December 13, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE ADVENT CONSPIRACY: JOY
Today yet another chapter unfolds in our ongoing Advent Conspiracy. We’re doing really two things at the same time in this series. We are following the traditional themes for each of these four Sundays: hope, peace, joy, and love. And we’re also plotting and scheming and conspiring to reclaim what Christmas is truly meant to be. A number of churches are in on this. If we are going to be part of the Advent Conspiracy we will do four things: worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.
Today these two come together as we talk about joy. This is the season of joy. But what is joy? Why should we feel joy this time of the year? And what if we don’t?
Feelings are hard to define. They are even harder to command. Feelings just are. Of course, the dictionary cannot get away with saying that. There is a dictionary definition for “joy”. Here it is:
Joy is the emotion that is evoked by well-being, success, good fortune, or the prospect of possessing what we desire.
Is that joy? The words of a definition? Or is this joy?
Joy is better captured in a picture than a definition. Or in a description.
What brings you joy? How would you describe a moment of great joy for you? For me, it’s soaking in our hot tub while reading a good book. Or watching a ball game with a thrilling ending. Or working in our yard. (This activity brings me more joy when it’s 75º, not 105º. Or 25º.) Or enjoying a good meal with my wife. Or having our children all home at the same time. Or going on a run with a friend. (This activity brings me more joy when it’s 55º, not 85º. Or minus 5º, with the wind blowing.) I feel joy when I’m with people I love, doing things I love, in places I love, or anticipating any or all of this.
Your description of joy would be different from mine, but however you describe it, all of us have this in common: Joy doesn’t last. It comes and it goes. We can’t live on the mountaintop all the time. Life has these mountaintop experiences of great joy. But life also has low places of deep despair.
One strange thing about Christmas is that it can do one of two things for us. It can add to our joy. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, after all! Or, it can deepen our despair. This is the season when everyone is supposed to be feeling joy, so if you aren’t, you feel even worse. You wonder what is wrong with you. You wonder if you are the only one. When people are beaming and giving you a cheerful, “Merry Christmas!” if you aren’t feeling very merry, it almost feels like they’re taunting you. This is a hard time of the year for a lot of people.
Joy is not the same as happiness. But joy is like happiness in that the harder we try to grab hold of it, the more it eludes us. It’s like that butterfly that you can never catch but when you stop trying, it lands on your shoulder. You didn’t expect that to happen. C.S. Lewis wrote a book, Surprised By Joy. Joy surprises us by showing up when we least expect it. But maybe we should have expected it, because joy has a way of showing up at certain times when we are giving our attention to certain things that might not seem at all connected to joy. But they are. We’re going to be looking at three of these today.
First, joy has a way of surprising us when we are doing things for others. When you’re giving joy to someone else, it’s amazing how often you will find joy yourself.
There was a cyclist named Adam who was riding his bike down a paved mountain road at a high rate of speed. He hit some gravel on a curve and lost control. It was a horrible accident. His helmet saved his life, but his helmet could not protect his spinal cord. It was severed. He would never walk again. He was 27 years old.
He wasn’t exactly feeling the joy. One day as he went to another session with his physical therapist, he noticed a teenage girl who was also in a wheelchair. She was looking really despondent. He was kind of feeling that way too, but something inside told him that he needed to go over and try to encourage her. So he talked to her. Pretty soon he was teasing her and joking around with her. Before long she was laughing. And he was laughing.
A nurse had been watching. She told Adam that this girl had been coming in for three months and never once had she even seen her smile. Now she was laughing. And now Adam was feeling a joy he hadn’t felt in awhile. Listen to what he says:
Whenever I find myself in fear, self-centeredness, or anger, I ask God for help. And then I set my sight to be of service to another human being. As soon as I’m in service to someone else, I find myself back in the moment and full of joy. I can always find joy in service to others.
If someone who is paralyzed from the waist down can say that, what does that mean for the rest of us? Joy is a byproduct of bringing joy to someone else.
It works this way because this is the way God made us. We are made to love our neighbor as ourselves. We do that not so that we will be blessed. We do that because Jesus commanded us to do that. But as we do that we find that we are blessed. We are blessed when we are a blessing. The joy of the Lord comes into our lives in unexpected, surprising ways. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Doing good for others is one of the predictable ways God sends us joy.
