Today marks the 2nd Sunday of Advent where we light the candle of JOY. We lit the candle of HOPE last week. We need that sense of hope particularly now as this 2nd Covid wave continues to build with no real sense of when it will all end. In the lighting of the first candle we were choosing to acknowledge a HOPE which is so much beyond even the worst of our losses, our griefs and despairs. Today we acknowledge the JOY that such a Christ-hope always releases. If the HOPE-light of Christ is about our anticipation of Christ’s birth, the JOY-light of Christ is about what it produces within us! May the light of Christ’s HOPE & JOY be with you now!
We’ve all seen them – people who have this impossible ability to live out of JOY in every circumstance of their lives! Of course not in some naïve sense of never being sad or disappointed, but as a ‘ground’ed’ness’ that seems to undergird them in all their circumstances.
My mother-in-law was one of those people. She was in her mid-seventies when she tried zip-lining in South Africa. The attendants said that they had never heard anyone scream quite that loudly! Betty was committed to JOYFUL life – and that despite running an oncology unit for most of her nursing career, later an in-patient hospice center and, all the time, loving and caring for my wonderful father-in-law who tragically developed early onset Alzheimer’s at just 50! JOY! Who comes to mind for you?
I was so blessed this week by an online article featuring Hugh Bonneville[i] narrating the story of Horatio Spafford and his wife Anna. After losing all four of their beautiful young daughters in a tragic trans-Atlantic drowning – it was only because of the deep JOY of Christ’s abiding presence that he was later able to write that beautiful hymn classic: When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul! JOY!
This is so very different from the welcome but often fleeting emotion of happiness. The lighting of our JOY flame is about our being embraced by the light that reveals Jesus Christ as the One who generates so much more than mere happiness within us. It’s JOY! And within all our circumstances! Often DESPITE our circumstances!
Presbyterian blogger and Minister Chris Benek writes of how we “experience JOY when we achieve selflessness to the point of personal sacrifice…which he says, is …the result of our being spiritually connected to God[ii]”. That’s the key! Feelings of happiness come from all sorts of places – In Gal.5:19 Paul actually compiled a whole list of really dark sources, including: …sexual immorality, debauchery, hatred, discord, jealousy, tantrums, selfish ambition, envy… We’re not proud of that but it’s true that any one of those can give some sense of short-term happiness. Of course there are other good things that make us happy as well, but that’s the point! Happiness comes as the result of the pleasing of ourselves, while JOY appears to be about something altogether different!
In Scripture it’s what forms the hallmark of any believer or faith community. It’s not tied to an emotion we may feel so much as a quality that we are given to discover. It’s from God and grounded in God.
We[iii] see it as a characteristic of people gathered for worship where the Psalmist writes: I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. Sing for joy to God our strength. JOY!
In the Gospels we see it associated with who and what Jesus is and does. At his birth, the Herald Angels told the terrified shepherds[iv]: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. As Jesus entered Jerusalem in the week before Easter[v]: “…the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices”. This is the JOY that’s associated with our recognition of Christ’s presence! After his resurrection[vi]: “…the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples”. In John’s gospel we see Jesus explicitly identifying himself with just this[vii]: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete”.
That is precisely what came most clearly to mark them as the early church – JOY as one of the main hallmark/markers of God’s presence. We see it at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, where the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. It was a fundamental characteristic of every Eucharistic meal[viii] . The early believers “met in small groups in homes for Communion, and shared their meals with great joy and thankfulness…”! Paul even associated it with his choosing to ‘suffer’ for the sake of Christ[ix].
JOY is not ever something we have to generate! It’s never of us! It’s always God’s business! It’s simply a gift[x] / a fruit of the Holy Spirit …something given to us, in Christ. Our role is simply/most profoundly to ensure our on-going walking in Him, our remaining, held by him …and somehow that’s enough for God to allow it to flame, to rise up and manifest. JOY.
While to be happy is always nice, our happiness is also invariably about ourselves and the things that are clearly good for us. JOY is from our being aligned with what is good for others.
It’s fueled by agape-poured-out-kenotic love (our subject next week). It flows from what is at the heart of St Therese of Lisieux’s LITTLE WAY: a love that is entirely outwards, for the good of the other. It’s expressed within Desmond Tutu’s UBUNTU where the good of the community always trumps what may seem to be good for just the individual. And it’s what we see primarily enacted in the ministry of Jesus Christ.
JOY is the hallmarking marker that testifies to our having been aligned with Christ’s poured-out-love purposes given for all of creation. May Christ’s JOY be very real for you at this Christmas time regardless of your circumstances, and may God use that JOY through you to be the blessing to others that you already are.
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[iii] From Ps 42:4 and 81:1
[iv] Luke 2:10
[v] Luke 19:37
[vi] Matthew 28:8
[vii] John 15:11
[viii] Acts 2:46 (Living Bible translation)
[ix] Colossians 1:24
[x] Galatians 5:22