Call to Worship:
Come let us rejoice together in the Spirit of the Lord who said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to my people. Justice and righteousness will fill the land, and all will live in peace and safety.”
Lighting the Advent Candles:
As we enter the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, I invite you to join me by holding on to the light of hope, knowing the Christ is coming and all will be well in the world. I invite you also to hold fast to the light of love, knowing that it was out of great love for me and you, that God came to be with us, to care for us and to guide us back into God’s own heart. Because of this hope and this love, we can hold fast to the light of peace, even if such a thing feels impossible or futile at best.
Today we celebrate joy, knowing that for many of us, finding glad tidings of comfort and joy can feel like a difficult task. But if these candles tell us anything, it’s that God is present – illuminating our darkest places so we can see God at work in our lives transforming our pain into joy. And so we light the joy candle to remind us that no matter how difficult your life might seem, joy is present if only because God is present.
Read Luke 2:8-14
Now that school is out, my wife has returned to her rightful place on the sofa to binge watch a new batch of Christmas movies. Which really aren’t that much different than the ones from last year. Or the year before that. As someone recently described, “These movies all seem to come from the same candy cane factory.” The story lines are pretty much predictable, big city girl…small town boy…snowstorm…a kiss…and Christmas is saved.
It’s also a safe bet that carolers dressed like 19th century Dickens characters will show up and sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.
Like the sugary holiday movie, this is one of those happy tunes that promises to fill us with comfort and joy. But recently I heard this song in a different light. As I was trying to play it on the guitar, I noticed this majestic proclamation is sung in a minor key…like the ones you find in most blues songs. And if you’ve know blues music, then you know why the name is appropriate.
In a recent essay on this subject, Margret Manning pointed out that the juxtaposition between the minor notes of the song and its uplifting lyrics suggests that joy is not simply found in things that make us happy, but also in times of sorrow.
With only three letters, ‘Joy’ is a short but powerful word. It appears 145 times in the bible which tells me it’s important to understand. According to Merriam-Webster joy is “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune; or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” This definition leaves me to wonder what if you don’t get your way, does that mean you don’t experience joy?
Theopedia describes joy as “a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.” I think this definition brings us closer to what God is trying to tell us – that joy is not a feeling you get when something good happens. That’s happiness. Happiness lives in the head. It comes and goes depending on your experience or mood.
Joy is different. Joy is permanent. It lingers deep within our hearts whether we feel it or not. Famed British author C.S. Lewis said it best when he wrote, “Joy is an experience no one would ever exchange for all the happiness in the world.”
In Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, joy is one of the seven fruits of the Spirit along with love, peace, faithfulness, patience, gentleness and kindness. It’s not a fleeting or passing emotion but a holy gift from God that helps us navigate the ups and downs of life. And so, as we look to this small but bright flickering light, we know we are able to rejoice no matter what we are up against, if only because God is rejoicing in us.
In Luke’s gospel, as the angles hovered over the dark earth heralding in the reign of Christ, joy entered into creation in the bleakest of times. Through Christ, God brought glad tidings of comfort and joy. Such things don’t come from assuming power or amassing possessions. They come from a person: Jesus of Nazareth, the joy of God incarnate.
One of the first people to feel the joy of Christ, was John the Baptist. While still in his mother’s womb John leapt for joy when a pregnant Mary entered the house. He carried that joy with him, and held on to it in the loneliness of the wilderness and the struggles he would face out there as he ushered in the Kingdom of God. Even in prison with the threat of death looming over his head, John’s joy did not diminish. He knew that no matter how difficult his life got, joy was present if only because God was present within him.
This is hard to hear or understand when you’re in a bad mood or when someone or something steals your joy. But you might take comfort knowing that not even Jesus himself was immune to the pain and sorrow of this world. Manning says, “the tidings of comfort and joy which we desire come as God entered into a suffering world – not removed from it.” Whatever you are going through, right now in your life, you can rejoice knowing God is there with you; in a person who understands your pain and knows what it’s like to suffer.
I know that it’s hard to rejoice when people you love get cancer or when your friends abandon you. It’s hard for me to find joy as long as gun violence permeates our communities, as the homeless situation in our nation worsens, and children still don’t have enough food, or clean water, or a loving parent nearby. Joy isn’t easy to come by when you’re alone in your house, or overworked, or out of work.
Which is why, as Henri Nouwen once said, “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Jesus is God’s greatest joy. Therefore we have to make the conscious decision to seek and welcome him into our daily life. We have to wake up every morning and choose to see and do what Jesus did…if only so others may find their hope, their love, their peace and their joy.
When we choose to be with Jesus, to be imitators of his love, a deeper sense and understanding of joy begins to grow in us and all around us. It becomes manifested in us, in the way we love and care for one another, in the way that we give and receive the Christ within us all.
I invite you to chose to welcome Jesus as those shepherds did on that Christmas morning. I invite you to receive him as your utmost joy, and to live in his Spirit, bearing its good fruit in all that you do. As you leave here today, I want you to know that we don’t experience joy because life is good. We experience it because God is great. God does not come and go like happiness. God sticks around, and is always there whether we know it or not. When life kicks the joy out of you, God is there kicking it back in.
Because God has chosen you and me to carry this light into the world – to shine our hope, love, peace and joy as bright as the host of angles who first brought glad tidings to those shepherds watching their flocks by night.
Let us pray: As we seek your presence Lord, may we do so rejoicing knowing that wherever we are and whatever we are facing we can do so joyfully because you are with us. Help us to be this bright shining light for others as Jesus did for us. Amen.
Manning, Margaret. Sowing Tears and Reaping Joy. A Slice of Infinity devotional, December 17, 2019 (accessed 12/17/19) https://us5.campaign-archive.com/?e=2ee208b3a9&u=45b75085e6ab57e339ea89d67&id=1b4bf221eb
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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