December 16, 201
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
Friday evening we all absorbed the shock of what happened after the morning bell and before recess at a small town school in Connecticut. When I got my wits about me I looked ahead to this morning and wished ever so much that it was the First Sunday of Advent with its hope for things unseen. Surely we do not yet see God’s hand in this. I could even imagine a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent on God’s peace beyond human understanding. For clearly we do not understand where lies the peace for twenty sets of parents and countless friends, colleagues and family members.
As it turns out, today is the most perfectly right day of all to talk about joy. Hear again these words from today’s scripture, Isaiah 12:2-6
“Surely God is my salvation: I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations, proclaim that his name is exalted.”
O Holy One, we come to your joy today with hearts full of sorrow. Comfort us with your hope and your salvation, that all may be made well according to your promises. Bind up the broken hearted. Comfort those who mourn. Make known to us the joy of your salvation, remembering that whether we live or whether we die we belong to you, the Lord of the living and the dead. Open our eyes to see and our ears to hear and our hearts to experience your word among us for God; you are our rock and our redeemer. And now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be an acceptable offering to you O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
You were made for joy. Today is the third Sunday in Advent, the day we remember God’s gift of joy. You heard today with the lighting of the Advent candles, the words of theologian G. K. Chesterton. “Man is more himself, woman more herself, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, in her, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind: praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul.”
We ask, “What is this joy that is mentioned more than 400 times in the New Testament?” We wonder, in light of all that has taken place, “Where is that joy this morning?” Apparently Jesus thinks our joy is right here among us. He taught his disciples saying even as he was preparing to die, (John 15:11) “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
Joy is not the same thing as happiness. Someone who knew movie star Katherine Hepburn overheard her remark once that happiness is fleeting. “When I have a box of chocolates, I am happy,” she said. “When the chocolates are gone, I am unhappy.” When happiness depends on external circumstances, our life becomes a rollercoaster, expectant on the way up when something we want is within reach, crashing on the way down when we lost it or it is taken from us. The exhilarating moment at the top is thin and transient.
Happiness is the fourth of July. We’re happy at the parade. We’re happy at the beach. We’re happy at the barbecue. We’re happy when we get to eat homemade ice cream, and hold warm puppies and babies. We’re happy watching fireworks. And then the show is over and everybody goes home.
Now that is not to say that God is against happiness. The fourth of July is one of the best days ever. Most of us love it, for all it’s noisy, touristy, commotion. We revel in its summer delights and enjoy the memory of it for days after. Fireworks are great. We love them. But we know that we can’t make a life of them.
If happiness is the fourth of July, joy is Christmas. At Christmas we learn that God broke into a heart broken world with the Good News first promised between God and Abraham and Sarah centuries earlier. God said, now in flesh, I really am your God, and you really are my people and I really will be with you regardless of what befalls you even to the end of time.
At Easter, we say that every Sunday becomes a mini-Easter, a mini resurrection of hope given to us in Christ. At Christmas, we say that every day now becomes Christmas. We wake each morning to the ongoing promise that God is with us, whatever the day may bring. Now that’s joy.
Many people do no believe they were made for joy. Their experience or their culture has taught them otherwise. We all have a tendency to carry a set of beliefs about the world and we actively, if unconsciously work to make that belief come true. Psychologists call this tendency a self-fulfilling prophecy. It works like this. There is an exercise regimen called Pilates that teaches us to strengthen our core and properly breathe. With every exercise, there is a healthy resting place to which you return, which is called neutral. It’s that place where your back is nether profoundly swayed, nor your hips curled uncomfortably forward in the other direction. Neutral is that centered place where you have the proper strength and stability to carry your body throughout the day. In terms of faith, you might think of this as the set point for your soul.
There’s a story told by Physician Rachel Naomi Remen that being unlucky was the set point for her family growing up. She writes that whenever anything bad happened in the family, her Father would say, “The luck of the Remens.” Couldn’t find a parking space? “The luck of the Remens.” Somebody got sick and had to go to the hospital? “The luck of the Remens.” The water heater broke and the basement flooded? “The luck of the Remens.” For years she truly believed that her family were unlucky people. And then it happened.
One year her father won the lottery. It wasn’t the mega millions jackpot, but it was more money than he had ever seen in his life: not enough to end world hunger, but enough to make a difference in the family’s future. She writes about the false belief of her family in this way.
