This sermon is based on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; and Luke 1:46-55 for the Third Sunday of Advent at Kerr Presbyterian Church December 13, 2020.
Let us pray:
God of love and power,
you are revealed to us in your Word,
in accounts of prophecy and fulfillment
that direct our attention to Jesus Christ.
Illumine us now as we hear your Word proclaimed, that we may open our hearts to him,
yearn for his coming in glory,
and serve him with joy. Amen. (The Worship Sourcebook, 454)
What things usually bring you delight in the season of Advent and Christmas? What things make you happy this time of year?
For me, there are a few things that when I think of them I automatically begin to smile. Walking into my mother’s kitchen on Christmas day and the whole house smells like her world famous lasagna.
And Christmas lights. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made seeing Christmas Lights a priority. I love to ride around and see the houses all lit up. I know some people aren’t a fan of the giant blowup snow people or the blue twinkly lights, but I love that stuff.
And of course, my favorite part of Christmas is coming here on Christmas Eve. I love the hustle and bustle of that worship experience. We all pack in here like sardines and when usually Kerr is a very casual community we all dress up on that day. The kids in their little red dresses and suit jackets; the adults trying to keep them from getting too rowdy because they are so excited. I love the music. We always have a special choir and last year we even had two choirs with the kiddos singing a special song. I love the way the church shines brightly by the light of your candles when you hold them high at the end of singing Silent Night.
So, this week, the session and I prayerfully and painfully made a decision, along with so many other churches, to not have Christmas Eve worship in the building. The thing that brings me the most delight in this season—and perhaps you too—we are exchanging for virtual worship.
I believe it is the right decision. Here in Pittsburgh every day 1,000 people are being diagnosed with the Coronavirus. At this point, all of us know someone who has been made seriously ill from the pandemic or who has died from it.
We simply cannot host an event this year which has potential to draw a large crowd. The session and I made the loving choice to move our service online. But I, like many of you, have found myself bursting into tears several times this week, mourning the loss of the way I like to worship. It is the right choice, but it is not an easy choice.
And then, I have to get up here and preach the Lectionary texts and remind us all of the Advent Theme. The theme of joy.
I don’t know about you, but I am mourning right now. The last thing I wanted to do today was preach on joy. And probably, it’s the last thing on earth that you want to hear me preach about.
But, the Holy Spirit, the Great Comforter, continues to speak. And we continue to pray. And so, on this day, we come before God with all of our emotions. Our anger, our grief, our frustration. We bring it all and we ask that God will renew us with true joy and show us God’s way.
We have talked about this before here at Kerr, but I needed to remind myself this week what joy is and what joy is not. I need to be reminded of the true Biblical joy which is very different than the world’s understanding of happiness.
Let’s start with what joy is not. Joy is not any of these four things:
Joy is NOT pretending to be happy all the time.
You know how when you were a little kid and you hated to do that thing. Yeah, you know what it was. That thing. Perhaps it was sitting with your family and having your picture taken. You hated it. You hated wearing that little bow tie or that itchy dress. You didn’t want to sit still. But your mom told you to fake it. She looked at you with that stern angry face and said, “Smile.” And you did. Well, that is not joy.
Joy is not about putting on a mask and pretending to be happy.
The second things joy is NOT is sort of a sister to that. Joy is NOT denial.
Sometimes we think that when the Bible says: “Rejoice always!” that the Lord is calling us to pretend like everything is okay when it is not. This is a little different than putting on a mask for the world. It goes deeper than that. It’s about believing a lie ourselves. Sometimes we tell ourselves lies. Instead of looking at the world and seeing it as it really is, we think: Oh, that’s not so bad. These feelings inside me. This hurt. This anger. This sorrow. It will just go away on its own. I don’t need to deal with it. I’ll just smile and it will go away. The pastor says rejoice at all times.
But that is not joy. That is misinterpreting Scripture. Joy is not about denial. It is not about ignoring those feeling inside us. When we do that we are just bottling up all that emotion instead of dealing with it. Instead of going to a counselor or burning off the anger with a good workout or journaling about our feelings—instead of dealing with our emotions in the healthy ways, we choose instead to bury them. We deny that we even have them. And we make the mistake of calling this joy. Joy is not denial.
Joy is not a mask. Joy is not denial.
And thirdly, Joy is also not an excuse to ignore the hurts of the world. We don’t just say: yeah, I know there are bad things happening, but I can’t think about that right now. I just need to concentrate on making everyone happy over the holidays. Making people happy is the only thing that matters. No, this is not joy. Ignoring the effects of the pandemic will not make it go away. Ignoring the hurt of the world will not bring us joy.
Joy is not a mask. Joy is not denial. Joy is not ignoring the needs of others.
And finally, sometimes we confuse joy with wishful thinking. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay. And then we make poor choices. We think. Oh, I know I can’t afford that new thing-ee-ma-gig-ee. It’s not in the budget. But it would be so nice to have. It’ll make everyone so happy. I’ll put it on the credit card and pay for it later.
But this is just wishful thinking. In reality, we will still be paying off that object in May of next year. We will be asking ourselves what on earth we were thinking back at Christmas time. The kids played with the thing-ee-ma-gig-ee for two minutes on Christmas day and it’s been sitting in the corner ever since, and we are still paying for it. This is not joy. Joy is not about wishful thinking.
So, okay: Joy is not a mask we put on for the world. Joy is not denial, lying to ourselves so we will feel better. Joy is not ignoring the needs of others. And joy is not wishful thinking.
So, what is joy?
Joy is really about trust. It goes hand-in-hand with the virtue of hope we were talking about last week. When we have hope we trust that God is good all the time. In the bad times. In the good times. God is good. And we can trust God.
As you might know, the apostle Paul who wrote our New Testament Letter for today was one who was well acquainted with suffering. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul talks about weakness and struggle, and he lists his own trials. I’ll just read a little of it. He says, “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (selected sections of 2 Cor 11:23-28, NIV).
Honestly, how the Good Lord kept Paul through all of that, I just do not know. Shipwrecked 3 times? And as a reminder as we talk about joy, notice that there are some who would tell you that when you become a follower of Jesus, life will get easier because God will bless you. Well, by all measures Paul is one of the most faithful followers of Jesus and his life was clearly not an easy life. There is no guarantee that because we are believers that we will not get sick or not have struggles or not experience pain.
BUT, but, Paul, who knew the struggles this life can bring in an intense form is the one who calls to us today saying, “Rejoice Always!”
Why? Because living a life of joy is about knowing the one true God who loves you and who calls to you in the midst of struggle. In the hardest moments. In the times of deep grief. In the sickness and pain and weariness of life.
We started this service this morning with Mary’s song. She was a young, unwed pregnant woman. Later she will have her child in a place where the animals sleep. That first Christmas didn’t have the carols we love or the lights or the fancy dresses. But Mary sang out to the Lord, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Where is joy? It is found in knowing that God does not leave us alone but God enters into the messiness of life. That God walks with us every day. That God can be worshiped anywhere and at any time as long as we are worshipping in spirit and in truth.
This year will be a year where may things are stripped bare. Where the gilts and glamor we expect at Christmas will be moved to a virtual space which may seem less colorful.
And yet, if we refuse to quench the Spirit, as Paul warns us not to, we can stand with Isaiah and say, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
You are as beautiful as a bride on her wedding day. You are clothed by God. We are God’s shining lights and worship services and songs of joy. And so this Advent let us remember our call to Rejoice Always, knowing that God enters in to all situations and that we can trust God to act.
The worship sourcebook. (2013). Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.