The Christmas message is that we are not stuck. This naughty world does not have to be as it is. Things can change. Wrongs can be righted. There is ground for hope. The prophet Isaiah foretold nothing less than a revolution: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. . . . Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low."
Joy to the world indeed! But most of us will settle for something less, for happiness. We are happy in the comfort and warmth of family and friends, we take pleasure in the giving and receiving of gifts. Whether religious or secular, we respond to Christmas as a cultural holiday, and we are glad to see our favorite symbols -- the manger scene, Santa Claus, sociable gatherings, Handel's "Messiah." And then in a few days the season is over. Happiness proves to be joyless, and we ask: Why can't the spirit of the season linger all year?
Well, why can't it? The promise of Christmas is inclusive enough for all, religious or secular. When the people came to John the Baptizer, he berated them with the unpastoral epithet, "brood of vipers." Don't suppose that idle religious observance will get you by, John taught: Share your goods with those in need; don't cheat people; don't bully. Not a word about how to pray or what to believe.
Christmas announces no doctrine or program of salvation. It thus liberates us from religious or political particularism as well as from daily habit. When Christians say that "the truth became flesh and sojourned among us," they mean that the gap between talking and being, between saying and doing, between hoping and fulfilling, between intending and achieving, has been closed. We are liberated. Joy to the world!
Why are we so reluctant to accept this good news? Why do we settle for joyless happiness? Perhaps we are cynical: If the news is good, it can't be true. Perhaps we are lazy: The news is good, but I don't feel like changing. Perhaps we are skeptical: The news sounds good, but the real world isn't like that.
Then what is the real world like? Are we satisfied to play our parts in making it a world of pain and brokenness? Christmas calls us to break out of our false prisons of church and culture. It assures us that the demands for our lives are already written on our hearts. The prophet Micah asked us simply "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly." Thus we will know a joy that transcends happiness. Thus will come joy to the world.