Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Gift of Joy

First Presbyterian Church, Boise

Old Testament Lesson:        Isaiah 12:2-6
New Testament Lesson:       Philippians 4:4-7

A special gift of Christmas is the gift of joy!

Now, some of us will accept this statement without hesitation. While others of us have some deep and lingering doubts about the gift of joy, certainly after the trauma and tragedy of this week. As the Monsignor Robert Weiss of CT said, “Twenty people, the week before Christmas, had their joy taken away.” One may even suggest that we do not deserve to feel joy in light of the pain of the families and town so affected.

Having said that, I still believe with all my heart that a special gift of Christmas is the gift of joy!

While I want to have everyone joy-filled all the time (including myself) it is not always the case. We bear painful burdens of emotional and physical and daily realities of lives that are difficult at best and at times overwhelming. We question if genuine joy can even truly be part of the human experience. Joy seems to be rare, perhaps even an illusion.

Perhaps we need to emphasize that the subject of joy surrounds the Christmas event. Isaiah, in his anticipation wrote, With Joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation…. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. At the birth of Jesus the angel proclaimed, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. Even at Golgotha Jesus’ followers found an empty tomb and were seized with fear and joy. And as the wonder of the Christ event took hold of new Christians, Peter wrote, though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.

Joy, however, can be elusive. How can we either reframe our expectations or come to understand how the Lord can bring us to a joy-filled life?

Listen again to Paul…Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!

When I was a younger person and searching for “true” joy in my life, my pastor asked me to memorize this sentence and ultimately the whole of our selection for today. He promised me if I said the verse over and over and over… if I called it up when I was frustrated… if I said it in the morning light and again at the close of the day… I would become a joyful person. I didn’t succeed with the discipline and the whole of the exercise became a disappointment. It caused me to ponder deeply why I had I failed Jesus and myself?

Two times in this letter Paul urges the Christians at Philippi to rejoice in the Lord. This second time he repeats the call twice, Rejoice…. Again I say rejoice! And adds the word always!  To rejoice is not just a feeling of emotional exuberance or a special time of worship and praise. It is to be an uninterrupted and unbroken fact of our lives.

But how?

I believe that we begin to understand joy by acknowledging that it is a gift. We cannot earn joy by diligent effort or discover it with careful searching, experience it with purchases of things that we think we need, or even by seeking to feel it by attending church. In fact if joy is the object of any kind of search, it will most certainly not be found.

Friends…. joy grows out of a deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. It is as simple and as complex as that! As one focuses on knowing and serving Christ, NOT on being joyful, joy will come for it is a by-product of a relationship with God and Christ.

C. S. Lewis, the wonderful Christian writer, tells of his quest for joy in his spiritual autobiography. Here is a synopsis…
Lewis found himself at times trying substitutes for joy and at other times changing his definition of joy. It finally dawned on him that in order to know joy; one’s whole attention and desire must be fixed on something else.

So it happened one day that while riding in the sidecar of his brother motorcycle on the way to the zoo, he found himself believing in Jesus Christ, a step he thought he could never take. As he recounted, he was “surprised by joy.”

At the end he wrote, To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian.

Friends, this should be the testimony of all Christians! Joy is not a venture in “how to.” Joy simply overtakes, as Jesus is experienced.

Then I read verses 6: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Do not worry… do not be anxious… about anything! Oh, I don’t know about you but my mother taught me well. She was definitely the queen of worry and anxiety for everyone who surrounded her life. 

Don’t worry about anything? Yes…. But one can be confused by the uncertainty of the future… of health… of care… of success… of children… of addictions… of being safe and secure. It is very, very easy to be anxious in our world today. Our expectations for fulfillment are fed daily and the measure of success (dare I say joy) in our lives can be elusive – especially when designed by the world.

Years ago psychologist Abraham Maslow made a study of “self-actualizing” people and found that in some form or another they all shared certain attitudes.

The one that is most fascinating to me is that they had a high tolerance for uncertainty in their lives. In other words, they were less anxious. They lived more at peace with their present life’s situation.

How this speaks to us today is worthy of attention as we live with uncertainty about the future. There is confusion about what to value and commit to in life. What seems to have been important at one time no longer holds importance to present generations. The world is filled with fight for power and quick to genocide. People go hungry in our own back yards. The hope for a stable and harmonized home life is elusive at best.
We simply live in a time of uncertainty and built-in anxiety.

So… Paul’s words, Do not worry about anything, do not be anxious, can sound hollow at best. But I promise it is not so!

What Paul is calling us to understand is that worry and anxiety are the result of the futile, frustrating, and debilitating attempt to bear the burdens of one’s life by oneself. To go it alone!

Once again there is a simple yet complex answer for the Christian – the confident faith that takes everything to the Lord in prayer. The result? The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul should know for his life in Christ was anything but easy finding himself in prison more often than not. But he trusted. Paul trusted that a life of prayer would bring him a sense of security, hope, peace, and ultimately joy.

I admit that Paul’s offer of prayer is not an easy solution. We want to FEEL this joy and certainty in Christ. It takes effort… I believe that prayer is a process.

Prayer is the serious business of bringing our lives BEFORE God. It is an examination of our dependence on God, placing our lives in God’s hands to be used. It is a remembering and celebrating what God (NOT us) has done in our lives. It is a confessing our needs and dedicating our gifts, committing ourselves and all we have and all that we are to the building up of God’s kingdom on earth.

When we pray in this way it is not to say that anxiety and worry will suddenly stop trying to steal away the peace that comes from putting our lives in the hands of God. We cultivate the capacity to trust God through the practice of prayer. As our capacity to trust expands, so does our ability to tolerate uncertainty and our anxiety abates.

A life with God is a life of peace and, subsequently, one of joy.

Jesus made two promises about his joy. First, joy cannot be taken away.

But… and yes there is a but… We will not always feel the radiance of peace and joy that we would like. Yes, there will be events and challenges in our lives that will cloud over our joy. And yes, the same sensitivity that opens us to joy also exposes us to sorrow.

No, joy does not guarantee that we will be exempt from tragedy or that we will not shed a tear or two or that we will never feel despondent. The person who cannot feel sorrow will never be able to rise to that intense feeling of joy and gladness at life. We are repeatedly brought back to the place of dependence in God’s presence and work in our lives.

Jesus also promised that our joy will be complete. Our joy will go beyond anything that we could possibly imagine… And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, as Paul teaches, will be a reality.

It is a Joy that is sufficient and complete. When we seek to purchase joy we will miss it! Jesus did not tell us how to buy joy.

Jesus only said, “Abide in me as I abide in you… that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:10-11)

A special gift of Christmas is the gift of joy! God with us. Incarnation explosion.


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