Hope in Joy (December 13, 2020)
Luke 2: 8-12; Philippians 4: 4-5
Hope in Joy
We continue today our Advent series, looking at the themes of Advent in the hope that we find within them. We’ve looked at hope itself, we’ve looked at peace, and now we turn to joy.
And joy is one of the things we think about the most at Christmas time, or at least one of the things we associate the most with Christmas. In part because it is considered to be a joyful time of year. This is supposed to be a joyful time of year. You’re supposed to have fun with family, and friends, and shopping, and getting presents, and giving presents, and you’re supposed to have a smile on your face and the laughter exclaiming from your lips. At least according to Hallmark, right?
In part it is because of the angels in stories like this Scripture. This Luke Scripture is typically read on Christmas Eve, and the angels here say they bring good news of great joy. They don’t say they bring good news and great hope, or good news of great peace, or good news of great Advent or waiting. They said great joy. And we think of joy in part because of hymns like “Joy to the World,” which we sing every Christmas Eve. “Joy to the World, the Lord is come.” And I think, for a lot of people in society, that’s what Christmas is: the Christmas Eve service, Christmas movies on Hallmark Channel, and family gatherings. And therefore there’s supposed to be a smile and a joy around this time of year.
Sometimes it is that, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is a memory of loved ones who won’t be able to be there laughing and singing this year. Sometimes events are happening that prevent that kind of celebration. Sometimes you just feel down, and you can’t put a finger on it even though the family is around laughing. We tend to remember the end of its wonderful life, when George’s is sitting there surrounded by the entire town that has come together to help him, and he’s got that big smile on his face, and there’s a bell ringing and Clarence got his wings. We will remember the end of the movie. But we never allow ourselves to be the George sitting in the bar, or the George standing on the bridge, even though those are part of a Christmas narrative as well. So we understand joy as a part of Christmas, but we all forget, sometimes, the paths, and the ways in which that might come about.
Indeed what God is offering through the baby that was born in Bethlehem, this child born in Bethlehem is joyful. But I think what we’re anticipating feeling isn’t necessarily joy. We have lost track of the difference between being happy and being joyful. They are not necessarily the same things. They have different opposites, their different definitions. Happy is fleeting, it is often situational, is often dependent upon the things happening around you and things out of your control. Joy is harder to get to, but it is often more sustainable, although not forever, and it tends to be independent of what is happening around you. And of course the opposite of happy is sad, but the opposite of joy is despair. And it is possible to be happy and in despair, and it is possible to be joyful and sad. We need to ensure that we are separating them in our minds if we are talking about God bringing joy to the world.
Another illustration of this that came to mind this week was Jesus with the the beggar that Peter and John run into in Acts. The man was lame and sits by the road begging each day, and when Peter and John come by he begs from them too. And they say they don’t have any money, but in the name of Jesus, get up and walk. And he does. Now if they wanted to make him happy, they could have done what he wanted and offered food or money. That would have made him happy. Yet he still would’ve been despaired because he still had to go beg tomorrow. Instead, Jesus healed him, and so he didn’t have to come back tomorrow. But he was still theoretically hungry; he still doesn’t have anywhere to go, but he was healed. So he was joyful, but maybe not happy for long. There’s a difference, and it is joy that is being offered in Jesus.
God offers us joy, but it is a long path. What I think God is offering isn’t necessarily this kind of instantaneous joy. Rather, what I find in my life is that God offers a vision of joy and a promise to guide me on the path. But sometimes, from where I am, the top can look like a significant hike. When you’re in the valley, the mountain top looks really, really high. God is offering to guide us to where we’re going, and that God will be here and help you. God says, “I will guide you and I will give you strength, and I will take you along the way no matter how long it goes.” And in a year like 2020, where it feels like everything has beaten us down and knocked the joy out of our lives, some of us may be in a valley deeper than any we’ve ever experienced. And yet God comes again, and offers us yet again, a way out: a path and a promise to be with us on the journey. And that journey might take all of 2021. I’m not sitting here promising that you’re going to be joyful beyond your wildest imagination on December 26. That might happen, God works in mysterious ways; but I’m not promising that. What I’m saying is that God will be there, and I know that God will be there no matter what.
And that brings us to Paul’s words in the reading from Philippians that that was read today. These words indicate to me that perhaps the joy of God is in fact a choice for us. Methodists believe the God offers Grace to each and every person before we even know that we want it, and that part of being saved or justified is recognizing a need for that grace and accepting it. I think Joy might well be a similar idea, and Paul talks about how we might go about accepting the joy of God.
