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Few songs capture the spirit of the season for me like Isaac Watts’ 1719 hymn “Joy to the World.” The song, like the Gospels in the New Testament, joyfully denies us the chance to fixate solely on that birth in Bethlehem.

Not long ago I found myself in Bethlehem, sitting in a small cave that had been carved into a manger. It probably wasn’t where Jesus was actually born, but it was far more similar to the circumstances Joseph and Mary encountered than the barn-like structures centuries of western artists have drawn. The precious commodity known as wood wasn’t wasted on mangers or feeding troughs for animals; it was almost all stone.

For most of us, there would be little joy in welcoming our new child into the world under such circumstances.

And yet there were those angels. “Fear not,” Luke’s Gospel records being spoken to shepherds in a field not far away. Fear not. Seriously? Those two words only increase the fear factor—especially when spoken by an angel in the middle of the night.

Fear not? I’d have wet my pants.

“I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” the angel continued, before being joined by others.

The “good news of great joy” had little to do with just a baby being born. It had everything to do with the arrival of the Savior.

The curse of sin makes our hearts harder than even that stone trough. Sin creates a stench worse than a well-used manger. To understand the joy of Christmas, and the birth of the Savior, we must confront the reality that we are actually in need of saving. We must admit that we are hard-hearted, and that we stink. I know that describes me. What about you?

A baby wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger isn’t a big deal. The arrival of Christ the Lord, the Savior, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace?

Now that is a headline for the ages. Joy, indeed!

The insurmountable truth of Christmas is that it is a meaningless observance without the accompanying facts of Easter. The Child who gurgled in His mother’s arms that night in Bethlehem is relevant to us only because He was the Son of God who took on our sin, was hung on the cross and forsaken by His Father, was dead, buried… and then was raised in glory.

The birth in Bethlehem only makes sense within the context of the cross at Calvary. Joy came into the world, for the sake of the world.

All those twinkling lights, festive sweaters, and expensive gifts are nothing more than grave markers on the road to nowhere for those who haven’t surrendered their proud hearts to the One for whom all of creation echoes the joyous songs of the saved.

Joy to the World! The Lord is come! Will you receive your King?