December 1, 2019
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
CHRISTMAS JOY: WHEN LIFE IS HARD
Psalm 30:4-5; Jeremiah 31:2-4,13; Habakkuk 3:17-18
The first in a series of three.
Something somehow seems right about the first Sunday of
Advent falling on the first day of December. I’ve never gotten used to Advent starting in November, though I know the commercial world starts Christmas way earlier than that – October, maybe even September. I think the first day of December is just about right.
Advent is part of what we call the church calendar, which doesn’t always mesh neatly with the secular calendar. Both have 365 days (366 next year). But there are twelve months in the secular calendar and six seasons in the church calendar. On this pulpit we never use, we change colors to remind us when a season changes. So today we see purple, the color of Advent.
Next will come white, the color of Christmas. That season starts on Christmas Day and lasts twelve days. Then Epiphany, when the color will change to green. Lent is when we start getting ready for Easter. And guess what? Lent starts on March 1 next year. Something somehow seems right about the first Sunday of Lent falling on the first day of March!
Lent is a purple season, like Advent. Easter is white and lasts fifty days. You see, purple is the color of preparation and white is the color of celebration. Then comes Pentecost, the only red season, which is also the longest of the seasons by far. But so you don’t get tired of red, all on my own I change the color to green on the Sunday after Labor Day. And so far no one has told me I couldn’t.
The first Sunday of Advent is like the first day of the new year in the church calendar. So this is the Christian New Year’s Day. That’s why some of us pastors were out late last night celebrating and setting off fireworks. I’m kidding. I am never out late on Saturday night. Just ask Helen.
Advent is the season to get ready for Christmas. I know when I say “get ready for Christmas” some of you get all excited and some of you don’t. Some of you are more like Ebenezer Scrooge. Just out of curiosity, how many of you have your Christmas tree up? How many have done some Christmas shopping? How many have outside lights up? Be careful on those ladders.
There are many ways we get ready for Christmas, but here at church we really have the market cornered on the most important way. The real preparation for Christmas happens here. Because Christmas is all about Jesus, and here at Nampa First we are all about Jesus. Jesus is the great gift God has given to us. Jesus is the greatest gift we can give each other. You can’t buy it on Amazon. You can’t get two-day free shipping. But you can come to church, each of these four Sundays of Advent. And I hope you will.
We’re doing something a little different this year. Traditionally the themes for the four Sundays of Advent are hope, peace, joy, and love. So the sermons are often about hope one Sunday, then peace, then joy, and finally love. But this year we’re going to have four sermons on joy. Because there is way more joy in Christmas than we can possibly squeeze into one Sunday.
Today we’re going to be looking at the paradox of joy in the darkness. Joy when life is hard.
I know this is not the usual way we think of joy. Here is the definition, straight from the dictionary, that says it for most of us: “Joy is a feeling of great pleasure or happiness.” So let’s talk about that. Where do you find that feeling of great pleasure or happiness in your life? Usually when I ask a question like that, it’s what we call a rhetorical question. That means I’m not really wanting an out loud answer. But this time I do. So tell me, what brings you joy?
(several people respond)
Here are a few things that bring me joy: Hiking in the mountains. Walking on the beach. Sitting in our hot tub. Reading a good book. Usually in that same hot tub. Working in our yard. Especially when it’s not too hot and not too cold. Watching the Oregon Ducks play the Oregon State Beavers. Being with Helen. Being with good friends. Being with family. Being with you, my church family.
I think most of us have figured out by now that we get the most joy by far, not from stuff, but from relationships. So it’s kind of weird this time of year that so many get so caught up in this herd mentality that compels us to buy stuff for each other.
Whatever it is that brings us joy is not going to always be there. We often are separated by distance from the people we love. Or separated by death. We aren’t always able to be where we’d like to be or to do what we’d like to do. Life isn’t all pleasure and happiness like in the dictionary definition. But then we read the Bible, and we find that the Bible has a very different definition. Joy is an inner disposition that we can choose even in the hardest of the hard times we face in life.
