This works for a lot of us. And yet for others of us, this joy, this happiness, this hopefulness is too much for us to take. Maybe we are not wired to be joyful people. Maybe there has been some kind of trauma that makes this Christmas especially challenging—we’re without a job, our finances are tight, we have lost someone close to us and we can’t face it alone. A maudlin Blue Christmas is more a reality than the joy of a white Christmas.
If we are not happy all the time and we dare let down our guard and say how we really feel we get accused of being a scrooge. This compulsory happiness keeps as many people away from church during the holiday season as it attracts.
You know, the commercial hijacking of Christmas doesn’t really help. It might bring temporary happiness, along with debt and a sense of appreciation, but I’m not convinced it brings joy.
There’s a difference, you know between happiness and joy.
Happiness is a reaction to a specific event or series of events. It’s a mood or an emotion. But it’s not something that sustains.
Joy is a deeper feeling. It’s something that comes from a wellspring of commitment, on the other side of trials, tribulations and terror. It’s what sustains us when all hell is breaking loose. It’s a vision for and connection to that power greater than ourselves that can restore us to sanity. Joy is not always happy, but it does see where we will go and it moves forward in a positive light.
Think about what is a temporary happiness and what is a joy.
Happiness is piles of gift wrap on Christmas morning.
Joy is in remembering the story and believing that God gives you a gift each Christmas—and that gift taking hold of you and pointing you in a whole new direction.
Happiness is a really good and uplifting worship service, complete with bells and Christmas carols and even some gifts at the altar.
Joy is making a commitment to being a disciple of Jesus instead of simply an admirer.
Happiness is an electoral victory.
Joy is a sense that we are moving in the right direction and are making real progress.
Happiness is winning a ball game.
Joy is helping someone grow into a responsible person who can handle adversity with maturity and determination.
Happiness is a good diagnosis.
Joy is looking at the preciousness of life and making a commitment to making every moment count.
Happiness is getting a good grade.
Joy is sense of satisfaction and confidence that spurs you on to continue to do good things.
Happiness is a good performance review.
Joy is a feeling of purpose behind and undergirding our work.
Happiness is a moment of fun or a good laugh.
Joy is a lightness of being that sees the world as a place of opportunity as opposed to simply a place of pain.
Happiness is a good holiday party.
Joy is long-term recovery where each relationship and encounter is healthy and feeds your sense of who God wants you to be.
I fear that we too often settle for fleeting surface happiness, when what we really need is joy. We need that sense of centeredness that comes from knowing who we are, what we are here for and where we are going. And when we can share all of that commitment and focus with others, like we seek to do in church, then we have some real opportunities for joy.
Today’s scripture reading comes from the book of Baruch. This inter-testamental book was written to explain the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people as God’s judgment on the people for their faithlessness and idolatry. Such a judgment did not elicit joy from the people. And yet, the promise of God is that one action is never the final word. We always have the ability to make a new choice to turn our lives around to the way God would have us lead our lives. We get second, third and hundredth chances in God’s economy.
Baruch 5 reminds the people of the joy that comes when they refocus their lives upon God’s true work in the world. This work is characterized by justice, mercy and peace. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on the beauty of the glory of God. Put on the robe of justice that comes from God, and only then are you worthy to put on the crown of the glory of God.” This means make the right choices. This means surround yourself with people who want the best for you and can bring the best out of you. This means let mercy and justice and peace be your methods. And make righteousness your game plan. When you do this, leveling the playing field for all people (symbolized by mountains and valleys disappearing and crooked streets made straight), then you will be given a new name: “Justice-laden Peace, Godly Glory.” And God will lead the people with joy. That’s what real joy is about.
Last night, A couple dozen sacred harp singers gathered to sing for Charlie who lost his wife Cindy to cancer a couple of weeks ago. We sang loud and long until our throats gave out. We sang in celebration of her life. We sang in support of Charlie. We sang to hold each other up. We sang picturing in our mind’s eyes, her singing with us as she had done for twenty something years. We pictured her singing on the other side of the veil with the angel choir. We sang about death and we sang about life. Charlie said he felt her there in the room. He said he felt a confidence that not only was she well taken care of in heaven. But he was well taken care of here on earth. That sounds a bit like heaven to me too. As we left that house last night, I had the sense that God had visited that room. That God-with-us, Immanuel had shown up. And through the tears and the singing and the cacophony, there was joy.
Sister and brothers, if we are to truly be people of joy, maybe we can bring joy to other people, not because we sing about it or because we have the surface happiness of the holiday season on our faces, along with cookie crumbs.
We can bring joy because we are reminded of whom we are. We are reminded of whose we are.
We are reminded of our purpose in this world. And joy will flow out of us like a river.
And if we let it, it will point us not only to a manger scene, but also to a life sustained by God-with-us, Emmanuel. And whenever we feel like we’re spiraling down to despair, maybe we’ll remember that at the deepest valley there is a river. The river started in Eden. It has merged with other rivers that we are bold to name peace, justice, compassion, remembrance, even our own tears have danced on the waters. And if we see it, it’s also a river of joy. For we never enter that river alone.
The river extends to Nicaragua.
It will awaken our most maudlin of attitudes.
It will warm the cold and clothe the naked.
It will feed the hungry.
It will comfort the afflicted.
It will enter our hearts, if we let it.
It will hold us, sustain us, and embolden us.
And when the music plays, it will wash over us again and remind us to commit ourselves once again to the vision God has put onto our hearts. And it will be good.