Monday, December 18, 2017

Sunday's Message: Comfort and Joy

Below is Pastor David's sermon from this past Sunday (12-17-2017) including the slides he used during the 9:00 am Contemporary Service.

You can view the video from the 11:00 am service on our website:


Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

We are down to the last week.  Christmas is just around the corner.  We have our trees up, our house decorated, our presents purchased online and out for delivery, our cookies baked, our parties attended, our Christmas parade watched, our travel plans made, and our annual reminder that we think eggnog is really just okay as long as we don’t have to drink too much of it.

So here is my question: Are you happy?  

 We are in the season where the greatest virtues of the Christian life are celebrated: faith, hope, love, joy, and peace. But this is also a time of the year that is not quite so jolly for many people.  December with its short days, long nights, colder weather, busy-ness, festivity, and family time leads many to loneliness, depression, and despair.

The passages we have read from Isaiah the last three weeks are traditional readings during Advent. Have you noticed that they are all about both hope and despair? All of the readings are set in the middle of the Exile in Babylon. The Hebrew people’s despair was very real.  You can imagine how they must have felt. With their temple and capital city in ruins, they had been rounded up like cattle and led on a forced march into the heart of their enemy’s country where they were resettled. 

Strangers in a strange land they had the feelings of devastation, loss, and hopelessness. From the prayers and Psalms written during that time you hear a resignation: the way things are is the way they will always be. There is no hope - no expectations that the situation will ever change.

Have you ever felt that kind of resignation?  Whether it is your personal situation at home or at work, or it is the circumstances in the world, or whatever - you have the sense that things will never change.

If you have felt that kind of despair, then you know it can be tough this time of year. When everything is jolly and bright but you are just not feeling it.  It feels like you’re standing still while the world is buzzing around you. And the fact that you just can’t get into the spirit makes you feel even worse. 

I’ve seen it in the caretakers who cannot leave their responsibility. It is common among those quietly grieving – especially those spending the first holidays without a spouse or children (through death, divorce, or estrangement). This time of year can be particularly difficult for those who are in extended stays in hospitals, or are homebound, or who live alone and feel isolated. Even the sentimentality of family time is muted with so many families negotiating previous marriages with shared custody or when extended families are strung across the country adding to the stress and expense of the season.

For the past decade or so, churches has offered a special time or worship – usually on a Sunday night – called “Blue Christmas.” 

No not that kind of Blue Christmas. 

That’s better.  It is a time of worship that seeks to address the very real sadness people feel; especially when they think they should be happy. 

What are the words of comfort used there?  The very passages from Isaiah we have shared these last few weeks – words of hope and promise to a people with struggles of their own.

We should not pretend that this season is somehow spared sadness and grief, even if most of our experiences are warm and happy. We are reminded of the Israelites in exile because we also need hear the hope and promises of God too.  We need to hear
that good news comes to those who are poor,
that healing comes to those who are brokenhearted,
that freedom comes to those who are captive and prisoners to grief,
that comfort comes to those who mourn, and
that reassurance comes to those who are discouraged.

We need to come to the place where we are no longer resigned to our circumstances. The most insightful message I have ever heard from a Blue Christmas service is that we should let go of trying to find happiness and instead seek joy.  You see the real question is not, “Are you happy?” The real question is, “Have you found joy?” Because there is a big difference between happiness and joy. 

Fredrick Buechner writes, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it . . . (Buechner Slide) Joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes....”

In other words, happiness is logical. We can link our happiness directly to our circumstances. Money, property, and good investments can provide security and comfort for a time. But even if the material comforts do not fade, the happiness inevitably will. That kind of happiness is skin deep, it is surface, a fa├žade – it has shallow roots, it has no substance. It leads to despair because an emptiness remains and we end up in a cycle of ceaseless striving for more, bigger, and better.

We fall into the “if-only” trap. If we only had this “thing,” or more success or more recognition, then we could be happy. “If-only” thinking means we are never really be happy for long. Happiness becomes a moving target. Just when we think we have arrived we find the goal is still just beyond our reach.  

We will not always be a happy but we can be deeply joyful.
Joy is the grace and freedom God wants for each person.
Joy is a gift we receive.
Joy is not fragile.
Joy has far deeper roots than happiness. 

Hard times can make us bitter if our goal is happiness.
But joy is unquenchable even in the most dire situations.

Psalm 16:11 says very plainly, “In your presence there is fullness of joy.”  

Joy is the most unfailing sign of the presence of God.  We celebrate joy in this season because God’s presence with us becomes most fully known in the birth of his Jesus. We find joy when we celebrate Jesus as Emmanuel, as God-With-Us. Life need not be easy to be joyful. Joy is not the absence of trouble but the presence of Christ. 

The real question is not even, “Have you found joy?”  The real question is, “Has joy found you?”

We want things on our terms – our families, our church, our community, our country. And we fight and struggle to hold on and try to will it to be the way we want it.  Christmas teaches us that God has come to us on God’s terms - in a child in a manger in Bethlehem. If we want it any other way – we will not find joy and we will not be at peace. We learn to accept the graces God gives to us, pick up the mission God calls us into, and trust that our lives will find joy in committing ourselves easily and simply to God’s way. 

Evelyn Underhill writes, “This is the secret of joy. We shall no longer strive for our own way; but commit ourselves, easily and simply, to God’s way, acquiesce in his will and in so doing find our peace.”  

 Isaiah looks squarely into the face of the misery of the people and boldly proclaims a new day is coming. The way things are is not the way things will always be. There is hope. There is joy. There is comfort. There is salvation.

Is it any wonder that when Jesus preached his first sermon in his hometown synagogue, he unrolled the scroll and read these very words? After reading, he rolled up the scroll, sat down, and said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

We have a savior who bring good news to the poor, who binds up the brokenhearted, who proclaims release and liberation to those in bondage, who comforts those who mourn, giving a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. Thanks be to God!

Advent is not a season for nostalgia. It is not a time for sentimental recollection. It is a season for remembering all that God has done to save us . . .  and looking with joyful expectations for all the ways God will continue that work now – in your life and in the world.

For God comes in person and comes to any open heart yearning for God’s presence.  May joy find you today, and every day. As in the words from O Little Town of Bethlehem:

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in