Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Joy is a tricky word in a culture obsessed with happiness. “Are you happy?” we ask each other. “Do you have a happy marriage?” “Does your work make you happy?” Extroverts are generally happier people, we think. Introverts, not as happy. An introverted Santa Claus would be problematic.
A distinguished social psychology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill wrote a bestseller “proving” that people who flourish in life are those who’ve reached the tipping point of the “3 to 1 positivity/negativity ratio.” But you don’t need tenure to sell the promise of happiness. Joel Osteen was even more successful with his book, Everyday a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week. I’m betting 3 to 1 odds that Good Friday was not the book’s central theme.
Where scientists and celebrities offer us commodified happiness—happiness analyzed, inspected, measured, multiplied, and for sale—Isaiah testifies to something different…joy. Despite living in a time of great unhappiness, Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord” (61:10). His joy is immeasurable, abundant, inexhaustible. We cannot capture it. It is empirically unverifiable. How exactly does one calculate Isaiah’s rejoicing in spite of “the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (v. 4)?
Even more, Isaiah says, “My whole being shall exult in my God.” The phrase, “my whole being,” is from the Hebrew word, nephesh, which is usually translated “soul.” That is, your soul is not an ethereal wisp that evacuates your body at death. Your body is part of your soul, as are your desires and your dreams, your present and your past. Most specifically for Isaiah in this verse, the soul is the seat of emotion and passion. Standing in the smoldering ruins of Israel’s life, Isaiah describes an all-consuming joy—an unending joy grounded in the certainty that God will make good on God’s promises.
That’s the difference between happiness and joy. We pursue happiness, but joy pursues us. We consume happiness. Joy consumes us. Happiness comes and goes. It’s fleeting. It attaches itself to the present moment, then absconds again. It may last for a season, or for a second. Joy is different. Joy endures. Joy has an eternal quality, so that even the anticipation for that which makes us joyful can also be called joy. Such patient waiting enables us to “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16), with all our heart and mind, with all our present and our past.
What Isaiah and Paul know, and what Advent reveals to us, is that joy is not a feeling we conjure up. It’s not dependent on our fickle human nature. Our joy is rooted in the God who “restores my soul” (Ps. 23:3). We should even say joy is a person, that our joy is Jesus Christ, that Jesus is joy. The good news is that “great joy for all people” (Lk. 2:11) is coming to us. We will find him in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.