December 16, 2018
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Rejoice in God Always
Isaiah 12:1-6, Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice always? Again, Paul says, and again? How can we rejoice always? With the state of the world, the state of our country, the state of our lives? Sometimes it’s tough to make it through the day, let alone with joy and rejoicing! Even in this Christmas season, real life goes on in all its challenging reality. So even as we celebrate moments of cheer, we all face challenges that are really hard. So rejoice, always? Sounds impossible.
But this call to rejoice has echoed from within our scriptures for almost three thousand years! From the prophet Isaiah’s command in the 8th Century BCE: sing for joy! To the apostle Paul’s imperative in the first century: Rejoice always! And I’ve come to believe that these commands carry deep wisdom to nourish our lives. And indeed, that following them can actually bring more joy into our lives! So how can we begin to live this way, right in the midst of a topsy-turvy world?
Well, perhaps we need to begin by acknowledging how intertwined in our lives are our experiences of peace and turmoil, trust and fear – but especially joy and distress. Through the ages, many people have noticed that these states are most often intermingled in real life. Poet Sean O’Casey said “Life is a lament in one ear and a song in the other.” Macrina Wiederkehr tells us, “Joy and sorrow are sisters; they live in the same house.” Poet William Matthews says, “Pain and joy eat off each other’s plates.” The most profound expression is from Julian of Norwich. She writes, “In this life, we experience an intermingling of joyful well-being and distress. Sometimes they are so intermingled that we hardly know what state we or our neighbor is in. We live in this intermingling all our lives.” All of us here, I suspect, know this experience. Lament and song. Well-being and distress. Pain and joy. Intermingled together.
Both Isaiah and Paul know this complexity too. But they testify that we can learn to know and to proclaim joy even in challenging times. Both of them live in dangerous and threatening circumstances while they are proclaiming joy! Isaiah’s country and his people are oppressed by the ruthless Kingdom of Assyria. They live in a time full of invasions, uprisings and wars. Yet Isaiah prophesies, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation”. Yet he urges: Sing for joy! For the Holy One is in your midst!
And Paul writes his letter from prison! He’s imprisoned by the Roman Empire, he’s suffering, and he doesn’t know what will happen to him. He may be facing death. What’s more, he’s writing to friends who are struggling and suffering too. Some of them have been persecuted and others may soon be persecuted as well. Yet he proclaims, “Rejoice in God always; again I say, rejoice!”
This is an extraordinary witness! How did they both, right in the midst of what they faced, remain grounded in joy? And how can we access this kind of joy too?
We can access joy, and learn to receive joy — because joy is different from a momentary happiness which comes and goes depending on circumstances. Happiness is like a fountain that flows for a time when good things are poured into it. We’re pleased for the moment. The problem is that happiness depends more on things going well. It’s tied to getting what we want, maybe success or popularity or wealth. The lift it gives us is only temporary. It doesn’t sustain our life. Joy does sustain our life! Because it’s not just more intense happiness or pleasure. It’s not just the result of good things happening to us. It’s not a feeling that arises in response to good circumstances. It’s something different altogether.
Could it be that joy is not so much a response to what happens in our lives, but rather a source that nourishes our lives? A source that arises from our deep connection with the Source of all Life? Joy is like an underground spring that is always there, feeding us, keeping us alive, even when we’re not aware of it, even when things are bad or sad, even when we feel dried up on the surface. For the waters from this eternal well of life never run dry. And they can nourish us no matter what we face, despite whatever circumstances we may face.
So, if joy is a source of life that nourishes us, we can learn to access it more fully and more frequently. We can learn how to tap into it, drawing from its riches in ways that enliven our daily life in the world. Now, our culture entices us to run fast across the surface of life, chasing false promises of happiness from wealth or notice or acclaim. But to draw from a deep well of joy, we need to go deep. To pause in the rush that impels us forward, becoming aware and present to a deeper reality. We need every day to spend at least a bit of time in solitude and silence, open and alert to the source of our life who loves us and sustains us.
We do so because it’s crucial for us to discover who we are, and who we are not. We need to remember that our swirling emotions, our scattered thoughts, how we look, what others think of us, what we’ve done or had done to us, our success or failures, how much we’re triumphing or struggling at this moment — those things are NOT OUR ESSENCE! They are not who we are! There is a self, deeper still, untouched, unmarred, undamaged, unbattered by life — our eternal, truest self, a self that is cherished, a self, created in the image of God, capable of being filled to the brim with love and mercy and the peace that passes understanding. And, JOY. Then, once nourished and enlivened, to be sent out with strength and energy to do the work of love and justice and mercy and peace in the world. Drawing, every day, from the joy that is a source of life and strength, both feeds us and sends us to feed others.
So, even in our busy lives, we need to take at least some minutes every day to come before God in silence and openness. Letting the swirling thoughts and feelings fade away while bringing our attention simply to resting in God’s presence, in communion, attentive and alert. We can’t always manage, we can’t always focus, we don’t always connect. That doesn’t matter so much. Over time, engaging in this or other practices begins to form us in ways that enable us both to receive and to give true joy. It begins to condition us to notice joy, to access joy, to live joy. And it’s not a selfish exercise. It is the source of our ability to see clearly, to stand fast for justice, to do acts of mercy, to extend compassion, to face temptations and snares in our path, to energize our witness for peace, without giving up or wearing out! Because we are opening up daily to the underground spring, welling up with life-giving waters of joy.
Now, Joy itself is deep and beautifully complex. Joy includes within it at least three qualities.
First, there is a quality of awe in joy. I remember a night when I was a child, on vacation with our family in northern Maine. One night our parents ran into our rooms and shook us awake, excited and urgent. They led us outside onto the pier extending out into the lake, so we could see the glory of the aurora borealis in the heavens above us. We all stood there, heads flung back, mouths open, awestruck, hardly daring to breathe, filled with wonder at the mystery of all that color and beauty from light years away streaming through the vast universe. Joy, encompassing awe. When have you been overcome by awe that brings forth joy?
Second, There’s also an quality of yearning in joy. Being surprised by joy and yearning to experience more. One day at our church in Ohio, a young woman came in after Christmas, to tell her story. She had not grown up in a church, at all, she said. No Sunday school or youth group, or mission, no worship. But she was dating someone, and he’d invited her to come to the Christmas Eve service. She said, “I had never experienced anything like it. All these different people, all ages, singing together. The readings, and what they said. Holding up our candles in the darkness. I was sitting there (she said) tears running down my cheeks in joy. It was SO wonderful! SO beautiful. And I was thinking, ‘Why didn’t I know about this before now? Why didn’t anybody tell me? So I came in today to find out what I need to do. Because I want to be part of it. I want more.” Joy touches our yearning. Can you think of a time when you were touched by joy and yearned for more?
And, I believe, the quality of yearning in our experience of joy is even bigger than that. The yearning within joy extends to the whole creation. Joy is so wonderful, and yet in this world it is not yet full. And it won’t be full and compete until everyone knows fullness of joy. So the yearning within joy propels us forward toward the time when God’s promises come in fullness, in the triumph of love and justice — for the whole creation and for all people. And the yearning in joy makes us roll up our sleeves in the meantime, to join God’s work in this time of incomplete fullness of joy.
So, Third, there’s also a quality of expectation in joy. Our yearning is carried forward in trusting expectation that the promised fullness is on the way. And cannot be stopped! Joy is rooted in trust and confidence that we and all others and the whole creation are, in God’s great mercy, moving toward the fullness of joy. It’s the firm expectation and confidence that Julian of Norwich in the 14th century proclaimed in the midst of her vision of God’s love and grace: “And all will be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well!”
Isaiah is so rooted in joyous expectancy, so confident of the fulfillment of God’s promises, that he calls for joy even in a time of oppression. The same confidence and trust under girds Paul even in his suffering, so that he can declare: “We are afflicted, but not crushed; persecuted, but not driven to despair.” And he concludes, “We do not lost heart! Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed, preparing for glory.” (2 Corinthians 4)
For Isaiah and for Paul, the joy they proclaimed was both present within them now, and a reality they confidently expected to arrive in fullness. In our era, Martin Luther King Jr. drew from this expectant fullness of joy when he declared, “The arc of the moral universe is long — but it bends toward justice.”
So we live toward what is coming, assured that it will happen, and also participating now in what God is bringing about. Drawing from the never ending underground spring of joy — with awe, with yearning, and with trusting expectancy.
Closing: As we are sent out from worship to engage in our daily lives and the life of the world, we can draw from the wisdom and trust and joy of a child.
One Advent, 30 some years ago, the 3rd grade Sunday school class was as usual reading Bible stories and talking about Advent. So one week they made cards with messages they wrote themselves. Young Patrick Jones came out of Sunday school with the card that he had made. It was eye-catching! Crafted from red construction paper, and the front had gold stars and colorful streamers pasted all over it. When you opened the card it read, in his handwriting, in big bold letters — “God’s promise is still going on.” We can leave with that reminder! In Advent 2018, we are still awaiting fullness of joy, as we anticipate once again the eternal Word of God coming into our midst to dwell among us. But we can take heart! God’s promise is still going on.
All praise and thanks for this wonderful gift! Alleluia! Amen!