The third Sunday of Advent is a Sunday when we typically talk about joy. In the Scripture today, Paul tells us to rejoice … and then again Paul tells us to rejoice!
Yet, when I sat down at my desk this week to write my sermon, I didn’t quite know what to say, because I was not feeling particularly joyful.
The reality of the Christmas season, the reality of this very week, is that there is still sickness and surgeries; there is still loneliness and grief; there is still strife and conflict and violence.
And still Paul tells us to rejoice …
I wrestle with Paul’s words because sometimes joy can feel superficial. Society bombards us with images of what Christmas joy means … images of cheery groups gathering around the Christmas tree, singing loudly as it softly snows outsides … images of presents of sweaters and jewelry and Folger’s coffee … images of candy canes and cookies and sugar plums dancing in our head …
And these are all very lovely images. However, at times these idyllic images can feel disconnected from real life. Images of happy families gathered around a Christmas tree can feel disconnected from the reality of having to navigate messy family dynamics or the sadness of not being able to spending the holiday with an out-of-town loved. They can feel removed from the grief we experience when we remember those who have passed away or from the sting that surfaces when we recall friends who have become estranged. The advertisements for watches and chocolate and IPads can feel detached from the pressure of having to buy gifts for everyone or from the reality of not having enough money to buy gifts.
The truth is that although candy canes and cookies taste delicious, their sugary taste fades quickly, leaving us hankering for something more.
In the face of the grittiness of life, I do not want a joy that is cheap or easy. Instead, I hunger for something more substantial. I want to know, how do we find joy that sustains us, even through the hardest of circumstances? I want to know, how do we find joy that penetrates to the very foundation of our lives? I want to know, how do we find joy that is meaningful and lasting and real? Rejoice, Paul says to us. Rejoice in God always and again I say rejoice.
What strikes me about Paul’s prophetic words is that he writes them from a place of honesty and struggle. Arrested for preaching, Paul writes to the Philippians from a dark, dingy prison that he may only leave to head to the executioner’s block. Paul understands the pain and suffering of the world and, even from this place, he is able to speak words of profound joy to the Philippians and to us.
Paul’s joy is not one that comes on the other side of suffering but one that comes right in the midst of all the chaos and the difficulties of our lives.
In the words of scholar William Loader, for Paul:
“Joy is never alone. It’s companions are pain and fear … Paul’s sense of joy is not the absence of pain or fear but the presence of Christ, in whom he places his hope and trust … Sometimes Paul’s joy stays alight as a flickering flame amid an oppressive darkness of criticism and downright hate. But it remains and can flare into brightness at relief and change.”
Loader paints the picture of Paul’s joy as a candle light in the darkness that stays lit no matter what the circumstances …. Peace and comfort can nurture it to greater brightness but regardless of all happenings it stays lit and burning defiantly, stubbornly and persistently.
What Paul teaches us is that joy is always present. In the words of Methodist Pastor Tiffany Steinwert, “Joy remains deep down in our soul even when we are not feeling completely chipper or cheerful. Joy is not a mask to cover up the less pleasant times of life, but rather the underlying foundation of hope without which one cannot encounter life’s pain and survive. … This type of deep joy is what keeps us sane, what buoys us up, what helps us get out of bed in the morning and enables us to simply put our feet on the floor despite the chaos of our lives.”
And where do we find such joy, such hope, to carry us forward? What force effects such change?
Huston Smith, renowned religious scholar asserts that “The only power that can effect transformations of [that] order … is love.”
It is by remaining connected to and ground in Divine love that we receive our joy.
I am reminded of a story that I once heard about a young boy who fell and broke his arm. The boy had the cast on for a good long while and then, on the day he was supposed to get it off, he fell and broke his leg in his Uncle Alfie’s garage. The boy sat where he had fallen, unable to move or get up. And so Uncle Alfie came over to him and picked him up and carried this little boy in his arms. Uncle Alfie carried him and as he did so, tears rolled done Uncle Alfie’s face because he loved this boy so very much. Uncle Alfie loved this boy even though this little boy was forever stealing vegetables from his garden. (Source: Rev. Bob Beverly via “The Dig” he published on October 9th, 2014, which can viewed here).
This little boy reminds us is that there are times we need to be carried by something bigger, by someone bigger, by words that are big and kinder than the harsh words spoken in our world or in our minds.
This little boy reminds us that we, like him, in times of pain are invited to be carried and enfolded by one who sees our full worth and dignity. As the chaotic world swirls around us, God reaches out to us … God sees to our heart and rejoices in our acts of kindness and tenderness and generosity toward one another … God sees our pain and grief and struggles and whispers to us, I love you, as tears roll down God’s face. And even when we make mistakes, even when our faults add up or wish we had done better, God forgives us, and holds us close, and invites us to try again.
And one of the reasons that we come together as a faith community is because sometimes we need a reminder of that. We come together because when we can’t get up, or face the day or put one foot in front of the other, we are called to carry one another.
We are called to remind each other that there is that of God that dwells deep within each and every one of us … In the midst of our harsh world, we are called to celebrate the beauty of each other’s kindnesses and love and faithfulness. We are called to testify to ourselves and to our brothers and sisters that joy persists because the world makes it oh so easy to forget.
And that is the reason that I give thanks this week for Paul’s call to rejoice because sometimes we need a brother or sister or an Uncle Alfie to come along and remind us of the love and joy that is always present.
We come together because we need to tell each other again the story of Mary who is even now waddling her way toward Bethlehem, big bellied, who carries our hope, an infant, God made flesh, who shows us that length God will go to to share God’s love with us in the midst of our struggles.
This week, I give thanks for the ways that we carry one another. I give thanks for the ministries of FBC and our times of prayer and our toy drives for the holidays and for the fellowship that follows our worship service.
I give thanks for the story that I heard this week about antiques. It is the true story of two elderly women who found a way to rejoice and to carry one another. It starts off with a couple who was traveling through New England spotted a sign in a yard that simply read: “Antiques”. For all we know, they could have been driving right here through the Shoreline. The couple stop and go into the house and are greeted by two elderly matrons. The ladies invite them into the living room for tea. After a pleasant conversation, the man asked if they could see the antiques. One of the women said, a little sheepishly, “You are looking at them”. She meant by her answer that the antiques were not any of the furniture in the room but the women themselves. Then she explained that when they had moved to this particular town, they were already getting on in years and had no friends. They rarely had company and were lonely. So they hit on the idea of the sign, hoping people might stop in and visit. The plan worked better than they hoped. They made permanent friends who stopped by each time they passed through town. The women explained that their intent was simply to be able to connect with their brothers and sisters around them. In a place of loneliness, they offered love and found love in the strangers that passed by. They found a way even in their frail lives, to rejoice.
This week I give thanks, because even when we don’t have it all figured, or when we are not feeling particularly joyful or when the darkness of the world is feeling particularly fierce, our brothers and sisters come along and remind us that we are loved,
That we are carried.
And that we are bright, brilliant, beloved children of God who are oh so beautiful to behold.
Thanks be to God. Amen.