December 16, 2018, Navigating by Joy – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000112
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. And 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 far off at all.
And so today, on this day of joy, we read the words of Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” We definitely hear a lot about joy this time of year, especially in the music of the season. There’s Joy to the World, which is one of my favorite Christmas carols, but all the secular songs pick up the theme of happiness, too, and they pound it into our heads: “Have your self a merry little Christmas”, “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 you’re a Grinch. Or a Scrooge.
This coming Tuesday we’re holding a service called a Blue Christmas at the United Methodist Church building. It’s at 7 o’clock and anyone from any church or no church is welcome to attend. Pastor Caspar Green organized it. And I’ll be a co-leader as well. If you’ve never heard of a Blue Christmas service, it’s a simple, quiet, meditative service that’s intended to be helpful for people for whom the holiday season is not a time of joy. For a lot of people, the approach of Christmas brings up painful memories, or re-awakens the grief of some loss or tragedy. Others find themselves sinking deeper into depression, or more keenly aware of their loneliness. For many, many people, for many different reasons, the sense that they are supposed to feel happy and cheerful is just an additional burden to bear along with the crushing weight of their sadness and hopelessness.
But when Paul talks about joy, he’s not talking about a feeling at all. When Paul exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord always, the last thing he means is that if you’re a good Christian you have to be a perpetual ray of sunshine, with a big smile plastered on your face at all times. Not only would that be really annoying to everyone around you, it would also be impossible to honestly obey that command because feelings aren’t something we can control. Feelings are more 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 somebody says our new haircut looks good. We feel happy when the sun is shining, or when we get to hold a puppy. And sometimes we just wake up feeling happy for no particular reason. But the next minute things are just as likely to swing around the opposite way; our happiness dissolves and we find ourselves feeling sad, or frustrated, or angry. The thing about feeling is that we really have very little control over them. They come and go. No human being could ever make themselves feel happy 100% of the time. And yet, Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always.
Unlike happiness, that fades in and out like light and shadow, joy is something we can choose to hold onto at all times, at any time, in any circumstance. Because joy doesn’t depend on us; it depends on God, who never changes. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, Rejoice! The Lord is near us. Don’t worry about anything, but bring all your needs to him with prayers and cries for help.” The remarkable thing is that Paul wrote those joyful words from a jail cell. Joy is a choice that Paul made. No matter what happened in his life, no matter what his feelings were – and it is impossible to suppose he felt unfailingly cheerful when he was beaten and imprisoned – he chose to fix his eyes and his heart firmly on Jesus and his faithfulness. As Mother Teresa said, “Joy is strength.”
Most of you know that our son, Isaac, lives on a sailboat off the coast of Virgina with his wife and three little girls. A few years ago, they had just moved onto their first boat, which was kind of a fixer-upper, and they had a series of disasters. The worst thing that happened was that their solar generator caught fire and damaged the boat so that the boat started leaking. All one long, scary night Isaac was alone in the sinking boat, bailing out the water, and sailing toward the one particular spot he needed to get to. It was too dark to see where he was going, and it was stormy, and the wind and the waves were pushing the boat every which way. The only way he had of knowing which direction he was going was by the navigational instruments on the boat. They were the only thing pointing the way to safety, the only thing that kept him on course in the midst of the storm.
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. And very often we are sorely hindered by a lot of other things as well – the sins of other people, sometimes, or the tragedies and injustices that come with living in a broken world. Most of the time 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.
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. It would be a cruel and inhuman thing to be continuously happy. 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 always close at hand; because we know that he will never leave us or forsake us. In all the chaos and storms of life and death joy keeps us on course, not an anchor that weighs us down, but a compass that guides us to safety.
And as people who have joy as our sure guide, we have something to offer people whose lives are drifting, people who live in fear, people who are overwhelmed by sadness and despair. One way we could reach out might be to invite someone who is depressed or feeling hopeless to the Blue Christmas service. But we can offer stability and direction to people we know in a lot of other ways – by being a faithful, non-demanding presence in someone’s life, someone who doesn’t pass judgment, someone who is available to give without any expectation of repayment, because the joy of the Lord is our strength.
When John the Baptist was still in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth, her cousin Mary came for a visit. And Mary, of course, was carrying a child of her own. And when Mary came into the house John, unborn baby though he was, knew that his Lord was present, and in his mother’s womb he leapt for joy. After his birth, his father, Zechariah sang a prophetic song. “You, my child,” he sang, “shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The joy that John knew in his mother’s womb led him out into the wilderness where he would prepare his people for the dawn of their salvation, as Isaiah had foretold:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy.”
Within two weeks the world will be all finished with the gaiety and extravagance of the holiday season. Wrappings and boxes will overflow the trash receptacles along the street, and the decorations and gift sets and candy on the store shelves will be marked down to clearance prices. Happiness comes and goes. But joy is something that remains. Joy doesn’t get packed away and stowed in the attic. “The joy of the Lord is our strength.” The writer to the Hebrews tells us: “Look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Joy will guide us through.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.