Second, joy has a way of surprising us when we see the value in suffering. You may think only someone who lists running as something that brings him joy could possibly say that. But actually this is one of the dominant themes in the Bible. The Bible is filled with suffering. Which means the Bible is true to life. Because suffering is part of life.
The Old Testament tells the story of a nation that lived in slavery for 400 years. But it also tells the story of their deliverance. The New Testament tells the story of Jesus. There’s more to it than the story of his birth. There is the story of his death, an awful death on a cross. And the story of his resurrection. So we have in the Bible both suffering and the redemption that comes to us through suffering.
The Old Testament books of Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations are first-hand narratives given by people who are suffering. Job deals with the age-old question of why the innocent suffer. Many of the Psalms are filled with thanks and praise, but just as many are filled with complaints. Such as, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (13:1). Or the one Jesus quoted from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (22:1). Ecclesiastes is the story of an old man who looks back over his life and concludes that it was all meaningless. It was nothing more than “chasing after the wind” (1:14). Lamentations is Jeremiah walking through the charred ruins of Jerusalem in 586 BC, the embers still smoldering, the corpses in plain view, lamenting the horror of what had just happened.
A lot of this is hard to read, not because it’s dry and dull but because it’s so awful. But you know what the scholars call these books? Wisdom literature. Why? Because wisdom comes from suffering.
If you read a great book or hear some amazing music or admire an incredible painting or work of art, the odds are very good that the artist who was such a genius was also someone who was suffering in some profound way. People who live dull and easy lives rarely create anything significant. People who live dull and easy lives rarely are people of great character, people we admire, people we want to be like. We grow in character not in good times but in hard times.
So how do you grow in character if your life is too easy? You spend time with those who are suffering. You have compassion for them. And “compassion”, by the way, means to “suffer with”.
The great saints of God have all been through “dark nights of the soul”. I don’t think there’s a single exception. They have all been through times when God seemed distant and silent and absent. Times when they echoed the Psalmist (and Jesus): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But it was the lows that made possible the highs. In fact, I would say that only those who have made it through a painful time when they felt God’s absence can fully appreciate God’s presence.
Not all religions see it this way. There are religions that teach that the path of wisdom is to feel nothing, to detach ourselves from all suffering. Christians have a different perspective. It’s not that we’re looking for suffering. We’ll avoid it as much as we can, but when it comes (and it will come) we believe that God can bring good out of it.
Hebrews 12 says that it was “for the joy set before him” that Jesus “endured the cross”. What does that even mean? The words “joy” and “crucifixion” aren’t words we would expect to find in the same sentence. I think it means that Jesus was able to see past his immediate pain and agony to our salvation. This is incredible that anyone, even the Son of God, could be capable of this! When we’re really hurting, even the best of us can only think about how much we’re hurting. Jesus thought of us. And that brought him joy. Not happiness. But joy.
We mentioned the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. There is, by the way, a book of wisdom literature in the New Testament. It’s the book of James. And it too teaches about the wisdom that comes through suffering. James says, “Consider it joy when you meet various trials” (1:2). Are you able to do that? Can you “consider it joy” when things are really tough? Can you see the value in suffering? Those who can tend to be those who find joy where they didn’t expect to find it.
Third, joy has a way of surprising us when we trust God. This can be hard. When we are in the middle of great adversity, it’s hard to believe things will ever get any better. It feels like the way things are right now is the way things will always be. Unless they get worse. They might get worse. They won’t get any better. The human mind has a perverse way of convincing ourselves of that. And if we are convinced that things will never get better, we’re going to convince ourselves also that turning to God is going to be an exercise in futility.
This can be the most frightening part of some of the hard things we face in life. We ask ourselves all these panicky “never, ever” questions: What if this depression I’m feeling right now is never, ever going to lift? What if I’m never, ever going to find the job I’m looking for? What if we’re never, ever going to be able to fix what’s wrong with our marriage? What if I’m never, ever going to recover from this illness? What if I’m never, ever going to find that special person to share my life with?
These are questions that come out of fear, not faith. And fear can be powerful. Even when our faith tells us to trust God, our fear can get the upper hand.
The Bible is honest about this, too. And our passage for today from Isaiah 12 helps us.