Paul talks about rejoicing, and he says rejoice in the Lord always. Always, regardless of our situation, rejoice in the Lord. Even when you’re not joy-filled, even when you don’t feel like it. It’s the same general concept I think as the modern proverb “I woke up today and I’m breathing, and I’m on the right side of the ground, so therefore it’s a good day.” It doesn’t matter what else is going on, I woke up and so therefore it is a good day. It’s that same kind of idea. Even if I’m not joy-filled I will rejoice in God. Because God is God. And the Hope from the Christian perspective is claiming that promise: if I rejoice in God, God will show me why I should rejoice. Now, hopefully most people don’t feel they need to be shown, hopefully they understand the joy of God in that moment. But that’s something that can be lost. And the idea here is a “fake it till you make it” kind of idea: rejoice always. And if you’re choosing joy you will see what is joyful. It may take a while, it may take all of 2021, but you will see it.
But another thing that I think is important to remember is that we are called to take a part in this. We are also responsible, in a sense of loving our neighbor, to do what we can to help others rejoice. This is the idea of not being a stumbling block to other people around you. The King is bringing joy! That’s the promise: the King is bringing joy. And we, the church, are trying to help establish the Kingdom. And we can’t do it ourselves, we can’t do everything, and you cannot make someone else rejoice. But you can sometimes put them in despair, you definitely can make someone sad or you can make someone happy, or at least happier or sadder. And so if the King is bringing joy, and the Kingdom is being established through our actions, then it follows that we are to act in ways that lead toward rejoicing and not act in ways that lead toward despair. As Paul continues in the Scripture that was read today, “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Rejoice in the Lord for yourself, but let your gentleness be known to others. Don’t hinder someone else to be able to rejoice. And hopefully if everything‘s going correctly, the people around you are helping you just as you were helping them. That's the vision of the kingdom.
So what does it look like in 2020? As we often sit wondering what is going on. watching the case totals go up and up and up, the deaths go up and up and up, wondering when it’s going to be our turn; what does Joy look like in all of that? For me what has brought joy, or at least brought me closer to joy, throughout this year is the new things and the new opportunities that have been found and forged. In this congregation, as well as so many across the Great Plains Annual Conference, we’ve been forced to consider what we are doing technologically and how we are reaching out in new ways beyond our walls. And 2020 has brought around a website, it’s brought a camera that even when we came back we still had an opportunity to offer a video online, and that camera has allowed us to broadcast and reach people as far away as at least Tennessee. We’re bringing about new opportunities, and new ideas have been forged in the crucible of 2020.
2020 has forced us to find again the importance of family and connecting, to remember because it was taken away how important it is to have friends and family. Joy in 2020 looks like serving, it looks like focusing on the kindness you can have toward other people. Joy in 2020 looks like just simply a smile to those we meet along the way. As I said in the Bible study this past Wednesday, even a smile with a mask on, you can see if someone is smiling in their eyes. Joy in 2020 might simply look like someone smiling at you. It might be finding a new job, or returning to a job that you had temporarily lost due to all of this. Joy in 2020 might be a new hobby, or a new love, or a new passion that you have found in the midst of this lock down and having more time at home. Maybe even joy in 2020 or 2021 looks like a vaccine, a promise that this might indeed be over soon; a promise there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that we will be back together without masks without the blue tape eventually.
Joy takes so many different forms every year. And each year is usually different than the last, although this year more so than any I can remember. And God uses these things to bring joy. He uses us, he uses small things, he uses big things; God brings joy. And what God is promising is that there is joy that is coming, and God is here with you right now wherever you are. And he's going to take you to the mountaintop, staying with you on the path.
As we head into 2021, we are called to maintain a prayer life, for it’s in prayer that we get guidance on the path to joy. And that path might take all of 2021, it might take into 2022, again I’m not promising immediate joy. But I promise that God is with you where you are. And furthermore when you experience that joy, it might not last forever. You might find yourself in another valley wondering where you have gotten, and how you’ve gotten here, and where God is. Let me promise you, God will be with you in that valley.
And the hope we find is that the Kingdom will bring joy. And when God comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet, there will be joy. And that joy will last forever. That’s the promise, and that’s the hope we find when we can experience the Kingdom in those fleeting glimpses. We will have these things then, and we are working toward those things, and are working toward making them a more consistent reality in our world. So pray this week, and hope. God is offering you, through the Christ child born in Bethlehem, a full, amazing, fulfilling, and unyielding joy. Rejoice. Amen.