For example Hebrews 12:1. It says that “for the joy set before him” Jesus endured the cross. No happiness, certainly no pleasure on that awful day, but there was joy. Jesus was able to see beyond that moment of agony to the greater purpose God was working out, and that gave him joy.
I think of the apostles, arrested, beaten, thrown in prison, and then that verse that says they were “rejoicing because they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ” (Acts 5:41). I think of Paul and Silas, beaten practically to death, thrown in the dungeon at Philippi, and then at midnight singing hymns of praise to God (Acts 16:25). I think of that verse in James: “Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of various kinds” (1:2).
It’s all through the Bible. Joy is so much more than pleasure and happiness in the moment. It is an inner disposition we can choose always, even in the hardest of the hard times we face in life. And the source of this joy is found in what we sang earlier. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Emmanuel: “God with us.” The birth of Jesus means God has come to be with us and will always be with us, no matter what.
Marianne Thompson, a professor at Fuller School of Theology, has studied this. She says there are over 400 references to joy in the Bible and that they can be divided into three broad categories. The first is the obvious one. Joy as happiness. This is the joy when a child is born, when the harvest comes in, when Israel is delivered from an enemy. When Boise State wins a football game. That’s not in the Bible. When something wonderful happens, we feel joy. And the more wonderful it is, the greater the joy.
But there’s a second category that is not so obvious but just as real. Anticipatory joy. Nothing good has happened yet, but in faith, since we know God is good, since we know God has done great things in the past, we trust that God is going to do something great in the future.
Here’s the verse we read earlier, Psalm 30:5. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” So even though it is still night for me where I live, even though my life is hard right now, I look back over my life and see how faithful God has been to me. Based on that, I don’t have to wait until morning dawns before I can feel the joy of that new and better day. This is anticipatory joy. A joy that comes from our faith in God.
I’ve had the joy of serving as a pastor for quite a few years now. Which means I have walked with a lot of people through some really hard things. Death of a child. Death of any loved one, however old or young they might be. Divorce. Loss of a job. Addiction. Chronic pain. Severe depression. An illness with no cure. Cancer. A.L.S. Yes, it is very common even for people of great faith to get really down and discouraged. Sometimes it’s very hard to see any light at all when our night is so dark. But after a while you begin to see a pattern. Day follows night. It always does. We tend to think that when things are truly awful, they will never get any better. But they always do. Joy comes in the morning. It may not be tomorrow morning. It may be a long wait. But God is with us, and God is faithful.
And so Psalm 30 continues:
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy, so that my whole being may sing praises to you and never stop. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever (11-12).
Most of the Old Testament was written or edited in response to a catastrophe that happened in 587 BC. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. The Temple, understood to be God’s house, was burned to the ground. The people were slaughtered. The king had his eyes gouged out, but not before his sons were murdered as he watched. It was the last thing he saw. It was intentional, so that he would carry that image with him as long as he lived. The message was stark: You have no hope. Your people have no hope. This is the end.
The leading citizens of Jerusalem, including their blind king, were taken in shackles on a long forced march to Babylon. Israel was no more. And yet this was the very time when their prophets were writing. Some of them had already written, warning that something like this would happen. But now that it had happened, they wrote about the future. God let them see what God could see, what they couldn’t imagine, what seemed so impossible, given what they were going through right then. And so Jeremiah writes:
The Lord proclaims, “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. Again I will build you up, and you will be rebuilt. Again, you will play your tambourines and dance with joy. With tears of joy, they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back. I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble. Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy” (Jeremiah 31, selected verses).
It would be 50 years before the first of them would return to Jerusalem. It was a long wait, but they held onto this promise. They may not see it come true but maybe their children would, or maybe their grandchildren, so even in Babylon, they had joy. A disposition of joy. They weren’t happy about what had happened to them. But they made the choice that what had happened to them, would not defeat them.
