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The Message of Christmas: Present and Future Joy (Thomas Schreiner)

C. S. Lewis wrote the autobiography of his conversion in a book aptly titled Surprised by Joy.  Lewis said,

“Joy, must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again…I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

Lewis points out that real joy occurs when we are not expecting it. If we look for it, joy can evade us. If we go back to something that gave us joy before, it may once again reward us but the experience will not be quite the same as it was the first time. It is the surprise of the unexpected or unanticipatedpleasure that makes it so joyful.

Lewis also captures another truth that is very evident in Psalm 126 and is true of all joys in this life, “All joy…emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.” In Psalm 126, which is certainly one of the most remarkable texts on joy in the Bible, we read,

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad. Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

This psalm begins with the introductory words “a song of ascents.”  This probably refers to the songs pilgrims sang when they traveled to Jerusalem to worship God in the temple. Remember in the OT that the temple was the center of all worship, and there was only one temple in Jerusalem where sacrifice was offered and males were required to worship there three times a year at the great feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Many of these Psalms represent prayers for the nation of Israel and especially for Jerusalem. They show the psalmist’s longing for the people of God, and for Jerusalem as the city of God.

We Will Be Glad

Psalm 126 is in the middle of the psalms of ascent, and it is a jewel of a psalm.  The first truth we see in this psalm is that when the Lord works on our behalf we will be glad. We read in v. 1, “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” What does it mean for the Lord to restore the fortunes of Zion?  Usually in the OT to restore the fortunes of Zion means that Israel has been released from captivity.

Israel was in exile and the Lord restored their fortunes by bringing them back to the land of promise.  So, here the psalmist probably has in mind restoration from the Babylonian captivity.  Israel was in exile from 606-536 B.C., but in 536 B.C. they were allowed to return to their land.

But the most remarkable thing about this verse is the response.  When Israel returned from captivity, they were like those who dream. Apparently they didn’t expect to come back, and so when they returned home they had to pinch themselves to believe it was true. They were truly delirious with joy because it was a dream come true.

Jesus’ disciples faced something similar after he was crucified.  They were despondent and depressed and all their hopes were crushed. But then we read in Luke 24:36-43,

As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!”  37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.  38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.  41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”  42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish,  43 and he took it and ate before them.

The joy of Jesus’ resurrection was so great that they could scarcely take it in.  It seemed too good to be true. Is your heart faint today?  Are you full of sorrow?  Do you feel bruised and beaten?   Look at this psalm.  The Lord can give a dream-like joy to those who are plunged into sorrow. He liberated Israel from its sin by returning her from exile.  And Christmas reminds us that has liberated us from the exile of our sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross indicates that dreams do come true, though they are not the dreams we expected to come true.  The mess that we have made of our lives is not the last word.  There are new beginnings.

One thing I love about the story of Johnny Cash is that the Lord saved him though he was a very troubled person.  He struggled with drugs and a failed marriage. And yet he turned to the Lord and found a new start.  That didn’t mean that his problems were over, but the Lord loves to renew and restore those who have ruined their lives through sin. As Jesus said, I didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.  Jesus didn’t come to praise people who think they are good on their moral victories.  He came to liberate those who have destroyed their lives through sin.

In other words, Jesus came (this is the message of Christmas!) to give us the joy like those who dream.  We have all had nightmares, but this isn’t a nightmare but a joyous dream where our sins are forgiven and we are spared final judgment and hell.

Surprised by Joy

Verses 2 and 3 also focus on the gladness of God’s people who are liberated from exile. We read in v. 2, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’” Isn’t this one of the most remarkable expressions of joy we see in the Bible?  Most of Israel did not expect to get out of Babylon, and when they did they were filled with laughter and ringing shouts of joy.

The pagan nations saw their freedom and liberation, and confessed that the Lord had done great things for his people. Where does joy come from?  It doesn’t come from trying to be joyful.  My message in Psalm 126 is not, “Work at being joyful.” No, joy comes when the Lord does great things for his people.  And Israel had to wait a long time for deliverance to come.  But it did come, and when it came joy seized them.

