Scripture is very vivid in its description of moods, and over cautious interpretation may dull its intended sense to the reader and curtail the spirit of a passage in which we are meant to participate. As well as understand the word with our intellect we are meant to feel its message keenly within our heart, for it is true that evidence and emotion combined move us to acceptance of divine teaching.
The gospel is meant to excite as well as instruct. The word of God is meant to elicit our affection and action as well as mental assent. It should thrill and enthral in its impartation of truth, and we should not blunt the desired impact of its authors who are endeavouring to gain a heartfelt response to realities that affect them overwhelmingly.
The Bible is alive and stirring and we must suck out the passion from its proclamation. This may mean that we ought not to be as “polite” as we deem a divinely inspired text to be. The dynamic thrust of the text needs to be fully conveyed. There is sometimes a shock value in Scripture that needs to be communicated with accentuation. Our cosy sensibilities need to be shaken. God is holy but not prissy (prudish).
“Rejoice” is a wonderful word that describes or exhorts great gladness but its familiarity in frequent religious use almost mutes its tone of effusive celebration. When we rejoice our inward delight is accompanied by cheerful facial expressions, the sounds of laughter, shouts of happiness, and gestures of triumphant pleasure. Christian rejoicing is the unfettered demonstration of festive feeling, an outbreak of gaiety at the great and good things God has done and still proposes to do. Those in misery and mourning receive surprising mercy that is lavish and massive, and the extravagant generosity of the Lord causes acclaim from the heart, praise from the lips, and the energetic exercise of the limbs. The blessings of the New Covenant, when they are conferred, cause the recipients to leap, jump, dance, and raise hands to heaven. The gospel is a source of mirth and merriment.
The adjective “merry” captures so well the mood in which the Good News of Jesus Christ is received, and “innocent merriment” (W.S. Gilbert) is just what the believer experiences at the realization of all that salvation implies.
In this, the NEB excels in its translation of Romans 15:10: “Gentiles, make merry together with his own people”. Making merry is an essential part of biblical tradition. The prodigal son returned home to a great feast and heaven is a perpetual banquet. “Merry” is a cheerful, almost jovial, word to pronounce and it conveys exactly the sentiment associated with understanding of the grace of God.
The festival of the Incarnation is meant for the celebration of all nations at the coming of Israel’s Messiah. The promises made to God’s ancient people extend to the whole earth and all its inhabitants. Israel was selected as servant of the message of universal rescue and favour through Christ the foretold Redeemer of men. The enjoyment of God’s goodness was to make Israel’s commendation of the Saviour credible and convincing. Their taste of the Lord was to whet the appetite of the strangers to the covenant so that they might yearn for and find inclusion within the elect people of the Lord. The little nation was to swell with members of every nation. God’s ideal for the Jews failed through repeated and long term disobedience. Their own lack of spiritual vision prevented the fulfilment of their mission to the world. Pentecost restored the impetus to publish the message of grace to the entirety of humanity, and as the gospel spreads, converts make merry the world over as they transfer from darkness to light, fear to hope, ignorance to knowledge, peril to protection. The change is so radical and the joy is so real.
We Gentiles of the Christian tradition, that has been established in our cultures for so long, perhaps fail to fully appreciate the plight of the Gentile world past and present. The gradual erosion of the influence of faith in our society, and the corrosion of our inherited cultural norms and values, will perhaps educate us in the preciousness of our heritage and the cruciality and necessity of the gospel in the lives of human beings both for conversion and civilization. Ethnically we are not the “direct heirs” of the promises. Israel was to be the instrument of our calling. The faithful remnant, the apostles, and their colleagues, ensured that the message “got out” to reach the other races, but we are grafted into the true Israel through new birth and belief of the promises made to the Patriarchs. We are humbled to be drawn to God through the “over-plus” of saving grace. Our distant heathen ancestors of long ago were not aware of the ancient Scriptures and its prophecies. They lived in superstition, idolatry, savagery, and dread. The over-spill of the word of God to “outsiders” is the source of our good fortune before God. The faithful from “the circumcised” took the first and many extra steps in reaching out to us. For all of Israel’s sinfulness, blindness, and defection we must be grateful that Jews shared their Messiah with us and opened up the nature of his worldwide purposes of mercy to us. In spite of Israel’s unbelief and ineffectiveness on a wide scale we Gentiles are beneficiaries of Jewish loyalty to Christ and their concern and compassion towards us.
Now Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, John, Paul – “The glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, the white robed army of martyrs” are our forbears, family, and dear friends. Now all racial distinction is removed, except for chronological order in the knowledge of God (Romans 1:16). We Gentiles, incorporated into the fellowship of Christ by gracious permission, are under sovereign and sweet command to, “Praise the Lord” (v11a). We partner the believers from Israel in exalting and glorifying God. “Let all peoples praise him” (v11b). The promise in Christ is universal and so, too, should be the praise.
God’s dealing with Jew and Gentile are marvellous. His grace and judgment have been exercised upon both. Now our longing is that is that folk of each category will be drawn in enormous numbers to the Saviour of the world. In him we shall find safety and unity and shared joy. For the sake of the Fathers we are debtors to the Jew. Paul’s devotion to their spiritual wellbeing was huge (Romans 9:1-3, 10:1). If we honour Paul we honour and share his desire for his people. As Gentiles, judged favourably through Christ (Daniel 7:22), we embrace all humankind in our concern and outreach with the plea of Spurgeon, “Lord, save all your elect, and elect some more”.
If our joy at Christmas is found in Christ then “Merry Christmas” is a proper seasonal greeting indeed.