nothing that will attract people to him (think about how much attention we spend on looks and on being attractive). Physically, as to his appearance, he will be undesirable. He will be despised, rejected, a man of suffering, a man familiar with pain and, at some point, a man so disfigured and tortured that people will hide their faces from him. And then, to make sure we get the point, Isaiah repeats himself. He will be despised and held in low esteem. If Isaiah was to sing about Christmas, he would not sing about “comfort and joy, comfort and joy,” but rather “anguish and sorrow.” He would sing not about “Joy to the World,” but about “Sadness to the World.”
But then, you turn to the gospels; and the way I read them (and maybe it is just my prejudice here), I see a Jesus who laughs far more than he cries. I see a Jesus who feasts more than he fasts. I see a Jesus who enjoys life, rather than one who endures its disappointment and failures. Now, given Isaiah’s prophecy, I would have thought Jesus would be a rather downcast type of person. But he isn’t. Jesus, the Messiah, a man of suffering and familiar with pain, was at the same time, a man who loved and laughed and was known for enjoying a great party. In order to silence his critics (who apparently were never happy with anything), Jesus compared himself with John the Baptizer, saying (Mt. 11:18-19): “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” Jesus, the man of sorrow, far from living a life characterized by being unhappy and miserable, lived a life of joy, of laughter, of love, of warm friendships and real happiness. Now, that is not to say that Jesus was all fun all the time. Hardly. There are plenty of times when Jesus is heavy-hearted and disappointed, sad and even feeling all alone. There are plenty of times he is overcome with sadness, but never once is there a time when he despairs. Even when he cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is still calling out to “my God.” The personal pronoun there is crucial. God is still “his” God. He is still praying. He is still turning towards the Father. If we don’t find despair at the cross, then there is no despair in the gospels. In fact, the very thought of Jesus being anything but a joyful, gracious person who is surrounded by love (by people he loves and who love him) seems ludicrous.
Here’s the upside-down part. If we didn’t know the whole story, we would be hard pressed to connect Isaiah’s picture of Jesus as the man of sorrow with the Gospels’ picture of Jesus as the friend of sinners. They just don’t seem to paint the same portrait. But they are one and the same. The cross makes sure of that. Jesus was truly the “man of sorrow.” He came to die and he lived with that knowledge of his horrible death from his earliest days. How many times did Jesus read Isaiah 53 as a child and say, “This is speaking about me and to me.” How would it feel to know before you were four or five years old that you were destined to die a horrible death?
Author Randy Alcorn once said about Good Friday: “Out of the appallingly bad came what was inexpressibly good.” Something similar can be said about the name, “the man of sorrow.” “Out of his appallingly deep anguish came incredible joy.” We certainly can know of that incredible joy. After all, his death removed our sins and gave us eternal life. Everything Jesus did was to give us joy. But what we often forget is that Jesus did all of this so that he could overflow with joy with us. Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The man of sorrow, through the cross, became a man of joy.
Christmas is an upside-down season. We celebrate the joy of Christmas only because of the sorrow of the cross and the elation of the resurrection. Let me say that again: There is no celebration of the joy of Christmas without also embracing the deep anguish of knowing that this child was born to die a horrible death so that we could live a joyous life. Christmas and Easter go hand-in-hand. One makes no sense without the other. The incarnation without the cross is only a spectacular gesture of a divine visit. The cross without the incarnation is pointless. But the incarnation and the cross and the resurrection result in good news that will cause great joy for all the people.
It’s an upside-down Christmas. There is only joy when there is sorrow. It is only Jesus’ death that allows us to sing, “Joy to the World.” But because of that sorrow, Christmas has become a day of unimaginable glory, a day of celebration, of laughter, of love and singing, “O tidings of sorrow and joy, sorrow and joy,” that quickly turn into “tidings of comfort and joy.” But what would you expect from an upside-down season like Christmas?