December 13, 2015, With Joy As Our Compass – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Last night I watched part of a movie. It was the Grinch, with Jim Carey, which doesn’t really sound like the kind of movie you’d talk about in a sermon. But I’m going to anyway. If you haven’t seen it, the story is about a place called Who-ville, whose residents – the Who’s, of course – are just wild about Christmas. And every year at Christmas they nominate one person to be the Cheermeister. The hero of the movie, a really adorable little girl named Cindy Lou Who, decides to nominate the most unlikely person of all to be the Cheermeister – the Grinch, this big green furry grouchy guy. And so they force him into a holiday sweater and cram him full of fruitcake and eggnog and make him dance around so he can be the Cheermeister.
If you notice today, when we lit the three candles on the wreath for the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the rose-colored candle. Also today I’m wearing the rose-colored vestments and the chalice is veiled in pink, and there are beautiful roses for the altar. All that is to represent joy, because today is called Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing. We have passed the halfway mark of Advent and the celebration of Christmas is not too far off.
And so today we read the words of Paul, written from his prison cell in Rome: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” We seem to hear a lot about joy this time of year. There’s Joy to the World, one of the classic Christmas carols, but even the secular songs pick up the theme and pound it into our heads: “Have your self a merry little Christmas, make the Yuletide gay; from now on our troubles will be miles away”, “Christmastime is here, laughter and good cheer”, “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays the message is out there: you are supposed to feel happy. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Be happy. Or else.
But when Paul talks about joy, he is not talking about just some kind of a happy feeling. When Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always, he doesn’t mean Christians are supposed to go around with big smiles on our faces. Paul isn’t commanding you to be the Cheermeister. In fact, Paul isn’t commanding you to feel any certain way. Feelings are kind of a force of nature, like the weather. We feel happy when we find the very thing we were looking for at WalMart at 50% off. We feel happy when someone compliments us on the work we’ve done, or when we get a good grade. We feel happy when the sun is shining, or when we see a really cute puppy. Sometimes we feel happy for no particular reason. But the next minute things might swing around the opposite way. The thing about feelings is that we have very little control over them. They come and go. No human being could make themselves feel happy all the time. But Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord. Always.
So if it’s not a feeling, what IS joy? Joy, my brothers and sisters, is a choice. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, Rejoice! Let everyone see your kindness. The Lord is near us. Don’t worry about anything, but bring all your needs to him with prayers and cries for help.” Joy is a choice that Paul had made, no matter what happened in his life, no matter what his feelings were – a choice to fix his eyes firmly on Jesus and his goodness. In the first chapter of the letter to the Philippians, Paul writes about the people who are free and out there, preaching the gospel, while he, Paul, was stuck in prison. Some of them, Paul says, were carrying on his work out of love and respect, knowing that he had been thrown into jail because of his defense of the gospel. But there were some people out there who were motivated by envy and rivalry, just hoping to hurt him by taking over his ministry while he was stuck in prison. “What difference does it make?” Paul asks, “no matter what their motivation is, the gospel is being preached, and in that I choose to rejoice.”
Paul chooses to hold onto what is good, what is important, what is true, no matter what his feelings must have been – and he is pretty open in expressing his feelings throughout his letters, sometimes feelings of gratitude and pride; sometimes feelings of anger and frustration. But whatever his feelings, he chooses to rejoice. Written from a jail cell, the letter to the Philippians is full of joy – not because things are going his way, not because he feels happy, but because he chooses to set his heart on the very best good; he chooses joy. “whatever is true,” Paul writes, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
In chapter two he is passionately appealing to his spiritual children in the church at Philippi, to be diligent in living out the faith that he had taught them when he first brought the gospel to them. “Even if I am about to be poured out like a drink offering on your faith,” in other words, “even if they kill me for preaching the gospel, like I did for you, I don’t have any regrets. I’m glad. I rejoice with you all. And you, I want you to rejoice with me, too.” Choose joy.
You probably know that one of our sons, Isaac, lives on a sailboat off the coast of South Carolina with his wife and now two little daughters. Last summer, before the baby, Naomi, was born, they were up here visiting with us. And while they were here in Norwood, the solar generator on their boat caught fire and did a lot of damage to the boat – so much that the boat was taking in water and beginning to sink. Christina and Sofia stayed at our house, and Isaac went back to the boat to try to bring it to a safe place. All one long, scary night he was in the sinking boat, bailing out the water, and heading for one particular spot he needed to get to. It was too dark to see where he was going, and the wind and the waves were pushing the boat this way and that, and it was only the navigational instruments on the boat, pointing the way to safety, that kept him on course.
Joy is our navigational instrument. Joy is our compass, pointing us to Jesus. Sometimes we are so beaten and battered by the dangers and demands of this world that we feel like we are sinking. Our feelings, our fears and our longings and our resentments blow us first one way and then another. Like today’s collect said, we are sorely hindered by our sins. We can’t see very far ahead. But joy sets a course for what is sure; God’s faithfulness and mercy, the glorious hope of the gospel. The Lord is close at hand. Rejoice in him always. I will say it again, rejoice!
Being people of joy doesn’t mean we will always be happy and smiling. There is so much to grieve for in the world around us – our own suffering, and the suffering of others. Like Jesus did, we should weep with those who weep; we should mourn with those who mourn. But we rejoice at all times because our Lord is close at hand; he will never leave us or forsake us. In all the chaos and storms of life and death joy keeps us firmly fixed, not an anchor that holds us down, but a compass that guides us to safety. The peace of God, Paul says, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.
When we were little children we knew that all stories should end happily ever after. No matter how dark the woods or how greedy and hungry the wolf or how treacherous the stepmother, in the end we knew there would always be truth and goodness and justice. But we grow up and we look around us and the world doesn’t operate like that. Justice is perverted and the innocent suffer at the hands of the greedy and wicked. More than ever before, we live in a cynical world where the “truth” belongs to the one who shouts the loudest. The world has given up on happily ever after. But we know that the most amazing story of all times is actually the truest of all stories – that the Son of God was born as a peasant child, that he grew up full of grace and love and power to heal, that he gave his life for us all and took it back up again, to walk out of the grave once and for all. And that he will never again leave us to battle the forces of evil in this world alone; he is close by, always. He loves us, always. We navigate by the truth of that story, just as surely as the Wise men found their way to Bethlehem by the light of the star. The people of God shine as lights in the darkness of this world, holding fast to the word of life. We choose joy. Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say it again, rejoice!