In the key turning points throughout the Biblical narrative — times when God has done something major, like setting the people free from slavery in Egypt or the exiles returning home to Jerusalem — the people sing a song of joy. Last week we heard Mary’s song in the Choral Union’s glorious presentation of Rutter’s Magnificat. It was a song of hope, to be sure, but it was also a song of joy: “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.”
This Sunday we continue our First Light worship series with the traditional theme of the third Sunday of Advent: Joy. It is a time for rejoicing in the good news of the coming of Jesus. When the angels appeared to the shepherds in the fields to announce the birth of Jesus, they said, “We bring you tidings of great joy.”
The early followers of Jesus looked back at the Hebrew Scriptures and found there passages that expressed to them the joy of his birth. While those passages were written for the people in their own times and their own situations, Christians have found those passages to be expressive of the meaning of Jesus’ birth and his proclamation of the kingdom of God. One of those passages, Isaiah 9:2-7, was written to the people of Judah in a time of crisis. It told of the birth of a savior-king, which would herald not only the release of the people from political oppression, but also the cessation of warfare in general. The prophet applies four names to this savior-king: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (vs. 6). These names fit well the attributes of Jesus. The prophet says, “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest” (vs. 3).
This is a season of joy. But is it always a season of happiness? I think at Christmastime people feel a lot of pressure to be happy. And it’s easy to get confused when everyone around us is focusing on this great joy and maybe we’re feeling, well, something quite the opposite of joyful.
Something or someone may be missing this year. You may have had a significant financial setback. You or someone you love may be facing a serious illness or other deep concern. At times like these it’s hard to feel joyful, because we so often equate joy with happiness.
But happiness and joy are two different things.
Through all the years I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve noticed, sometimes quite acutely, that the holidays can be times of extremes: extremely happy times of building wonderful memories with family — and extremely difficult times for people who have suffered loss or find themselves living in a difficult time in their lives.
And yet, the Season of Advent remains for us as Christians a season of joy, because joy runs deeper than happiness. The distinction is that joy isn’t dependent on what is going on around us. Rather, it is dependent on what is going on within us — the experience of faith and the trust we hold within us. It is out of this deeper experience that Paul wrote to the Philippians while in prison because of his faith: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The question I want to think with you about this week is this: Where did joy come from for Mary or the Shepherds or Paul? Was it about what was going on in the world at the time? No. It was a very difficult time. Did it come from the situation in which they found themselves? No. Their situation was in fact quite difficult. Did it come from some promise of a future with no problems? No, an unblemished future was never promised to any of them. The promise of Jesus was not a promise of a life without trouble, but the promise that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
This is the source of joy we will celebrate together this Sunday in the Sanctuary in the morning services.
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster
P.S. In addition to the morning services, there will be a special Service of Comfort and Peace in Leonard Memorial Chapel this Sunday evening at 6:00 pm. As I mentioned above, Christmas is a difficult time for many people, when celebrations of joy and expectation can overlook feelings of pain and hurt, grief and sorrow. This service offers a way for people to claim those feelings and still feel surrounded by the compassionate love of God.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness —
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.