I’ve suggested that Jesus’ infancy can teach us several things we need to know about the gospel. While we don’t know any ways to start people other than by having babies, we know he could have arrived in any manner he wanted.
That makes me think he had a purpose in his infancy as well. And I think that purpose is related somehow to the experiences that are common to people when babies show up.
And what does Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi have to do with that? Well, look at the subject matter: Joy! Although he writes from prison, Paul encourages the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. Throughout the letter, he mentions his own joy as well.
The angels told the shepherds they had good news of great joy. Well, babies bring joy. We anticipate their arrival with joy. We welcome their arrival with joy, and we often talk about the joy of the new life that is now with us in the flesh. Joy is an inescapable quality of babies.
Here, of course, is the part where you who have children laugh at me for my naiveté. Babies are hard work! Babies want fed at unreasonable hours! Babies expect a level of personal service – especially in matters of hygiene – not given to even the most exalted rulers!
Nope, I’m standing by what I said, because I didn’t say that happiness was an inescapable quality of babies. I said joy was. I believe those two words describe two different things, which we sometimes get confused.
Think of how we usually talk about happiness. Something makes us happy, or doesn’t make us happy. We do use other words sometimes, but mostly we think of happiness as a kind of reaction to things that go on around us.
Go back to babies – what makes them happy? They’re full, they’re clean, they’re warm and they’re asleep. What they don’t know is that within a few hours, one or more of those conditions will change and the change will make them very unhappy. As well as everyone around them.
For us, it’s not that different, even if the things that make us happy or unhappy change as we age (Full, clean, warm and asleep still work well for me, though).
Our feelings of happiness or unhappiness grow from a reaction we have to something outside us. Even though most grown-ups have more control over their reactions than most babies, the reactions themselves don’t go away. We just learn to manage them better.
But we usually use different words to describe how joy comes to us. Something or someone gives us or brings us joy. We don’t respond or react as much as we receive.
And if we truly do receive joy, then it becomes part of us. It’s not outside us anymore, it’s part of who we are.
Ask parents who watch their child do something that makes them proud, like stand up for what they believe in, or achieve something big, or take a stand to protect someone else. Ask them if those moments are worth all the dirty diapers, broken curfews and messy rooms that never seem to get clean. Of course, they’re likely to answer. Those things came and went, but the good man or good woman my child has become or is becoming will be something that lasts.
Theologically speaking, I imagine Paul would have been happier if he had shared the gospel with his Roman jailors from the other side of the bars. But his joy remained either way, didn’t it? As I see it, only something he had brought inside him could have made him joyful no matter what the circumstances were outside him.
If the gospel teaches us anything, it teaches us that God accepts us despite our outward circumstances. God accepts us in spite of how much we may feel we’ve messed up. And even continuing to mess up doesn’t change his acceptance of us.
God’s acceptance of us – what we call being saved by grace – becomes the root and ground of our lives. We don’t define ourselves by our own standards anymore, but by his. He has the first, last and only word in saying who and what we really are – not anything that goes on around us.
That probably qualifies it as joyful news.