Out of this time came one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible. I know it is a life verse for some of you. Jeremiah 29:11.
For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.
There is one more category that Professor Thompson identifies in those 400 plus Bible passages. Joy as a choice. It’s a choice we make based on our faith in God. Paul wrote about the faith that makes this kind of joy possible:
We know that in everything God works for good with
those who love him, who are called according to his
purpose (Romans 8:28).
So when something terrible happens, even as we suffer through it, we also are able to ask a question: I wonder what God will do with this? I wonder how God will take this, even this, and do something good with it? God doesn’t cause bad things, but when bad things happen, God doesn’t waste them. God uses them for his redemptive purpose. And it is our choice to trust that this is the way God works.
After the Babylonian exile, the Jews were finally allowed to return to Jerusalem. They were rebuilding their city. This too was a hard time, as their nearby enemies were now causing them all kinds of problems. But Nehemiah told his people they needed to stay strong. How? “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). The joy of the Lord is always there for you, but it’s your choice to let that joy strengthen you in the challenges you face.
Here’s the way C.S. Lewis put it. It’s the way he ends book seven of his “Chronicles of Narnia.” It’s actually a happy ending which is hard to believe because – spoiler alert – the children who are the heroes in this book have just died in a train accident. I think these are some of the finest words ever written:
And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: in which every chapter is better than the chapter before.
Here is the way Henri Nouwen put it: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose it and keep choosing it every day.”
On this first Sunday of Advent I am inviting you to choose joy.
Shane Stanford is senior pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was born with hemophilia, a condition in which your blood does not clot properly. He was 13 years old in 1983 when he was given a blood product that was used at the time to help hemophiliacs. What he did not know then, it was just being discovered, was that there was a terrible new disease that was being spread by blood transfusions.
Shane was not feeling well. No one could tell him why. He was 16 when they finally figured it out. He was HIV+. At that time this was a death sentence. There was no known treatment. His doctor told him it was impossible to predict how long he would live but that it would likely not be very long.
As I mentioned, Shane is now pastor at this large church in Memphis, so his doctor was wrong. He was one of the lucky ones. He beat the odds. He wrote a book in which he told this story. The book is Making Life Matter: Embracing Joy in the Every Day.
Right after his diagnosis he was spending time with his grandparents. His grandfather took him for a drive and they ended on top of a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. They stepped out of the car, took in the view, and this is what his grandfather said to him, as best as he could remember:
Shane, if anybody has a right to get in a corner and have a pity party about this, you do. This is a real raw deal, but you have a choice to make. You can get in that pity corner. And Shane, if you want to I’ll get in there with you, and we can cry. But I know you Shane, and I think you’re going to make another choice. I think you’re going to live each day to the fullest with everything you have. I think you’re going to take each day, no matter how many you have, and you’re going to make something of it, Shane. That’s what I believe about you.
With a grandfather like that, who believed that about him, that is exactly the choice he made. It’s the choice we can make, too. It doesn’t matter how hard your life is right now. It doesn’t matter how dark your night. Choose life. Choose joy.
One more scripture. I can’t send you home without mentioning Habakkuk. Not a book we often read from. Not a book we even know much about. As best we know, part of it was written just before 587 BC and the part we read was written just after. His people had lost everything. It was the end. There was no hope. But no, it was not the end. And there was hope. They just couldn’t see it yet. So God raised up this prophet and gave him these amazing words to share with his people – words that would help them climb out of their pity corner and choose joy.
Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes
on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior (3:17-18).
God, help us to choose joy. Help us to keep choosing it every day Help us to trust in you. Help us to feel your presence in our lives, in happy times and in hard times. May we know that the one who came in Bethlehem, who walked among us, who suffered and died and rose from the dead, is the same one who still walks with us. Even Jesus, your Christmas gift. In his name we pray, Amen.