What is joy? The Bible teaches and human experience frequently confirms that joy is more than a present experience of delight but is always also an anticipation of even better things to come. In other words, Christian joy flows directly out of Christian hope (Rom. 5:2). However, in the face of tragedy and hardships, Christians frequently lose hope. We settle for something not far removed from what an atheist like Bertand Russell would say: “The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit, and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead.” But Palm Sunday presents us with a picture of Christian joy grounded in a hope that cannot be dashed.
Rejoicing in Hope
As Jesus approached Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, Luke tells us that the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen (Lk. 19:37). John’s gospel specifically notes that many of the Jews who had witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus had followed Jesus to Jerusalem and were telling everyone what had happened (Jn. 12:17). News had already arrived ahead of them, and so many in Jerusalem came out to meet Him because they had heard about Lazarus (Jn. 12:18). Why are these people rejoicing? Because the raising of Lazarus has given them hope. Hope imagines a better world, a better outcome, a different future. Have you settled for mediocre? Have you made peace with sin or evil? Sometimes people avoid high hopes because they think it will protect them from being hurt. But the Bible teaches that joy is a result of trusting God (Ps. 5:11, 27:1-6, cf. Eph. 3:20).
Hoping in Your Father
Palm Sunday is filled with childish details: the charade with the donkey, the Davidic play-acting, the palm branches, all the way down to the literal children caught up in the excitement. When some of the Pharisees thought it was getting out of hand, and admonished Jesus to rebuke His disciples for their over-exuberance (Lk. 19:39), Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent the very stones would cry out” (Lk. 19:40). Matthew tells us that the ones who really wouldn’t quit were the kids (Mt. 21:15). And Jesus says they are fulfilling Psalm 8: Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants God has ordained strength and praise. To say that Palm Sunday is childish is not to say it is fake or false or make believe. To say that it is childish is to say that it is a moment charged with hope. Jesus says repeatedly that anyone who wants to enter the Kingdom of Heaven must become like a little child (Mk. 10:15, Lk. 18:17). This is what it means to be born again (Jn. 3:1-14). This is what eternal life is all about (Jn. 3:16). Eternal life is endless life, an unending future, which is to say endless hope. Hopelessness is the result of despairing that anything can change. Hopelessness is resignation. There is a foolish kind of childishness that expects different outcomes from the same folly, but there’s wise childishness that anticipates different outcomes from the same Father. And the difference is where you place your hope. Our Christian hope (and therefore Christian joy) is in Christ.
Joy that Mourns & Fights
Lastly, if Christian joy is based on Christian hope, then it cannot be Stoic or apathetic or naïve. Jesus illustrates this for us by His joy. Was Jesus full of joy as He rode into Jerusalem? Hebrews says that He was (Heb. 12:2). He rode into Jerusalem knowing full well what He was riding into Jerusalem for (His death), and He did it for the joy that was set before Him. People frequently think that Christian joy must settle for either “realistic” or “naïve.” When someone says you must be realistic, they mean that joy cannot coexist with horrific loss or pain. They think that Christian joy is a billiard ball that another event or experience can knock away. But this is precisely what Jesus said His joy was not. Jesus promised a joy that no one can take away (Jn. 16:22). Unfortunately, many conclude that Jesus must therefore be talking about something naïve or impotent. But the childish joy of Jesus rides into Jerusalem and weeps over the city and its coming destruction (Lk. 19:41-44). And following that, this same childish joy wipes His eyes and enters the temple and starts tossing tables (Lk. 19:45, cf. Mk. 11:15-16). It was the joy set before Jesus that led Him into the city on a donkey, that broke His heart in pity, and that drove Him to confront abuses. And it was that same joy that drove Him to lay His life down for sinful men.
The Christian gospel is that in Jesus Christ, God rode into this world and broke the power of sin and death. The Christian gospel is not that there is no other joy or happiness in the world; the Christian gospel is the proclamation that there is no fuller, more human joy that can be found than in Jesus because He doesn’t ignore our real predicament, our true situation. Trusting in Jesus and hoping in the glory of His future is not longing for some blithe humanistic utopia: our hope is not in ourselves or blind human progress. Our hope is in God because He is our Father, and He has come for us in His Son to make us His children forever.