Joy to the World: Part 4—THE REBELLIOUS HEARTS

Joy to the World: Part 4—THE REBELLIOUS HEARTS

Joy to the World!
How Can JESUS Be the JOY for THIS World?
A four-part Christmas series

Part 4
A World of
How Can Jesus Be the Joy HERE?
David Bryant

[NOTE: This is the last of a four-part series based on the four verses of “Joy to the World.” The other parts are: (1) A World of RISING SADNESS; (2) A World of GRINDING POVERTY; (3) A World of TOXIC DIVISIONS].

Dr. Arthur C. Brooks is Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, having previously served as the 11th president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In a recent Atlantic article, he addressed haunting issues facing all of us, such as: Why do we do things we know we’ll regret? Why do our instincts steer us to love things and use people?

As an openly confessing Christian, Dr. Brooks is asking at the core: What’s wrong with the human heart? Why are we so rebellious against God and each other—often in ways that are detrimental to our own self-interests?

“Rebellion” doesn’t sound like a characteristic theme of the Christmas season, does it? Quite the opposite. December is replete with things soft and gentle, magical and dreamy—rustling angel wings; soft candlelight; cheery, glowing trees; cuddly babies in managers; carolers singing as snowflakes softly fall; fireplaces crackling with welcoming warmth; families reunited in loving embraces.

But, according to Scripture, all of that is a deception. This façade masks one overriding reality: This is a world populated by over eight billion sinners.

And what makes all of us sinners? Wittingly or unwittingly, human hearts prove to be inherently, insistently rebellious. That is the very definition of “sin.” We are in revolt against the world, but above all, against the same Lord and Savior whose birth provides the reason for this season of “comfort and joy” to begin with.

Yet, we still choose to sing every Advent—even in secular public gatherings—what is, in essence, a prayer concerning what needs to happen to hearts caught up in a cosmic insurrection:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
let ev’ry heart prepare him room
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

How many of us really believe—and really want—what we’re singing in that verse? Do we expect the reign of earth’s once newborn but now ascended King to actually come upon us to conquer and transform our hearts to the point we become willing to be consumed by him along with all creation, yielding eternal praise to our Lord Jesus Christ?

Where can such a glorious JOY be found in our kind of world? How can such a life-giving JOY seize and shape rebellious human hearts like yours and mine—so that from our depths, this can be said of us: “Though not seeing him, you trust him; and even now you are happy with the inexpressible joy that comes from heaven itself” (1 Peter 1:8, TLB)?

Let me tell you how.

The evidence our world is full of rebellious hearts

First, the bad news.

I had a conversation with a nationally respected Christian leader a few days ago. He shared his despair about where our nation finds itself now, including the spiritual blight of much of the Church. He remarked that it seems as a people, we are being overwhelmed with lies, loathing, and licentiousness.

My response? What our generation is witnessing is nothing less than a dramatic replication of what the Bible records in Romans 1 as the collective consequences of rebellious hearts.

As you consider a few of those verses below, ask yourself: Doesn’t this seem like an undeniable description of what we see unfolding all around us today, tragically often displayed among God’s people (Romans 1, The Living Bible, emphasis added):

Yes, they knew about him all right, but they wouldn’t admit it or worship him or even thank him for all his daily care . . . The result was that their foolish minds became dark and confused. Claiming themselves to be wise without God, they became utter fools instead . . . . Instead of believing what they knew was the truth about God, they deliberately chose to believe lies . . . but wouldn’t obey the blessed God who made these things . . . .

So it was that when they gave God up and would not even acknowledge him, God gave them up to doing everything their evil minds could think of. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness and sin, of greed and hate, envy, murder, fighting, lying, bitterness, and gossip. They were backbiters, haters of God, insolent, proud, braggarts, always thinking of new ways of sinning and continually being disobedient to their parents . . . [they] broke their promises and were heartless—without pity.

Aren’t these scenes reflected today in the daily swath of appalling news stories, accelerating violence, waves of political vitriol, rising child abuse, and a sea of rancorous tweets that confront Americans every single day?

In the article mentioned above, Dr. Brooks documents the overwhelming evidence of many of these same destructive patterns in our society. He discusses how our universal love of things more than love of people is a kind of “idolatry” (his term). We “place ourselves at the center of the universe,” which then turns into a “disordered form of worship.” As a result, he points out, we all suffer feelings of futility, despair, and hopelessness about life, reaping fruits of bitterness and grief at the end.

His conclusion? He says the people of this nation are in desperate need of a “new formula” to shape how we come at life.

That’s precisely what Paul intends to give us, which is why he begins the book of Romans the way he does. His profound analysis of the universal brokenness that rises out of our rebellious hearts is his way of preparing his readers to embrace an entirely “new formula”—which is the JOYFUL NEWS of who Christ is today and what he has done for us to set us free from our deadly, spiritual sickness.

