Note: This is a summary of the sermon preached at 9:00 on 12/15. The audio version can be found here.
Joy is one of the signs of Christmas and people work hard at it. Lights, decorations, food, gifts, and clothes are all employed to boost our "Joy Quotient" at Christmas.
John Lewis is a British Department store that has been making extraordinary Christmas commercials with compelling stories for more than 10 years. Like this one…
Did you notice there were no products (unless you were looking for a trampoline!), no sales and no bargains mentioned? So, what was this ad selling?
If people go to their stores or buy their products based on this ad (and sales that year said they did!), it will at least be in part because they have associated that name with the possibility of joy. Joy is what we work for, long for and hope for in life- especially at Christmas. It is also the thing we seem to have the most trouble finding. We settle for the sentiment of Joy instead of real thing. I think there are at least three reasons:
- We Look in the Wrong Places:
When we opt for the sentiment of joy, we make the real thing harder to find.
We wrap the season with joyous music, food, decorations and lights, like wrapping paper. Its just a thin covering, but we tell ourselves it is better than nothing. We do anything and everything to avoid sad news, disappointment or loss. When we encounter such things (or worse, such people!), we try to jolly them up (more lights, or maybe a bigger gift?) and if that doesn’t work, we move on. It is the season for joy, after all.
Scripture has a different approach.
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. Isaiah 35:1-10 (NRSV)
The consistent witness of the Bible is that joy is most likely to be experienced in the places most of us try to avoid. Deserts and darkness, sorrow and grief, loneliness and doubt- these are the places where joy is waiting to emerge. Joy doesn’t attempt to drown out the darkness or distract us from the desert places, it defies them. There are flowers blooming in the desert. There is light shining in the darkness. If you are looking for joy, ditch the shiny places and start there. That is where we will see the true signs of Christmas
- We Mistake it for Something Else
- Joy is not the same as happiness or pleasure.
- Joy is not the absence of pain or sadness.
- Joy is a natural response to the presence of God.
- Joy occurs when we are captivated by and aligned with, the life and love of God.
Our congregational practice this month is to notice and become aware of where the will and work of God is being revealed. Where do you see Christ’s presence defying the darkness and bringing new life in godforsaken places? Who are the people through whom God is doing this work? More to the point, what would need to happen for you to be one of those people this week? When we do, we become one of the signs that Christmas has come.
Here is a telling passage:
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. Hebrews 12:1-2 (NRSV)
- We Forget What it Takes
If we want to be attuned to the will and love of God then we will want to point our lives in the same direction as God. “For the sake of joy, Jesus went to the joyless, painful, heart-breaking, and most agonizing places. He became vulnerable to the darkness and stepped into it. He criticized those who used their religion to avoid unpleasant places and undesirable people.
We intuitively know this. If there is a model for this in the above commercial, it is the father. He goes out into the snow and icy night to put together something that (he hopes) will bring joy. What parent (or grandparent) doesn’t understand that trade-off? What makes us think the work of joy is different in other places?
Jesus understood and gave himself for the sake of joy to come. He invites us to join him and do the same work. As we do, we are choosing to light the candle of Joy. More, we are becoming that candle.
The most important candle you light this season is you.