Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 12, 2010

2010.12.12 A Life Giving Christmas: “Joy…To Get Me Through The Tough Days” Isaiah 35: 1 – 10

Central United Methodist Church

A Life Giving Christmas:

“Joy…To Get Me Through The Tough Days”

Isaiah 35: 1 – 10

Pastor David L. Haley
The 3rd Sunday of Advent

December 12th, 2010

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. . . .

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35: 1 – 2, 10)

       May I begin with a question: When was the last time we experienced joy?

Well, someone might say, “It had to be about, oh, 1938, 1957, 1970, I think, when I was 6 years old . . .” 

In truth, I do think it’s true that we experience joy more often as children than as adults.  Perhaps it has something to do with that saying, “Ignorance is bliss.”  It doesn’t take that much to make a child blissfully joyful, or for that matter, completely inconsolable. 

Lest we jaded old folks forget, as children, we especially experience joy around Christmas. After all, being a child at Christmas is a magical experience. Lights, and Christmas trees, and goodies to eat and of course – the gifts that Christmas in general, and Santa in particular, bring. 

When we were young, or teenagers, some of us may remember the joy we felt the first time we fell in love, or when someone loved us back. It was exhilarating and excruciating and yes, usually infatuation, but, at its best, it was joy. We might have walked into trees and off curbs in front of cars, but, hey, what joy! Even now, if we are fortunate, the joy of human love may still be the greatest joy of our lives, whether of our spouses, our children, or our dearest friends.

Those who are parents might say, the most powerful adult experience of pure joy we experienced was when our children were born; or, for adoptive parents, the first time we held them. The first time you look into that tiny little face, the universe shifts on its axis, and – for better and worse – never returns to where it was before.  Truly, for most of us who are parents, our children, and grandchildren – no matter how old they are – are our crowning joy.  But our lives might be deficient, if we only experience joy through them.

God bless all those who experience joy now.  Unfortunately for many of us, joy may be more of a memory than an everyday experience.  Now, we worry too much, we work too much, we have too much responsibility, maybe even work hard to be the responsible parents of those same sons and daughters we welcomed with joy.  As for joy in our lives, well, let me think about it and get back to you.

Joy is the theme of the third Sunday of Advent.  In the medieval church, the third Sunday of Advent was known as Gaudete Sunday, so called from the first word of the Introit at Mass, “Gaudete,” in Latin, which means “rejoice”. While at that time Advent was primarily a penitential season preparatory to Christmas, as Lent is preparatory to Easter, the third Sunday of Advent was considered a break, (kind of like a 7th inning stretch) and the candles and vestments were rose colored, rather than purple (or blue as they are today.) 

Today, as we continue our series “A Life Giving Christmas,” today’s answer to the question, “What do you want for Christmas?” is that we would like to experience joy.  Let’s explore that by asking three more questions:  “What is joy?” “How can we experience more joy in our lives?” And finally, “What is the source of our ultimate joy?”

What is joy, anyway?  We know it less as a word than a feeling, and are thus not well served by the dictionary, which simply defines joy as “ecstatic or exultant happiness.” Synonyms of joy range from such terms as “warm fuzzies,” “happiness,” “gladness,” “bliss,” “felicity,” and “blessedness.”  I kind of like the definition of Melba Colgrove, “Joy is the feeling of grinning inside.”

I have always liked what the English Christian writer C. S. Lewis, said about joy in his book, “Surprised By Joy,” the story of his journey from atheism to belief. In that book, Lewis called joy “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”  But he went on to say:

“Joy must be distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure.  I doubt whether anyone who has tasted [joy] would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.  But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”  (Surprised By Joy, p. 18)

Even when hard times come (even in the midst of a Chicago blizzard), it may well be what hope we have, what peace we’ve known, what joy we’ve experienced, that get us through. Joy, after all, is not surface-level happy; it is deeply seated in one’s character. Joy may not always manifest itself in smiles and laughter, but in grace and confidence. Joy might be described as knowing something better exists, and holding onto that which is better. “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world,” Joseph Campbell once said. “We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.”

        If we choose to live in joy, our question becomes, “How can we experience joy more often?

        One path to joy is do what scholar of comparative religion Joseph Campbell once prescribed, “Follow your bliss.”  To do that, of course, you have to know what those things are which bring you bliss, say “yes” to those, and at the same time, say “no” to other things, especially those things that suck joy right out of us.

