Richard Foster wrote, “Joy, not grit, is the hallmark of holy obedience. We need to be light-hearted in what we do to avoid taking ourselves too seriously. It is a cheerful revolt against self and pride.” I have a feeling Foster would love to join us in our joy-filled “ugly Christmas sweater, crazy Christmas outfit” Sunday celebration!
Our Advent theme this morning is joy. Whenever I hear the word “joy”, my mind ushers me back to my childhood vacation Bible school experience. There was an old chorus that said, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart? Where? Down in my heart. I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. Down in my heart to stay.” I can’t speak for my fellow VBS’ers, but my favorite part of the song was screaming “where” at the top of my lungs.
Then, we sang a second verse, “I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart. Where?” That’s a lot of words to attempt to get out…and therefore the tempo usually started dragging when we hit that verse.
When I was a church camp counselor in college, I learned another verse that says, “And if the devil doesn’t like it he can sit on tack. What? Sit on a tack. What? Sit on a tack. And if the devil doesn’t like it hit can sit on a tack. Sit on a tack to stay.”
We sing about this joy that is down in our heart to stay…but I’m not convinced we truly understand what that means. Too often, we confuse joy with happiness.
We find happiness, which is an incomplete joy, throughout the Advent and Christmas season through music, family, decorations, the giving and receiving of gifts, watching our favorite holiday movie for the 1,000th time. And, as happy as that can make us, many of us recognize that something is still missing.
Happiness cannot be the measure for joy. When we define happiness as joy, when we are unhappy, we begin to wonder if something is off balance in our faith.
In many ways, I believe true joy is indescribable. Joy is difficult to pin down because it is something that can be experienced in seasons of happiness as well as seasons of grief. Joy is something we receive, not something we achieve.
Pastor Matt Rawle defines joy as “the steadfast assurance that God is with us.” During the Advent season we prepare ourselves for the coming of God in the flesh. On Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus – acknowledging that God put on flesh and came to dwell among us. Through God’s spirit, we are reminded that God is with us, always.
C.S. Lewis shared that “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”
Karl Barth wrote, “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.”
If joy is “the steadfast assurance that God is with us”, that means our joy is not dependent on happiness. Our joy is dependent on God. When we face great tragedy, trials and loss, we can embrace joy because we know that God is always with us. Joy goes beyond “putting on a happy face” because that’s what a good Christian should do, to embracing the joy found in knowing that God is with us and for us.
A complete, altogether, full joy is the recognition that, regardless of whether or not we achieve the picture-perfect Christmas – whether or not we can gather in-person – whether or not we have to mask up – Jesus IS born – God IS with us. Our circumstances don’t change the Good News of Jesus’ birth!
As we experience true joy, we must embrace, embody and extend that joy to the world. Remember, joy is not the pursuit of our personal happiness. Our joy, though it cannot be manufactured, it should be contagious. Joy is the “steadfast assurance that God is with us.” So, no matter what we are facing, as we embrace and embody joy – it should spread to those around us.
Happiness is momentary – it’s here one moment and gone the next. What ends up happening is that when that moment of happiness is over, we have to survive the misery until that next fleeting moment of happiness occurs. Or we order our lives and priorities to simply hop from one moment of happiness to another – which can lead do finding incomplete and unhealthy happiness through compulsive spending, eating, drinking or relationships.
If you’ve ever watched “Hoarders” or any of the organizational shows, you may be familiar with the concept of decluttering by asking the question, “Does this spark joy in my life?” What that really means is, “does this material item make you happy?” If it “sparks joy” you keep it. If it does not “spark joy” you toss it.
This, again, sets the stage for an incomplete joy – a joy based on momentary happiness or emotional attachment. For many on these shows, the reason why they are hoarding items is because they cannot decide if it “sparks joy” or they can’t bring themselves to part with sentimental goods. We have to remember, joy is not found in the things of this world. Joy is found in Jesus – the physical representation that God loves us, God is for us and God is with us.
Joy helps produce the courage to keep moving forward – recognizing that moments of despair, hurt, pain and loneliness will pass – remembering, recognizing and embracing that God is with us in every moment.
Are we looking for signs of joy around us? Those tangible reminders that God is with us? On a trip to the Silver Bay YMCA on Lake George in the New York Adirondack’s, after hiking to the top of a mountain to view Jabes (or Jabez, depending on which sign you look at) Pond, my hiking partners and I veered off the path a bit to take in the view at Sunrise Mountain. We were there at sunset and it was breathtaking – it was beyond words – and I was overwhelmed with a sense of the joy – so I started clapping and yelled, “Yay, God! Well done!” This is totally out of character for me…but I just knew that it was a sign of love, hope, peace and joy. I said to my hiking partners, “You know, this is called sunrise mountain and it’s this amazing at sunset. Can you imagine what it must be like at sunrise? You know what we have to do.” The next morning, we woke up early to trek up the mountain…slowly the sun began to peek above the mountains across the east side of the lake…and it was amazing. This time, my hiking partners joined me in clapping and yelling, “Yay, God! Well done.”
Advent reminds us that God is not far off and distant. God took on human form. God, through Jesus, made a home among us. God, through the Holy Spirit, makes a home within us. God loves us, is for us, and is with us always. Sometimes the “steadfast assurance that God is with us” comes with the sunrise, in a song, in a phone call with a friend, in the most unexpected ways. But, we have to be looking for it.
Pastor Matt Rawle wrote, “Joy is not a moment that negates our pain or dismisses it as inconsequential or meaningless. Joy is a steadfast assurance that God is with us always, even if pain is with us too.”
Can we find joy?
Can we create joy?
Can we share joy?
Will we choose joy?