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December 16, 2018

Advent 3: Joy

  1. 16th “Joy” Zephaniah 3:14-20 * Isaiah 12:2-6 * Philippians 4:4-7 * Luke 3:7-18

It is always incomprehensible when we hear about the untimely death of someone who seems to have much more than we do. We are doing our part to be productive and happy, knowing all the things we think we need to obtain to be happier, and then we see someone who has all of that and is still unhappy. One story that came out this week was the death of weather person Jessica Starr from a local news station in Detroit, who took her own life this week, at the age of 35, a wife with two kids. She is yet another person who seemed to have everything, who was living her dream, but all was not what it seemed. A friend described her as being bright, beautiful, and bubbly. Another sad story that doesn’t make sense, but then we all know people who have made the same decision to end their own life. The statistics are staggering, and I won’t go into them, but hopefully we are getting to the point where we can talk openly about depression and suicide in our country and in our world, for we are in the midst of an epidemic. We are losing too many valuable lives and must take action.

Every case is different, so we don’t want to generalize, or we might not recognize a person in need. Often those who don’t understand depression will say things like “I don’t see why they were so sad,” but sadness is only part of the problem. Sadness is natural after all, something that we all must suffer at times. There are a variety of deeper issues, which include but are not limited to: feelings of worthlessness, isolation, and despair. How many of us here have suffered with loneliness? Low self-worth? Hopelessness? And yet we are still here. These are things we all suffer, but for some people, they are just too much live with. I am not an expert, and we this isn’t the place to go into detail, but if you suspect that someone has crossed that limit and is danger, do something. Call the police or take them to the hospital. In most cases, those critical moments where they might commit suicide will pass, but we need to get them the proper care to see them through whatever their crisis might be. Do something to keep them safe. Their life depends on it!

Our theme for this, the 3rd Week of Advent, is “Joy.” As a follower of Jesus, joy has always been one of my goals as a disciple, but it has been elusive at times. The Bible promises that we will have joy, but we often don’t. Part of us reads God’s Word and thinks that if joy is promised, then we should have it all the time, right? But it doesn’t really promise us euphoria during this life, maybe in the next. In this life, we all suffer and struggle. If there was some magic way to be happy all the time, we wouldn’t know so many people struggling with addictions, depression and suicidal thoughts. However, we do get tastes of joy throughout our lives, and know enough joyful people to feel envious, ignoring the fact that they too have their struggles, too.

Our brains seem to be hard-wired to work with extremes, in the sense that we are at one end or the other: all is good or all is bad. The reality is that there is a lot in the middle too, the good alongside of the bad, but we lose sight of that at times. My guess is that when a person is suicidal, they are at the extreme in where all is bad, their sense of reality no longer includes anything good, and they give up. When we take things to the opposite end, where all is good, we also risk losing touch with reality. Has anyone heard of the Stockdale Paradox? Admiral Jim Stockdale was tortured over 20 times as a POW in Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. In addition to fighting just to stay alive, as a prisoner he also tried to help others endure the physical and emotional torment every day. When he was later asked who were the ones most likely not to survive, he immediately answered: “the optimists.” These were the ones who unrealistically set deadlines for when they would be freed. Each time that deadline passed, they lost a little more of their grasp on reality, and eventually perished.

Now I am not saying that we shouldn’t pray when things seem to be hopeless, for God still works miracles every day. What I am saying is that we can’t reduce God to a cosmic vending machine, where we do our bit and expect God to give us whatever we ask for. We should be constant in our prayer, but we must accept the fact that God sometimes says “no”, sometimes “yes”, and sometimes “wait”. Sometimes he answers in ways that we simply don’t understand until long after he took care of things and moved on to something else. So where does our joy come from? The answer will most likely be a little different for each one of us, for each of us have hearts that are solely our own. But let’s look at what our Scripture readings have to say about joy.

In Zephaniah, we are told that “The LORD your God is in your midst--a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zep 3:17 CEB) Maybe if we could focus on how to make God joyful, we might be more joyful, too! Here we have the promise that God is with us, fighting for us, not only bringing us to a better place, but taking away our shame. God brings the great reversal:

I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast. I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. At that time, I will bring all of you back, at the time when I gather you. (Zep 3:19-20 CEB)

And as Isaiah says:

You will say on that day: "Thank the LORD; call on God's name; proclaim God's deeds among the peoples; declare that God's name is exalted. Sing to the LORD, who has done glorious things; proclaim this throughout all the earth." Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion, because the holy one of Israel is great among you. (Isa 12:4-13:1 CEB)

Our greatest joy is in knowing that we have a relationship with God, that he is with is, and together we stand as his people, rejoicing even when things are hard because we know that the one who has overcome all evil is on our side. If all we concentrate on is what we want God to do for us, and give us, we will most likely misunderstand our situation and be disappointed. Instead, we should concentrate on what we are giving to God and our neighbors and rejoice that God accepts us as we are and what we do in his name.

Of course, when we talk about joy, we are always led to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which is often referred to as the “Letter of Joy.” Even though Paul is in prison, possibly for the last time, he cannot stop praising God. He writes:

Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, rejoice! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don't be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you. (Phi 4:4-9 CEB)

This comes from a man who suffered more than most, who was persecuted for his courage and boldness. The goal is not to ignore what is bad, but to find peace and joy in the Lord no matter the circumstance. As I have searched for joy in my life, it helps to understood it more as a matter of where your heart is, rather than where your mind is or what you are temporarily feeling, or in relation to material possessions. We don’t ignore what is bad, we take it along with the good, rejoicing that God with bring the good work he has begun in us to completion. If your heart is in the right place, you can endure the tough times and even grow into a better person.

One of my favorite speakers and thought leaders is Brene Brown. She recently put out a book called Dare to Lead, which is so good I am going to have to buy a copy, so I can mark it up. Usually I am too cheap to buy new books, but the Kindle version isn’t too expensive. Earlier in the book she describes defense mechanisms we use as armor. She maintains that what we think is protecting us is in reality hindering us from living fully. Here’s a quote from her new book:

I’ve always talked about living with an unarmored heart as “wholeheartedness.” In (the book) The Gifts of Imperfection, I define wholeheartedness as “engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am brave, and worthy of love and belonging.”

Wholeheartedness captures the essence of a fully examined emotional life and a liberated heart, one that is free and vulnerable enough to love and be loved. And a heart that is equally free and vulnerable to be broken and heart.

The problem is that when we imprison the heart, we kill courage. (Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, p.72)

The key to this is to know that we are worthy of love and belonging, and from there we can be freed to go out into the world and make a difference in Christ’s name. No matter what your issue is, God is big enough to love you and forgive you, wrapping you in his love. He is always waiting for us to return to him. How joyful it is to know that God accepts us and considers us worthy to do his will here, if only we could accept ourselves as being worthy also! We know we have our work cut out for us, but God is with us, giving us courage and a sense of purpose. Joy will not come from ignoring the bad things in life, but in fighting to overcome them and making a positive impact to our world. Joy comes from knowing that God is with us, loves and accepts us, and gives us the strength to persevere to the end.

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