waiting on the light of joy

Isaiah 35:1-10
Luke 1:47-55
Matthew 11:2-11

In keeping with our Advent theme,
we seek this morning,
a practical, common, everyday definition
of joy.
But it occurred to me this past week to wonder—
it occurred to me to ask,
“Do you think we actually experience joy everyday?
Is it a common experience?
And is joy practical?
Does it deserve a practical, common, everyday definition?
Or is it, in truth, the yearning for joy
that’s commonly experienced everyday?”

Now maybe it’s that our definitions and our expectations
are too lofty.
Joy is, after all, something angels announce,
accompanied by Beethoven,
with trumpet fanfare,
and a multitude of the heavenly host.
It’s the blooming desert;
it’s the blind seeing;
it’s the lame dancing,
and it’s not that that’s wrong … necessarily,

but we do thereby tend to remove joy from our expectations of today.
And what we think we know
(this lofty definition of joy)
gets in the way of what we could know
(joy less removed from the everyday).
It happens more than we think.

And so, too often within a framework
that’s really a framework of disappointment—
of not having experienced joy,
we find ourselves hoping,
maybe this time, I will know joy …
maybe in this relationship …
maybe at this family gathering …
maybe during this holiday …
maybe this getaway … this vacation …
we think maybe after I get this done …
maybe after all that’s been taken care of …
maybe when—
maybe not.

And amidst such projections,
we don’t stop to think that such a mentality
will have another list of maybe-afters tomorrow—
and the day after that.
Maybe we can’t stand to think that joy will never come,
so we just keep pushing it out.
Especially if we give into the idea
there’s some perfect state at which we’ll have it all together,
after which joy will come a knockin’ ….

And we push joy right out of today—
because we don’t think today’s ready.
Or we don’t think we’re ready today.
And so we make of joy
something that does not belong with and to
the truth of who we are—
like we sometimes push God away from the truth of who we are—
the messiness,
the in-the-middleness of it all.
Joy and God are for when we get it all worked out.
Then the angels will sing.

But joy is more like grace in that way.
We don’t have to deserve it.
We don’t have to earn it.
We don’t have to get it all worked out.
We just have to receive it.
We just have to be open to it.

Of course it’s not just that we make joy too lofty a thing,
it’s also that we define joy wrongly.
We mix it up with happiness.
More specifically, we think joy is happiness times big
to the power of intense,
and again, it’s not that that’s wrong … necessarily,
but the borders of happiness are prescribed by circumstance,
and joy is bigger than circumstance.

Now I go back and forth on that one, actually.
Because circumstances do matter so very much.
And circumstances are, in fact, definitive of so very much.

We even adjust the expectations we have
of someone we know to be in dire circumstances, don’t we?
Someone grieving—someone exhausted—
someone abused—someone hurt.
And it’s not someone playing the victim card.
It’s about compassion.
Because circumstances do matter—
do make a difference.

Two summers ago, during our August worship series,
I was dismayed to learn
that the single most determinative factor
of someone’s health and life expectancy
is their zip code.
Oh yes, circumstances matter.

Recently I read that in our great land
of freedom and opportunity, “you are 10x more likely
to wind up in the richest fifth [of the population] as an adult
if you were born there than if you were born in the poorest fifth.”
Ten times.
In fact, “you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult
if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college
than if you were born poor and, against all odds,
went to college and graduated.”
Circumstances matter—
more than we want to admit.

I believe in enough of the social gospel
to think that until people are physically fed,
they’re not going to be that interested in the bread of life.
Walter Rauschenbusch once said he had buried
too many babies who had died needlessly
just because they were poor
(italics mine).
Circumstances matter—profoundly.

How then is it possibly legitimate
to claim joy as not defined by circumstance?

Is it because within the profound significance of circumstances,
there are nonetheless people not defined by their circumstances?
Jesus was not defined by his circumstances.
Was he?
Jesus’ joy was not dependent on his circumstance.
Was it?

So not only are we to be about changing circumstances,
(It is a staggering moral failure of unimaginable degree
that there are people who go hungry and do not have drinkable water;
it is an ever deeper staggering moral failure
that it is not commonly seen as such.)—
not only do we need to be about changing circumstances,
we’re also to be about learning (and then facilitating)
a consistency of being through circumstance—
in spite of circumstance
(though certainly never as a justification for the circumstances).

Church is called to be a community
that does not teach people to be happy with their circumstances
(quite the contrary!),
but to not let themselves be solely defined by their circumstances.

And again what we think we know
(joy as a big kind of happy)
gets in the way of what we could know
(joy as a more everyday experience).
It happens more than we think.

