To Know Joy
Girdwood Chapel Sermon, December 11, 2016
“To Know Joy”
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Luke 1: 47-55
James 5: 7-10
Matthew 11: 2-11
Okay this is the time for class participation. When is the last time you felt pure happiness? Don’t be shy...let’s hear it.
What are the characteristics that you are using to make that identification?
Happiness comes with contentment; With having our needs met; In experiencing something that brings us pleasure and comfort. Happiness is the equivalent of being tackled by puppies and kittens and hearing the uncontrollable laughter of a baby while it is all going down. Happiness is the absence of pain, the absence of sadness, and a warmed heart because of the bliss you are experiencing. It is a wonderful thing to be happy.
When I think of happiness, I think of seeing Alicia walk down the aisle. I think of holding each of the girls after they were born. I think of being tucked away in the corner behind the Christmas tree as a young boy. In those moments, at those times, the rest of the world was irrelevant and everything that I could hope for or want was right in front of me. Happiness set in when my needs were met and the outcomes I wished for came true.
But, to know joy; to understand joy; to feel joy...well, that is something different.
A Joyful Family
There is a quite famous family that people talk about this time of year. They are discussed in many different book adaptations and they are depicted in various movies and plays. The family consists of a husband and wife, usually with five kids. The oldest son is starting to set out on his own and the oldest daughter has already begun her life in the service industry. The husband/father works long hours each day for minimal wages. The wife/mother works very hard to provide for the family by utilizing every ounce of their meager belongings to their fullest capability. She provides meals and a home of comfort. Their youngest son, well, he has special needs. He is stricken with a disease that causes walking to be difficult and is slowly causing the degeneration of his bone and muscle. Yet, each day the father comes home from work and the family comes together to tell stories and before they dine on the small meal they have before them, they give thanks to the God that has given them so much to be joyful for. Bob Cratchit’s family knew joy. They knew how to sit in it and to find strength in its presence. It can be argued that the joy the family held, especially in the person of the one most afflicted with discomfort, was the saving grace of one of the best know misers in history, Ebeneezer Scrooge. If you are still not really sure who we are talking about, it is Tiny Tim’s family from Charles Dickens classic tale, “A Christmas Carol”.
Were the Cratchit’s happy? Well, Bob Cratchit worked for the hardest man in the town of London. He spent his day bent over the desk fearful of turning away from his work because in doing so a snarl and bark would come from his boss, rebuking him for neglecting his job and wasting time and money. He was rewarded for such diligence with meager wages and no gratuity. His oldest daughter, well, she found her life being made as that of a servant. She cleaned and cooked for those much more well off than her family and she dreamed of being part of the life of the noble Lord and Ladies. The oldest son, anxious to help out his family, he hoped and prayed for an apprenticeship that would allow him to become an established young man in the community. Mrs. Cratchit took all of these things in and did her best to provide for the family from cupboards full of minimal provisions and to tried to make comfortable a space of minimal dimensions. Tim, the youngest boy, felt a burden to his family and was immensely grateful for all they provided for him and for something else that was of great importance in his life...in fact it was of great importance in all of their lives. Happy is probably not an accurate description of the family, but the Cratchit family knew true Joy for they knew God.
Happiness and Joy
There is a certain aspect to happiness in our lives that is selfish in nature. To be happy means that we are to be blissful in our experiences and to be comfortable and content in our condition. Having food in our belly and a roof over our heads is often the beginning of our happiness. For, if we are uncomfortable in those basic needs than it is difficult to be truly happy in our lives. When everything is going the way you think it should be going, it is easy to be happy. Yet, once things start to go wrong, then happiness can fade.
Let’s consider our scripture reading from this morning. John has found himself in jail. I am sure he is somewhat distraught, because he knows his time on earth is coming to an end. So, he sends a message to Jesus with a simple question, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" John who has been ecstatic his whole life in relation to Jesus; who lept for joy even while in his mother’s womb at being in the presence of Jesus; who exclaimed that he was unworthy to carry Jesus’ sandals; who heard the voice of God exclaim that Jesus was His son. This same John, questions if Jesus is truly the Messiah because he is not doing what John is expected and he is not necessarily happy with the stories he is hearing while he is imprisoned.
John has been preparing the way for Jesus, his whole life. He is the last of the prophets. He is the bridge between the prophets of the Old Testament and the new covenant of the New Testament. He is ushering a new era of God into the world in the form of the new Messiah and he has performed that calling in the fullness of mind and body. His expectations and his realizations are conflicted though as hears the stories of Jesus through his prison bars. Where is the mighty King, that was supposed to baptize with fire and strike with righteous judgment? John’s happiness would have peaked if Jesus brought power to the world through Godly might and reestablished the throne of David through the glory of demonstrative rule. Yet, with his focus on those measure he was unable to see, the coming of the new Kingdom.
So, Jesus reminds John of the prophecy of the Messiah and the actions that will be accomplished when the new King comes and the Kingdom of Heaven is ushered in. The lame will walk, the deaf will hear, the blind will see. These are the miracles that Jesus is performing. These are the signs that Isaiah and John have proclaimed to be part of the new era in Christ. It is Jesus’s expectation that through this revelation John will find joy in knowing his prophecy has come true, although his expectations were not entirely on track. It is in the realization that the Kingdom is true and present that Jesus is offering John the gift of joy. There is no other to come. Jesus is the Messiah.
Happiness is having our needs met. Joy is placing full trust and faith in God and carrying the gift of God’s grace in our heart, no matter what is going on in our own lives. It is knowing that the Kingdom of God is greater than earthly happiness and that true love and hopefulness resides in allowing our joy in God to surpass happiness for ourselves. John’s earthly understanding had to give way to God’s reality. His happiness was the barrier to experiencing the joy of God.
Expectation of Joy
James tells us that we should learn from the prophets. We should learn from the hard paths they traveled and the difficult lives they led. For though their message was of great joy, their lives likely evaded personal happiness. We are told to have patience in our own lives as we await the next coming of Christ. We are told to have great expectation in our hearts and to reach out to one another with love and care and understanding. Our own ideas of accusation and judgment against one another should give way to the joy of the life that Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection has given to all of us. Joy, true and pure, was the gift given in the manger to all of us that first Christmas morning.
As I look back on those things in my life that made me happy, I wonder if I was also experiencing joy. In great love, I find great joy for I am hopeful I see God in my wife and children. But, I also consider those moments of sadness and of loss. Can I look at the loss of the loved one and find the joy of God? Can I look at the wars that wage and find the joy of God? Can I look at those who are hungry and without means and find joy? Is it possible to experience joy in times of anger, frustration, anxiety, separation, desperation, sadness, and fear?
Yes! Yes it is, for that was the gift in the manger. That is the gift that John heralded and Jesus reminded him. Our joy, our unparalleled joy is not of our own making. It is a gift given to us from our creator. We have talked for weeks about giving up the part of our self that consumes us with wants and desires. We are doing that to free ourselves to let something else in; something more powerful and more relevant. That is the gift of joy in the manger, that was the gift of joy on the cross, that was the gift of joy on that beautiful morning that an empty tomb was found, and that is the gift of joy that will resonate when Jesus is among us once again.
The Cratchit Family held the Joy of Christ in their hearts and in doing so, found true happiness in their existence on earth. May each of you find that same joy this holiday season, and “God bless us, everyone.”