3rd Sunday in Advent
December 12, 2010
THE CANDLE OF JOY
There’s a story about a man who was diagnosed with a deadly and inoperable form of cancer. His doctor made it clear to him that treatment was not possible and that he should get his life in order because it would be a miracle if he lived more than a year. The man responded by jettisoning everything in his life that seemed unnecessary. He quit his job, and began to volunteer at a youth center. He began the voice lessons he’d always wished he had time for. He went to visit his brother and sister and spent enough time to get acquainted with their kids.He took his nephew with him on a trip to view his father’s grave at the American cemetery in Flanders, and went with his niece to get established in her college year in Japan. They had wonderful days together. After nearly a year his doctor called him in for a special appointment, and announced with great care and embarrassment that there had been a terrible mistake in his diagnosis. He did not have cancer, he was going to live. The man began to weep. “I know, I know,” said the doctor, “this must be such a big relief to you.” “That’s not it,” said the man, “I don’t want to go back to my old life.”
What’s the difference between happiness and joy? Scripture gives us a few clues:
Listen to Psalm 30: You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent, O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
And Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
And from this morning’s reading, Isaiah 35: 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.
And Matthew 11: Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
So according to these readings, there is a connection between joy and God’s faithfulness as enacted in action to heal, to restore, to forgive, to bring to people home to the places and things most deeply desired in our hearts. In these readings we hear God’s people recognize that their longings for home, for healing and for restoration can only be answered by the God who promises steadfast love and faithfulness. Having these longings answered gives something deeper than happiness, it brings joy because it touches their deepest needs.
Listen to Paul, Romans 14: For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Philippians is all about joy. Listen to chapter 4: Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
And then Hebrews 12: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
These readings seem to connect joy with endurance and accomplishment in the face of grave difficulty. In other words they are about faithfulness, as well.
Imagine Jesus enduring all that he did for the joy it brought him. Imagine Paul claiming that the community he founded was his joy. So according to these New Testament writers, joy is something rooted in connection to God’s love and to each other as God’s people. Joy is a product of stripping away all that is unnecessary in order to find the one thing which is important.
Jesus says the same thing in his speech to his disciples before his arrest and death in John’s Gospel, chapter 14: He tells them plainly he is going away, and will return. He tells them that the pain they will suffer is like that of childbirth and delivery of a new life. “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. On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.”
So the difference between joy and happiness? Joy is something rooted in commitment and living it out. It is something that produces right relationship, the kind of relationship that comes from trust in God and God’s love for us. Commitment is one of those things that you cannot experience any other way than just doing it. You are either in or out. Anyone who is married will tell you that there is certainly perseverance involved in long-term relationship, that you have to get to the end to come to the sweetness of it all, the joy of it.
But even our most committed relationships can fail us. Like the man in the story, everything can change in a heartbeat, and steal your happiness. There is nothing in this world that we can count on. Everything is ephemeral, lasts for a moment. And so happiness which has its foundation on people, places, beauty and satisfaction in the world around us is bound to fail or disappoint us sometime, somehow. It cannot last. Joy, however, comes from being able to trust that the place you find your happiness will not fail, will not disappoint, will not change.
And what is the one thing that we can always trust and always count on: God’s love for us, as shown in the arrival of Jesus, the Christ in our history. He came as God in person, the final, crushing blow to everything that can keep us from drifting away from God’s steadfast love. Our Scripture tells us that his death was instead of our death for our sin. So we are released from our self-centeredness, from our failures to put God first in lives and our neighbors right up with ourselves. In his resurrection, Jesus has broken the power of sin and death to write the end of our story, and given us a new life of freedom from fear.
One of my favorite prayers is the old Prayer of the Day from a Sunday in the Easter cycle.“O God, form the minds of your faithful people into a single will. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” If that is where our hearts are fixed, then we can surely say with the King Nehemiah: the joy of the Lord is my strength.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.