Because here’s the thing—
here’s what I’ve stumbled on or into this week:
there is a sad joy as well as a happy one.
Sounds odd, I know,
a melancholy joy,
but it’s the best I could come up with
in a week offering us its particular insight.
This past week we lost a WEE teacher.
Cheryl Wooden died after what they’re calling a cardiac event.
Greg and I have been down in the WEE school
talking to children about death.
In a letter I sent home with WEE parents,
urging them to be sure and listen especially this week,
and talk to their children, I wrote
“It may seem early to have this conversation with your preschooler,
and ideally that might be true,
however, sometimes, as you well know,
circumstances mess up what we’d ideally like to happen.”
This week, our friend Gene Reid died
after four/five days in hospice,
and amidst the assurances of our faith,
we grieve the loss of a great man.
And yesterday we marked one year since the Sandy Hook shootings—
one year in which 33,373 more people have died by gun.

It’s been a strange week
to be thinking about—
writing about—
preparing to preach on—
But a week in which it makes sense
to posit the possibility of a sad joy.

And it’s not just the person who knows joy—
it’s not a joyful person,
in dire circumstance.
So kind of a temporary break in the larger truth of joy.
It’s not circumstantial at all.
It is rather that peculiar perspective
that sees an anticipated whole
from disconnected parts,
(“I see something that’s not here yet.”)
that affirms a believed in truth
amidst lies and doubts,
that sees the blooming desert in the sweltering barrenness,
that proclaims good news to the poor amidst poverty.

So it has to do with waiting
and anticipating
in the midst of preparing—
of working toward.
So it has to do, precisely, with Advent.

Sad joy does not dismiss one shred of circumstance.
In truth, it fundamentally has to do
with not saying no to the reality of circumstance.
This is circumstance.
This is what is.
Look at it and weep.
But also never forget—
always remember
the yes of the larger truth that transcends circumstance.

Joy has to do with having a sense of assurance,
a sense of interconnectedness—
of belonging,
a sense of being a part of a larger whole—
of being loved.

In an unusually explicit evangelical turn of events,
I would suggest that joy,
for us as followers of God in the way of Jesus,
joy has to do with an awareness of the presence of God—
in all circumstance.
Joy has to do with a commitment to participation in the work of God—
the working of God’s will,
an assurance in the promises of God.

(Isn’t it insane
to believe what God promises us?
How stupid would you have to be?
And there it is.
The assurance of our faith.)

Joy has to do with being within the community of God.
Joy has to do with that kind of love.
Joy has to do with a truth big enough
to ground both sadness and happiness,
to offer us a perspective on and through all circumstance.

I regularly wonder
(I wonder if you do)
if my affirmations,
my priorities,
my faith,
my joy
would withstand circumstances more difficult.
It’s nothing to assume.
Would yours?

I think, in truth, you see,
joy is supposed to be a common, everyday experience.
And it’s not that we’re to therefore come up with a smaller definition.
Nor is it that we’re to lower our expectations.
It’s that we’re to expect more—
look for more—
anticipate more
It’s that we’re to look for and name joy each day.
This my joy today.

So when we ask what gets in the way of joy,
we might suggest expectations of too much
(not too big—too much:
angels announcing,
Beethoven accompanying).
Some of the same things we suggested get in the way of hope.
And circumstances.
Circumstances can get in the way of joy.
They can,
but they don’t have to.

So hear now the good news of great joy:
the diagnosis is not the prognostic of joy.
Neither is the divorce,
the rejection,
the betrayal.
Neither is the illness,
the people who talk mean about you or to you,
the disappointment,
the fatigue,
the pain,
the death.

It’s interesting, I think we think joy’s complete—
that joy is some kind of a fulfillment—
a celebration of what is whole and perfect and good and right,
when I rather think it’s a vision we’re working to fulfill,
catching glimpses of that toward which we strive.

In the Sunday School curriculum Greg is writing with our youth,
he offered this quote this morning,
from Father Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now:
Learning to See as the Mystics See
“The most amazing fact about Jesus,
unlike almost any other religious founder,
is that he found God in disorder and imperfection—
and told us that we must do the same
or we would never be content on this earth.”
We might not know joy.

And so it’s not that your children never do wrong,
it’s not that they never get on your absolute last nerve,
are never ugly to each other and you,
it’s that you catch glimpses of the wonders they are.
It’s not that your marriage is perfect, or your job, or your church,
but that you see in them indications
of a larger interconnected, interdependent whole,
that they intimate a great beauty,
that you experience in them moments of grace and love.
I think we think joy is the absolute clarity of face to face,
when it has as much to do with seeing through a glass darkly.

Some of you may have come across
the observations of Bronnie Ware, an Australian writer,
who took a number of years
to care for dying people in their homes.
In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying:
A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing
she identifies, obviously, five common regrets.
“1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself,
not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
It’s a choice, she says.

I trust you are struck,
as everyone seems to be,
that the common regrets are so very common.
Maybe death offers us unique insight—
maybe this past week—
maybe sad joy
offer us insight
into the common things that are enough
(may we have eyes to see;
may we have ears to hear;
may we have hands to hold;
may we have hearts to burn within us)
common things that are enough
to sustain the fullness of joy—
Look for it.
Name it.
Give thanks.
Look some more.

It is the third Sunday of Advent.
I pray you joy.


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