One of my favorite Christmas carols is one we don’t often sing, “How Great Our Joy!” It’s an old German carol that’s fun to sing, especially a cappella. The song retells that part of the story of Christ’s birth that we read in Luke 2:8-11:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (NIV 1984)
Here are the words of the song:
While by the sheep we watched at night,
Glad tidings brought an angel bright.
How great our joy! (Great our joy!)
Joy, joy, joy! (Joy, joy, joy!)
Praise we the Lord in heaven on high!
(Praise we the Lord in heaven on high!)
There shall be born, so he did say,
in Bethlehem a child today. [Chorus]
There shall the child lie in a stall,
this child who shall redeem us all. [Chorus]
This gift of God we’ll cherish well,
that ever joy our hearts shall fill. [Chorus]
What makes this song stand out to me is how each of the three phrases of the chorus is initially sung strongly or loudly and then echoed softly. Every time I sing it, I imagine the words and music reverberating off mountains, streaming down valleys, rolling across vast plains, filling the air with the Good News of the birth of Christ.
The angel brought “good news of great joy.” When the angel made the announcement, more angels appeared and praised God, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14, NIV 1984). Then, after the shepherds went to Bethlehem to investigate, we read, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20, NIV 1984).
This Good News of great joy prompted praise from the angels and praise from the shepherds, and it prompts praise from believers today. Very simply, disciples rejoice.
Disciples of Jesus rejoice not only because of Jesus’ birth but because of the new life his birth foretells. Because of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus’ disciples rejoice in the new life, the eternal life we receive through our faith in Jesus. Paul draws it all together in Romans 5:1, 2:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. (NIV 1984)
Because of our faith in the one whose birth was “good news of great joy,” we have been forgiven and found peace with God. So, we are the people whom Paul tells, again very simply, “Be joyful always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16, NIV 1984).
This past year, and longer, I have focused my preaching, teaching, and writing on what it means to be disciples of Jesus who make disciples of Jesus. That kind of focus can and does easily turn into practical lessons of what to do and how to do it, but at the heart of recognizing, believing, and accepting Jesus is a simple, transformational response of joy. As disciples of Jesus, we have been given a great gift: God’s favor, the forgiveness of our sins, righteousness, new life. This Good News of great joy has changed us and continues to change us, and for that we can’t help but rejoice. “How great our joy! Joy, Joy, Joy! Praise we the Lord in heaven on high!”