Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! (Ps. 47:1, ESV).
In 2020, after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, American sports resumed, but with no fans in the stands or if so, with only limited audiences. No matter what the sport, teams tried to simulate a capacity crowd by blasting noise through the stadium sound system. This attempt often failed since players knew they were playing games in front of empty seats—there wasn’t that home-field excitement.
This year, however, the fans have been allowed to return. The noise once again comes from crowds of excited spectators. Sports fans in arenas and stadiums can create so much noise to alter the outcome of certain plays, drives, or series, that it can force an opponent to call for a “time out.”
We seldom experience this aura in worship, unless you have a talented creative team at work that’s consistently pushing the limits. Possibly though, you might remember a moving rendition of Handel’s “Messiah” or a robust sermon orator or felt a heart-warming testimony of true transformation that stirred up such emotions in yourself. But let’s call it the exception and not the tried-and-true rule of engagements—we don’t always have that height of excitement.
Luke describes that first Christmas night when Jesus was born. First, an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds outside of Bethlehem (Lk. 2:9), and the glory of the Lord shone all around them, the dark night gave way to brightness as the angel announced, “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people” (v. 10). After this, a multitude of heavenly hosts joined in with the angel saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom his is pleased.”
All of this excitement caused the shepherds to leave their posts and to see the child in Bethlehem. Joy filled their hearts, and they became the unlikely witnesses to all in the region. They could not withhold this good news. Granted, we do not know what number the “multitude of heavenly hosts” represents. Bible commentators refer to a multitude as a large crowd or a substantial number or in the Jewish tradition as “10,000.” No matter what the number, there was a great joy in the announced birth of Jesus.
Joy is not a command, rather it is as (borrowing from John Piper) “a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.” Christian joy cannot be handed out or worked up. Instead, this joy comes from the living Spirit as work in our soul causing anticipation of Christ’s magnificence being established through his word and throughout the world.
My mentor in the pastorate, Rev. William Kastning used to contribute (after a particularly moving worship service), “Pastor, that was a bell-ringer!” This phrase meant that from his view we reached the endzone or we “hit it out of the park.” In the same way, fans cheer when their team scores a touchdown or hits a game-winning homerun.
I believe our worship can and should embody all the elements offering joy to the participants. We may not charge for admission, but we definitely have a responsibility to share the greatest story ever told without boring those in attendance. The temple in Jerusalem had musicians, choristers, and worship leaders (sons of Korah) who were equipped and ready to lead the crowds with shouts and songs of joy! May we discover a fresh way of leading our gatherings in joyous celebrations in our days of Christmas this year.
Lord God Almighty, we offer ourselves to you as you have given us the greatest gift imaginable in giving Jesus, Your Son, as sacrificed for us on the cross. Let joy fill our hearts today and always, in His name. Amen.
Rev. James Conley
Pastor, FBC of Delta, Colo.
Western Slope Mission and Ministry Facilitator
American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains