Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Joy at Advent

On Sunday I had the privilege of speaking at church on the them of Joy. It was terrifying. But the process of writing what to say and thinking it all through was so good for me. I hope you find it gives you some joy or comfort in this silly and sometimes painful season.

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Luke 2:10-12

People don't tend to use the word “JOY” in normal conversation. We talk about happiness more often. There is even a growing field of happiness research. It seems that being “happy” is something we struggle with and it seems to be something that is a growing problem of the first world. We buy things, travel to places, take all manner of substances, give up gluten, take up yoga, get married, get divorced, downsize, and upsize, all in the hope of finding happiness. But it doesn't seem to stay around for long. And in the end it seems that we are all heading to the same place but flailing around quite a bit as we go there. From a less extreme stand point, happiness seems to mean the daily small things that make life easier or more pleasurable. A delicious meal, a day that went smoothly, listening to a song you like, finally achieving a goal. All good things and all make life more satisfying and fun. I had a pedicure yesterday. That was definitely an experience that made me happy. But did it make me joyful?

It doesn't seem a coincidence that happiness researchers have found that people who practise gratitude, prayer, meditation and serving others, report greater happiness than those who don't. Maybe because that is the way we were designed to live?

When Tim sent me the list of topics I could choose to speak about I chose Joy. Some that no me well will recognise the irony in this. It is something that seems to be a struggle for me. I have struggled with depression most of my adult life and severely since having children. For me, life can feel like being in a t.v show. I follow the script and laugh at all the right times, but inside I am not experiencing it. Inside I am tortured by feelings of self-doubt, perfectionism and self loathing. I feel overwhelmed by all that needs doing and feel stretched too thin. Not very joyful really. And as a Christian, something I have wrestled with a great deal. How can I be so sad when I apparently have such hope? How can I struggle to love myself while knowing how much Jesus loves me? How can having children, something I have longed for and hoped for - also bring such pain and struggle?

So I have thought long and hard about happiness. And have decided that though it is nice to feel happy, there is very little in the Bible that indicates that we can expect happiness as a normal state of being while here on earth. That is not to say we will not experience happiness, but it just isn't the point, I don't think. But there is quite a lot about joy.

Joy is deeper. Joy seems to come to the fore when things are not going so well. It is a deeper river that keeps flowing, even in suffering and pain. It allows us to touch the eternal and divine. It is experienced in death of a loved one, as we celebrate knowing and loving the person who is lost while also being torn apart by it. It is felt as we welcome a new child, despite knowing that we will now forever feel responsible for another person and possibly experience a great deal of pain along the journey. Joy is the relief of admitting we cannot do it alone and we need help, and someone taking our hand and saying you are not alone and we will do it together. Joy is sharing my pain and struggle, and instead of advice or a look of shock, the person says “me too”.

To me Joy, rather than the temporary status of “happy”, is all about the eternal. I experience Joy when I wake early in the morning, go outside and hear the birds waking, smell the fresh newness of the day and see all that God has created. There is a sense of the divine and the eternal. There is Joy.

I experience Joy when I see a student suddenly become curious and thirsty for knowledge or finally seeing how precious they are after being judged or put down by others. My joy is in seeing that they are glimpsing their God given and eternal value.

Joy for me is talking with someone and having a meeting of mind and heart. Hearing each other deeply and sharing a love and care that I know comes from God. This is a joy that goes beyond the conversation to something deeper. It reminds me that God is love and he himself is the example of community and true relationship.

Joy is new spring growth on an apparently dead tree.

It seemed appropriate to show this picture after Jesse's stump was introduced as a symbol to meditate on during advent. Some of you may remember when I led communion in the depths of winter in July. I talked about a plum tree which I was sure had died. It looked like a stick. No green to be seen. Nick and I had agreed to disagree about it. He was certain that come spring I would be proved wrong. With my typical knowing smile I said “Well, come spring I guess we will find out”. The knowing smile is me knowing I am right...

But I was wrong. Here is a picture of the tree.

Now that is a picture of joy. Despite all visible evidence to the contrary, that plum tree was alive.

We are so used to hearing the Christmas story and knowing it is a story about Joy. But if you didn't know the whole story. If you were living it as it happened, the evidence, and the way the situation unfolds around the birth of Jesus, isn't one that immediately points to JOY. And it definitely doesn't include too much happiness.

Imagine the Christmas story as a series of headlines appearing in the NZ Herald. We all probably feel like the news is the last place to look for Joy. And the Christmas story is full of apparent bad news.

Unmarried and pregnant – condemned by Jewish leaders. Mary may have been a privileged woman chosen by God to bare His own son, but it wasn't a great situation to be in. This is why the angel may have told her not to be afraid.
Heavily pregnant woman forced to travel on donkey for census – I would not have been happy to travel on a donkey at 9 months pregnant, but I guess it was better than walking.
Accommodation shortage in Bethlehem – forced to sleep with animals – sleeping in the stable would have been similar to sleeping in a wool shed. Not pleasant.
Massacre of first born sons – Thousands flea to Egypt

So it is all about perspective. Knowing who Jesus is and what God's plan was for his life means we know that even though the evidence seems gloomy, it all works out in the end.

It is all about what you are looking for. Despite her fear, Mary welcomed the angel who brought her the news of her pregnancy and that she was to give birth to God's son. She agreed to be part of God's plan without knowing how it would all work out and at great risk to herself and her reputation. She was possibly risking Joseph abandoning his promise to marry her. Her faith and knowledge of God's goodness meant she chose to have a perspective of faith and hope, despite the struggles and challenges she would face. She had no idea what it would mean to be Jesus' mother. She would only have known the hope for a Messiah that all the Jewish people were holding onto while suffering the Roman occupation. She made a choice to believe in Her God, rather than the very real risks she faced.

Luke 2:13-19

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

 Mary was chosen by God because He knew she was the right woman to be the mother of Jesus. This passage I think reveals one of the reasons why. She has been through the most amazing experience. I think all births are. But she had the added knowledge that her son was the Messiah. She knew that everything that happened was ordained by God. The shepherds who were visited by angels and prompted to visit Jesus and the amazing visitations by angels that both she and Joseph had experienced. In her life the practical details of travelling by donkey, having nowhere to stay and a rather uncomfortable place for a birth, must have become small in scale, compared with the eternal perspective God had given her about her life. Mary's Joy came from having an eternal perspective of her own life and experience. I think Mary's approach can teach me a lot about Joy. When I let my mind believe that the evidence around me reveals truth and reality then I let my joy and hope disappear into despair. But when I remember that God has a plan and that the story is not finished I remember Joy and I look for His hand and His movement around me. I hear His voice and I commit myself afresh to follow His prompting.

As we approach Christmas again and prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of Jesus the reason we sing carols that say “Joy to the World” is because there are so many reasons not to feel joyful. If the world was already filled with Joy we wouldn't need to sing it. But we are in need of Joy. The evidence around us can seem pretty grim. It can seem that evil is triumphing and that we are suffering and that sometimes it is all too hard. But unlike Mary, we have the gift of knowing how the story ended. Well, actually it didn't end. His birth was one beginning. But in Jesus's death we find the true beginning.

Our Joy at Christmas is that in that little baby there is hope and the promise of forgiveness, the end of all suffering, injustice, pain or death and the beginning of a new life. That life is about living now in relationship with the creator of the universe and with Jesus who truly knows the pain and struggle we experience, but also gives us the Holy Spirit to comfort us, guide us, encourage and embolden us so that we can experience and dwell in the Joy of knowing Him and making Him known. He gives us an eternal perspective of ourselves and our purpose here on this earth. Because our lives are just the beginning too.

And even as we know this truth, sometimes it can still be a struggle. And joy seems far off. But when all seems lost and the pain is too great I hold onto this. My favourite verse:

You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Psalm 16:11

This is not a request. This is a statement of fact. It is not conditional on your efforts or a promise for the future. It is now. His presence now can bring us Joy. A Joy that is holy, healing and can quench a thirst that on He can satisfy.
I pray that for all of us this Christmas, we will know His presence, feel his hand upon us and know His deep and strong and healing love. And that by his Holy Spirit, we will know His joy.

As we go out may we also listen to his voice. He is Emmanuel, God with Us. And he goes with us as we share our Joy in Him, with those around us. Faith in Jesus is not a promise of happiness, but it is a promise that you will never be alone and that in a world that seems to have lost its way, that each person is loved and has meaning and purpose. He is moving and his promise of an end to suffering will come. Now that is something I can be joyful about.

1 comment:

  1. Please find a way to publish this, it resonates and echos and needs to be felt