We could say that they were surprised by joy just as C. S. Lewis was surprised by joy when he was converted.  As Lewis said, the hound of heaven was after him and he could not get away. When unbelievers truly understand on the day of judgment what the Lord has done for us as believers by forgiving our sins and freeing us from our past, they will say, “The Lord has done great things for them.” One day the nations will see that we have a great God and a great Savior.  And they will regret the fact that they did not enter in.

And the psalmist cannot help rejoicing in v. 3. “The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.  It is not only that unbelievers look on and say that the Lord has done great things for God’s people.” No, we feel it ourselves.  We ourselves say that the Lord has done great things for us, and as a result we are glad.

Do you feel that today?  Can you say: “The Lord has done great things for me?  My gladness doesn’t come from what I have done but from what the Lord has done for me.” I am glad because I deserved pain and punishment, but I am forgiven and deeply loved by maker of the universe.

Waiting in Hope for Fuller Joy

But we see in vv. 4-6 that the joy we have now will give way to a fuller joy.  We read in v. 4, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!” We saw in v. 1 that the Lord had already restored their fortunes, and this likely meant that he restored them from exile in Babylon. So, then, why does the psalmist ask for their fortunes to be restored here?  It is difficult to be sure.  Probably the best answer is that even though Israel had come back from Babylon life was still difficult for the nation. The restoration from exile wasn’t all they anticipated it would be.  The fullness of God’s blessing the Lord promised Israel still wasn’t realized.

So, the psalmist prays that the Lord would restore them just as the dry stream beds in Israel are filled with water during the rainy season.  These stream beds, called wadis, have no water in the dry season.  But these wadis flow with water when the rain comes.

And this is what we pray for as believers in Jesus Christ.  Yes, we have joy now because we have been liberated from our sins. We have experienced a dream come true, but our joy is not yet complete.  Our joy has not been consummated.  Our joy has not yet reached its apex. We look forward to the coming of Jesus Christ when our joy will be full, when the streams of God’s grace and love will rush over us, and our joy will not be mingled with sorrow.

But as we wait for this day, we wait in hope.  We read in vv. 5-6, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! 6 He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” First of all, e have the picture of sowing with tears in vv. 5-6.  Tears are a picture of the difficulties we face in life.  As we go about our work, the various things God has called us to do, there is pain and hardship. We don’t live in a perfect world yet, and everything we do is still touched by the curse.  We still face disease and death.

And dissatisfaction still touches our lives on earth.  We may see very little fruit for our labor.  Our life work may not seem to bring much evident blessing. We think of the woman married to an unbelieving husband, and in some cases her husband may never believe.  She has many joys but there is also sadness in her life. But her tears are not the end of the story.  She will end up reaping with shouts of joy.  She will enter Jesus’ presence with shouts of joy because of her faithfulness.

Or, we think of the faithful pastor in a church that is spiritually immature, and again in some cases churches don’t respond to God’s word.  How discouraging it can be week after week when a church doesn’t grow and there isn’t excitement about God’s word. But the day will come when the Lord will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, and there will be shouts of joy.”

Or, we can think of the missionary who labors in a difficult field where there are few converts.  Surely, there are days when one has a heavy heart, but the heavy heart will not last forever.  The Lord will bring joy, and he is accomplishing his work.  He will bring the increase. Look to him to bring in the final harvest, and so we pin our joy, not on our labors or our fruitfulness, but his power.

Therefore, this Christmas, as we remember the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, may we remember that the final word is not sorrow but joy.  Believer, we have already experienced the dream like joy of being forgiven of our sins.  And there is an even greater joy ahead of us, a joy that we cannot comprehend now. So, may the Lord grant us his peace and joy as we continue our pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem. And may we be strengthened for the journey, knowing the crown of joy that awaits us.

Thomas Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including, Romans, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament; Interpreting the Pauline EpistlesThe Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of LawThe Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and AssuranceStill Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, co-edited with Bruce A. Ware; Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology.

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