“My father was in the hospital when he won the lottery, recovering from the removal of a tumor that turned out to be benign. He taped the winning ticket to his chest, saying that no one could be trusted to redeem it, not any of the family or any of his friends, not even my mother…As the deadline to redeem it got closer, he swore my mother and me to secrecy…Eventually he did redeem the ticket himself, but he never did spend the money. To do so would be to admit that he was lucky. Later on in life when I received my own windfall, I realized that the luck of the Remens, or more accurately, the unluckiness of the Remens was a homemade belief.” (From Kitchen Table Wisdom.) Unlucky was the Reemen family set point.
For some people, sadness is their set point. Life is always Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, a veil of tears, all hardship, a bit depressing. There are moments of happiness, maybe joy, but they are seen as an exception to the rule, an aberration. Some people live in a state of expectancy but it is the expectation that even though things are o.k. Now, the other shoe is about to fall. These tend to be glass half-empty kind of people.
For other people, drama is the set point. If life isn’t in a state of high drama, some kind of drama has to be created in order to be comfortable. These kinds of folks tend to stir the pot. When they walk into a room, they need to be the center of attention. Life is always in a kind of uproar and anybody who gets too close tends to get sucked up into the drama. After spending time with someone addicted to drama, it feels as if all the positive energy has been drained away. It’s kind of exhausting. People addicted to drama tend to be scared that joy is unattainable for them. The adrenaline rush of dramatic events is the only thing that makes them truly feel alive. Drama however, is a poor substitute for the real thing.
Each of us has a story about the world we believe to be true. Sometimes we have to twist and turn the circumstances of our lives to fit into that story. Otherwise, we would have to change the story itself to accommodate this new truth that we were made for joy.
When God sent Jesus into the world for joy, the world had the opportunity to change its story. Jesus didn’t come into the world during a fourth of July picnic. He came in the middle of the Roman occupation of his homeland and the political oppression of a corrupt governor Herod. No doubt someone was crucified for some minor crime the week he was born in Bethlehem, as was common Roman practice. But God’s ways are not our ways, and God would have none of it.
You may think life is a veil of tears punctuated by brief moments of happiness. You may believe the world is unraveling before our very eyes, there’s plenty of evidence to support that, but God has other designs for us beloved human creatures.
In Christ, God created joy, a new set point for humankind. Joy is no longer a random and fleeting thing, but our birthright and the natural state of affairs, our neutral. All else becomes a brief foray away from it, with the constant tendency to return. Yet many people have not awakened through faith to discover it, though it is there for each of us all along.
“Joy is essential to spiritual life. Whatever we may think or say about God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit. Jesus reveals to us God’s love so that his joy may become ours and that our joy may become complete. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.
Father Henri Nouwen wrote that: “Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but in the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together. That isn’t easy to understand, but when we think about some of our deepest life experience, such as being present at the birth of a child or the death of a friend, great sorrow and great joy are often seen to be parts of the same experience.
“Often we discover the joy in the midst of the sorrow. I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain in hope. I dare even to say: ‘My grief was a place where I found joy.’ Still, nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life.
“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.” From “Here and Now” by Henri Nouwen
Knowing God’s joy depends on our willingness to trust God’s goodness whatever the day may bring. Life becomes an adventure, an opening to new things that do not depend on our control of circumstances, or upon whether or not our life turns out as we may wish. Every life has its challenging, even tragic moments.
One author who works with critically ill cancer patients once said of her experiences with them: “From such people I have learned a new definition of the word ‘joy.’ I had thought joy to be rather synonymous with happiness, but it seems now to be far less vulnerable than happiness. Joy seems to be a part of an unconditional will to live, not holding back because life may not meet our preferences and expectations.
“Joy seems to be a function of the willingness to accept the whole, and to show up to meet with whatever is there. It has a kind of invincibility that attachment to any particular outcome would deny us. Rather than the warrior who fights toward a specific outcome and therefore is haunted the by specter of failure and disappointment, it is the lover drunk with the opportunity to love despite the possibility of loss.” Rachel Naomi Reemen.
It may seem insane to speak of joy on a Sunday like this. We may think it sacrilegious given what has happened. On the contrary, into even this, especially this, Jesus was born. To the parents in Newtown, Connecticut, “the angel says to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
To them, to his disciples and to all of us, Jesus says as his life nears the end: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice, you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” John 16:20-22
May it be so.