Monday, December 12, 2011
The call to JOY!
Some years ago we joked with a friend that his theme song was, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." He seemed unflappable. He was more than optimistic, he was happy. This was especially in contrast to his wife who was known as a realist, the kind who could find a gray cloud around every silver lining. We laughed about it often. But life is no laughing matter. A happy, joy filled person is what we all want to be and yet that person seems very distant from the reality of who we are and the kind of lives we live. Our sorrows, fears, anxieties, problems, and depression are not laughing matters. They are real.
Now almost in the home stretch of Advent on our way to Christmas, we hear a call to joy. Where do you find real and lasting joy? "I will rejoice greatly," says Isaiah the prophet, looking forward to Christ. "Rejoice always" says St. Paul of the Christ who is faithful and true. "I am the voice crying out in the wilderness," says John the Baptist, pointing us to Him whose way he prepares. It would be great if a box of joy were waiting for us all wrapped up under the Christmas tree. But we know it is not that easy, right? Or is it?
While I am not so sure that it is God's will for you to be happy, I am pretty confident that it is God's will for you to be filled with joy. Happiness and joy are not the same; happiness may come from joy but joy does not come from happiness. Joy is a gift, it is THE gift God has given to you in Christ. To know Christ is to know God's gift of joy. Happiness may be the result of this joy but this joy is not a personal achievement – it is the growing awareness of the great gift God has given to us in His Son, Jesus Christ.
When Paul says "rejoice always" he is not ordering us around; he is pointing us to the source of joy in Christ, the gift of joy that comes in Christ. Joy is the fruit of the Spirit who plants Christ in us by faith. When faith flowers the shape of that flower is joy – joy that comes from knowing our sins are not scandal or embarrassments waiting to be revealed but forgiven and completely gone. Joy comes from the knowing that death is not an enemy waiting to steal our lives away but in Christ the door and gateway to eternal life. Joy comes from fear that melts away in the face of love in Christ.
"Pray without ceasing," says Paul. What do we pray? There is no joy from the constant prayer of our misery. But Paul is calling us not simply to pray our needs but to pray the promises of God as well. Think how we see this in the Psalms as the writer rehearses not only his needs but the steadfast love of the Lord as his prayer unfolds. Prayers that are mere shopping lists of wants and needs are depressing to the one praying and to the God who hears them. What we need to pray with our wants and needs are the promises of God that bid us pray – God hears! God answers! God gives us what we need! God has not nor will He ever abandon us!
"Give thanks" says Paul. Give thanks not because you get what you want or think you need or because you get the approval of others or recognition or reward. Give thanks because you are a sinner who deserves nothing from God and instead He has given you all things in Christ. Joy flows not from getting what we think we are owed but from the surprise of grace that receives what we know we do not deserve. Give thanks... in all circumstances.
Joy is not some scarce resource that will cost you everything. Think how many gold commercials on are TV. But we gain little by purchasing gold now. We should have bought it decades ago! So it is with joy. We assume it is valuable because there is so little of it and we lament talk of joy because we do not have much of it. Rather, joy is the gift of God, the fruit of the Spirit at work in you by faith. It is not scarce but abundant in Christ. Yet, you can kill off this joy and steal back misery anytime you want. How? Start by quenching the Spirit. This does not mean putting limits upon the Spirit and being more open to God. That is baloney. You quench the Spirit by avoiding the means of grace. When you run from the Word and Sacraments, you run from joy and right into the arms of misery and discontent. Quenching the Spirit is avoiding Church, avoiding the Table of the Lord - a sure path to unhappiness.
Joy is not some secret recipe which lies hidden away like the recipe to a good tasting fruit cake. Joy is right there in Scripture. Every word that points to Jesus is points to our joy. Jesus is our joy and treasure, sings the hymn. Or another, Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal. Joy is not some secret hidden path but the clear and well marked path of faith in Christ. It is this path that John called out and culled out in the wilderness. Make way for the Lord. So if keep your distance from the Word of God, you will remain a prisoner to your discontent, misery, and unhappiness. Joy is the fruit of knowing Jesus and of being in Jesus in His Word and Sacraments.
Joy is not like a diet in which you have to stay away from the very foods that making eating worth while. Joy is the result of not giving into evil, of not making a choice to focus on pain over joy in Christ, of not giving in to disappointment over blessing in Christ. Joy is not the fruit of life in the darkness and shadows where concealment is the goal and honesty is feared, where we compare ourselves to others – instead of to the Word and commandments of God. Come out of the darkness and the shadows of evil and wickedness and you will find in the light of Christ the gift of joy, the blessing of peace, and a heart content.
Joy is not our achievement but always God's gift in Christ. Yet with this gift comes a choice – will I trust in the promises of God in Christ and focus my heart upon His grace.... OR will we choose the disappointment and pain of the world's broken promises to us and feelings which disappear just when you need them most. Faith is no naive "don't worry, be happy." Faith is looking at the choices and standing before the Manger and the Cross in humble gratitude and appreciation for what Christ has bought with His holy and precious blood, and saying, "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner...."
Today we come face to face with the gift of God which is our cause for joy and the only path to real contentment or happiness – if we can ever know it. What will it be? To look away from our misery is to look into the face of Jesus! So, if you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, stealing away your joy and peace, I challenge you to pray the hymn of the day we sang until its words find their home in our hearts: God’s own child, I gladly say it!