Isaiah is one of the prophets we talked about in the first sermon in this series. We talked mainly about Jeremiah. Isaiah lived and died before Jeremiah was born. He lived when the nation Israel still had a northern and a southern kingdom. He warned them both that their idolatry and injustice were angering God and they needed to change their ways before it was too late. For the northern kingdom it became too late in 722 BC. This was during Isaiah’s lifetime. That was the year the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, never to be heard from again.
So now Isaiah turned his attention to the southern kingdom, Judah. He told them there was still time to repent. They never did. And after Isaiah’s lifetime, when Jeremiah was the main prophet on the scene, the Babylonians came in and destroyed Jerusalem. Jeremiah walked through the ruins, he wrote Lamentations, and the long years of exile began.
Remember, the prophets did those two things. They gave warning and they promised comfort. Isaiah is full of warnings. It is also full of comfort. There’s that line in Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort ye, my people”. That comes from Isaiah (40:1). Also from Isaiah (and also in Handel’s Messiah): “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (9:6).
Today we read Isaiah 12. The whole chapter is the 6 verses we read. It is addressed to the southern kingdom 150 years before the Babylonian exile. Things were bad for them when these words were written. Things were going to get much worse before they got any better. But things were going to get better. That’s what Isaiah 12 is all about.
In that day you will say: (in what day? In the day when their world comes crashing down. In their worst day ever.) In that day you will say: “I will praise you, O Lord. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.”
Did you get that. “I will trust and not be afraid.” Fear is powerful. God is much more powerful.
“For the Lord God is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
God is strength. God is joy. God is song.
There are two songs in Isaiah 12. Beautiful songs. I am aware of one of them that has been put to music in a contemporary arrangement. It’s called, “Surely it is God Who Saves Us”. It’s a song of joy. Both songs in Isaiah 12 are songs of joy. But here’s the thing I don’t want you to miss: These are songs of joy that are to be sung when the joy is not yet here. These are songs of joy that are to be sung when our faith and our fear are struggling with each other to see which one will get the upper hand. And these songs of joy cause our faith to get stronger and our fear to get weaker. They help us to trust in God.
These same two songs in Isaiah 12 were sung by the Jews during their long years of exile in Babylon. These were frightening times for them, but as they sang, their faith got stronger and their fear got weaker. They trusted in God. And they were surprised by joy.
That’s true with us today, too. When we sing the songs of our faith, something happens inside of us. Something changes. Something comes alive.
And that’s one reason we so love to sing the Christmas carols. We don’t need our hymnals. We don’t need words on the screen. We know them by heart. And it’s amazing. You turn on the radio, you walk into a store, you even walk down the sidewalk,everywhere you go this time of year, they are playing our songs! Songs of joy. Songs of joy that we can sing when the joy is not yet here. And they help us to feel that joy because they help us to trust God.
The Christmas story is full of songs. Zechariah sings. Mary sings. And then the angels sing. “Be not afraid, for I bring you good news of a (what?) great joy . . . For unto you is born in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord . . . Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to all people” (Luke 2:14).
I’m going to close today with an action plan for you. The shepherds never would have come to that manger, they never would have experienced that joy if the angels hadn’t invited them. And by the way, the word “angel” does not mean “winged creatures dressed in white”. The word literally means “messenger”. Which means you are all angels, or you can be if you choose. So here’s the message I want you to deliver: We have two Christmas Eve services coming up. December 23 and 24. 7 pm both nights.
You all know people who are going through a dark time right now. A lot of these people don’t go to church. Even on Christmas Eve, they don’t go to church. They may celebrate Christmas this year without singing a single Christmas song. Without feeling the joy that comes from, not just hearing them, but singing them. Unless you invite them. Unless you are an angel of the Lord.
We’ve made it easy for you. We have a bulletin insert. It’s not for you to keep. It’s for you to give away. And we have a stack of extras on the welcome table. Take as many as you need.
Think about who you are going to invite this year. Pray about it. Pray for them. Then go to them, bring the card with you, and ask if they would go to church with you Christmas Eve or the night before.
You can be an angel. An angel of joy. Will you be one?
I pray, dear God, that all of your beloved children might experience joy in this season. Whether it’s the joy that is accompanied with good things happening in our lives or the joy that surprises us in spite of a lot of difficult things happening in our lives — the joy that anticipates the better days that are coming. Either way, may we know joy, may we share joy, may we be joyous. Thus may we bring glory to you and to Christ our newborn King. Amen.