        Over and again, we humans fall for the illusion that we can do anything and everything, and that we have forever to do it.  But the older you get, the more you know that is not true. We all have a finite time here on earth, we are all unique individuals with our own set of gifts and talents, and if we’re fortunate, we discover early in life what it is that brings us bliss. Why do we ignore that, living lives imposed from without rather than rising from within, and squander our precious lives away? What if Mozart had been a painter? What if Michelangelo had been a musician?  What if Jesus had remained a carpenter?

        To experience more joy in our lives, we need to find our bliss and follow it.  Whether that is time spent with family and friends, time pursuing our distinct interests and talents, time helping others or time seeking God, we need to do it, or we risk wasting our lives. Life is too short to live without joy.

        Which brings us to our final question, “Where does our ultimate joy lie?” While philosophers have given different answers to this question, such as hedonism (pursuit of pleasure) or altruism (doing good to others), religion in general and Christianity in particular have had one answer, perhaps stated most concisely in the Westminster Confession: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  In other words, in God we find our true and lasting joy.

        Has it ever occurred to you that God – in Godself – is a joyful being?  Pastor and author Brian McLaren once put it this way: “God, the mystics tell us – and the Scriptures agree – is a joyful being. God takes constant, pure delight in the shimmering goodness of every mountain, every coral reef, and every summer meadow, from every galaxy to every grain of sand. When we play and relax and enjoy life’s goodness, we are, in a sense, joining God in that holy joy.”  And you thought God was only angry?

In facts, saints and mystics have always suggested that all the joy we experience in this life, is just a foretaste of the joy that awaits us with God. The ultimate end of human existence, they have gone so far to suggest, consists in felicity, or “blessed happiness”, described by the 13th-century philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas as a Beatific Vision of God in the next life.

When we experience that in this life, we experience joy.  That’s why the Scripture readings for Advent are so full of joy, at the signs of God’s presence as we experience them on earth. Contrary to popular belief, it rarely has to do only with us, selfishly, but with God’s dream for all people, especially short of joy in this life, those who lonely, forsaken, downtrodden, suffering, or oppressed. 

What we’re waiting for is what the ancient prophet Isaiah imagined when he dreamed of springs in the desert, and highways leading God’s exiled people home, along paths once impossible to navigate.  Where there is no way, God will make a way.

What we’re waiting for is what Mary sang so joyfully about – the reversal of the powers that be, the undoing of oppression, the feeding of all who hunger, and the exaltation of all those left out or shut out of power.  

What we’re waiting for is what Jesus described when John the Baptist asked, “Are you the one to come, or should we seek another?” And Jesus said, “Go back and tell John what’s you see: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.”  In other words, the signs of the reign of God.

Considering that God get so much joy by doing good for others, should it be any surprise that the other aspect of our ultimate joy as human beings, again prescribed by religion and Christianity, is that we do the same: not just seek joy for ourselves, but seek to be a joy and bring joy to others.  Do you know that studies have shown joy is contagious: the more joy you have the more joy you spread, and the more joy you spread, the more joy you have.

        Especially at Christmas, let’s not forget that for many, the expectations of the holidays bring not joy, but sadness. If everybody’s getting together with family, and you have no family, or are isolated or estranged from them, then that’s sad. If this is the first Christmas after the death of a loved one, then that’s sad. That’s why some churches have “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” services; maybe we should consider it.

      In the same way, if everybody’s out shopping and buying, but you can’t find a job, or just got laid off and can barely afford groceries, much less presents, then that’s sad. Please consider spreading some joy to such people this year, giving as you are able (you can even do it through our congregation) to the Skokie-Assist-a-Family or the Niles Township Food Pantry.

      Looking beyond Christmas, when everybody wants to be a “do-gooder;” who are the downtrodden in our community? What burdens do they experience alone? As a congregation, how could we help?  We’ve got that lovely space in the Log Cabin; could we set up support groups for single parents, those struggling with addiction, parents of children struggling with addiction, those going through divorce or bereavement?  I can see them there, can you? How can we – in the name of Christ – increase joy beyond the walls of our congregation?

“This is the true joy in life,” said George Bernard Shaw, “the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

      In conclusion, let me introduce you to someone who lives in such a way: Mitch Mitchell, member of Buncombe St. United Methodist Church, Greenville, South Carolina. Warning: Be alert for signs of joy!



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