Dr. Brooks, as a Christian scholar, suggests to his readers that we may need to begin with repentance to experience the healing of our hearts. As an example, he quotes the prayer that Jews pray every Yom Kippur. It says in part: “We have committed evil . . . we have gone astray; we have led others astray. We have strayed from Your good precepts and ordinances, and it has not profited us.”

In Romans, that’s precisely the direction Paul is headed. That’s a critical step in laying down our arms and finding the joy of total surrender to the Lord of all. We must confess how willfully we have sinned against God and wounded one another. The fact is that without such changed hearts, we don’t, we won’t, we can’t stop sinning!

The anatomy of Paul’s own rebellious heart

Paul brings this human tragedy down to a very personal level in Romans 7 as he allows us to peer inside his own crippled soul—providing us an x-ray of the true condition of everyone, everywhere. He does so to prepare us for the victorious “JOY to the world” that will come trumpeting through to us in chapter 8.

His diagnosis is so clear and convicting that I think it would be most helpful for me to step back and allow Paul to speak for himself. Here is a portion of his spiritual autobiography in Romans 7 (from The Message, emphasis added):

Sin simply did what sin is so famous for doing: using the good as a cover to tempt me to do what would finally destroy me . . . .

Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise . . . .

I need something more! . . . the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable . . . Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind.

The Lord has come!
Prepare your hearts to receive him
with the JOY he offers the entire world.

Look again at that final sentence of Romans 7, which reveals where Paul’s surrender to Christ brought him: “[Christ] acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I [now] want to serve God with all my heart and mind . . . .”

In these very next verses, which open chapter 8, Paul’s liberating experience drove him to proclaim all the joys in Jesus waiting for those who have given their lives to him just as Paul did:

So there is now no condemnation awaiting those who belong to Christ Jesus. For the power of the life-giving Spirit—and this power is mine through Christ Jesus—has freed me from the vicious circle of sin and death.

Paul’s exhilaration appears almost uncontainable!

In Scriptures like Romans 8, we see a fuller measure of the “joy to the world” to which the carol’s composer, Issac Watts, referred. This renowned English minister and hymnwriter composed “Joy to the World” in 1719. The lyrics reflect on Psalm 98 as a way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but Watts goes beyond the nativity. Each verse celebrates God’s promises to us because our Savior came to earth as a baby, but now he reigns, ready to end the insurrection of sin wherever hearts “prepare him room.”

But Watts also points us to the ultimate outcome of Jesus’ reign—when the entire creation joins the saints in the joy that continues forever, focused on the person, presence, power, and saving purposes of our Redeemer.

Read those words again:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
let ev’ry heart prepare him room
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

Then ponder some of the reasons for that joy in a few select verses from Romans 8 (The Living Bible, emphasis added):

The power of the life-giving Spirit—and this power is mine through Christ Jesus—has freed me from the vicious circle of sin and death. God sent his own Son in a human body like ours—except that ours are sinful—and destroyed sin’s control over us by giving himself as a sacrifice for our sins. So now we can obey God’s laws if we follow after the Holy Spirit and no longer obey the old evil nature within us (v. 2).

Those who follow after the Holy Spirit find themselves doing those things that please God. Following after the Holy Spirit leads to life and peace (vv. 5, 6).

If through the power of the Holy Spirit you crush it [the old sinful nature] and its evil deeds, you shall live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (vv. 13, 14).

The world around us will share in the glorious freedom from sin which God’s children enjoy (v. 21).

What can we ever say to such wonderful things as these? . . . Since he did not spare even his own Son for us but gave him up for us all, won’t he also surely give us everything else? . . . nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God demonstrated by our Lord Jesus Christ when he died for us (vv. 31, 32).

The choice before each of us

“Let every heart prepare him room.” That phrase of Watts’s carol reminds me of the last verse of Christina Rossetti’s treasured Christmas poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” where she concludes:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

May you surrender your rebellious heart to him as well, not only during Christmas 2022 but for the whole rest of your life—as it will be on into eternity. Giving Jesus permission to rule in our hearts opens up for us the greatest JOY we will ever know! This is exactly what Scripture promises (Psalm 16:11, NIV):

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

And remember this: is here to feed and fuel that choice through our hundreds of free resources, designed to take you into the fullness of joy offered to everyone completely yielded to God’s Son to live for his kingdom and glory.

About the Author

Over the past 45 years, David Bryant has been defined by many as a “messenger of hope” and a “Christ proclaimer” to the Church throughout the world. Formerly a minister-at-large with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, president of Concerts of Prayer International (COPI), and chairman of America’s National Prayer Committee, David now provides leadership to and Proclaim Hope!, whose mission is to foster and serve Christ Awakening movements. Order his widely read books at Enjoy his regular Daily CHRIST TODAY podcast.


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