Joyful, joyful, Lord we adore thee...
Joy to the world...
These are the proclamations carolers and choirs sing surrounding this season, and it is for good reason. As a parent of three small children I recently heard a new Christmas song on our favorite cartoon, Phineas and Ferb. In a twist of irony, the villainous Dr. Doofenshmirtz sings a lament named I Really Don’t Hate Christmas, a song about how about how not even he, an evil mad scientist, can hate Christmas. I honestly can’t think of any other holiday that brings so much joy to the entire world.
Joy is the focus for this third week of Advent. Joy, as it is traditionally defined, is an emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying. Children are conduits for joy, finding and sharing it many places that we as adults forget to look. Very few things are able to make more people smile than the sound of a young child laughing. At an after church event a few years ago my youngest son, Rhett, began laughing uncontrollably. A small crown began to gather and soon everyone within ear shot was laughing as well. (I caught the last of it on video, click here and see if you don’t find yourself laughing as well!) But, as with all emotions, the laughter stops, the joy begins to fade, and we find ourselves looking for that next joyful experience only to realize that upon finding it, it too will soon subside.
Such is the nature of all emotion. Our emotions ebb and flow. God designed us to experience the full spectrum of emotion; joy, anger, sorrow, even boredom are all part of God’s plan. God has a desire for you to find and experience Him in all the highs, in all the lows and in all the spaces in between. We tend to spend so much of our time seeking joy that we miss some of the big lessons that can be found in sorrow. The Psalms are full of examples of the author crying out in sorrow and in praise. So much so, that a colleague of mine and I once discussed if King David may have had a mood disorder. (My conclusion is that David, like many musicians, was deeply connected to his feelings and that he used music and poetry to work those emotions out, but was otherwise mentally sound.) Psalm 6:6-7 is a prime example of David in a low point in life.
I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.
How much worse can it get? Being worn out from his groaning, flooding his bed and couch with weeping and tears., this is obviously a low moment for the king, but these moments didn’t rule over David’s life. Compare those five lines with Psalm 8
1 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.
2 Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
5 You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet:
7 all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,
8 the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
9 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
There is quite a difference between these two works, the first describes a man at his lowest, the latter finds the same man barely containing his elation. Many people who often struggle with the spectrum of emotions ask some serious questions: Does it really have to be this way? Why can’t we just be happy or joyful all the time? Because we need the contrast of our emotions in order to fully comprehend them.
I had the pleasure of playing football from fourth grade until my junior year of college when injury and a desire to graduate on time ended my career. I experienced undefeated seasons, blow out wins and losses, edge of your seat thrillers, and come from behind victories. But perhaps the sweetest win I ever experienced in all my years of playing football came in my senior year of high school, the year of my worst record in football where we went 1 and 9. What made that one win so sweet? Simple, it was the nine losses. It was the fact that no one thought we could win because we hadn’t all year. It was the bitterness of those losses that made the victory so sweet. That was where I learned the joy of just playing the game whether or not the outcome was in my favor. Of course I still hated (if the word hate is strong enough) losing. But I learned it really is how you play the game, those who disagree, who only focus on winning may have some serious self esteem issues. On some of the teams that had a stronger record, the wins were just expected. Of course we would win the game, we were the better team, we worked harder, and made fewer mistakes. Winning was the only option available in our minds, losing was what other teams did and was far from our minds. We were above that.
Advent is a season where we reflect on the extremes of the emotional spectrum. The first week is spent reflecting on hope. Hope is confident expectancy that something good is going to happen. It comes with the assumption that we still remember what it is like to cling to hope, to be completely at the mercy of someone else to come to our rescue. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred German pastor and theologian said it like this:
“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes ... and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”
Sometimes I wonder if some long time believers even remember what life was like before their conversion experience. Or maybe they have always grown up in the church and can’t remember that lost-without-Christ or hopeless experience. It is almost like God being for them and working things to their good is taken for granted, as if they subconsciously are thinking “Of course he does, look at how awesome I am.” The beginning of Advent asks us to figuratively put ourselves in the darkness for a time, to try to imagine what life would be like apart from His love and grace. If we can do this we are soon reminded of the truth found in Romans 3:23, that all are fallen, and come short of the glory of God. And in Hebrews 11:16 says that without faith it is impossible to please God. If you can picture yourself without that saving faith, doomed in your sin struggling in futility to be “good enough” on your own then, soon you can begin to remember what it is like to cling to hope, to be surrounded by the darkness knowing nothing you can do on your own could ever fully pull you out. But then you also recall the moment where you see a light, then a hand that reaches down to lift you up, arms that embrace you. And as you are confronted by the fullness of Christ’s love and holiness you confess your dependance on, need of, and belief in Christ as Savior. Then, best of all, you know that you have been rescued.
For Christians, joy is the celebration of the realization of hope. It is when we find ourselves in the middle of the greatest trials of all kinds and we are not in complete despair. Rather we find ourselves, through God’s grace, embracing His promise to never leave us or forsake us. Deep in our hearts we know that the reality of God’s love is more powerful than our present situation. Through faith we know he will come through, he will keep his word and will continue to be our Redeemer mending broken hearts and healing shattered lives. A most beautiful example of this was recently shared with me by my grandfather.
Four years ago, my Grandmother passed away. It was painful for us all, but as her life long husband the pain for Grandpa was much more difficult to bear. When we have sat together reminiscing about her. He retells much of the story of their courtship and of the early days when they first started the church they pastored together for over 50 years. The memories are sweet but they only punctuate her present absence. I will never forget her funeral, it was a packed house, as a pastor’s wife and long time school teacher she was a dearly loved woman. There were several speakers, there was music, and there was something else there that isn’t usually associated with funerals. It was joy, a unique brand of joy I have only seldom encountered. It was palpable and seemed to be shared by all in attendance, and it defies all common logic. Who goes to the funeral of one of the most substantial people in your life and walks away feeling... happy?
Our hearts were broken, our spirits rent, but there was knowledge brought on by our most certain hope that one day we will be reunited with our Lord. She will be there as will other loved ones. No matter how bad it gets here on earth we hold tightly to that promise. We also know that the blessings of the Lord are not merely for another world after this life, they are for the here and now. Isaiah 61:1-3 says it well:
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.
We know this to be true, we have had these experiences. Grandpa recently told me that when he starts to get down, when he pines for her the hardest, his mind drifts to that funeral for comfort. Of course he remembers so much else of the time he spent with her but it is the funeral that brings him hope. That hope brings him comfort and joy as he dreams of the reunion to come. As Christians our joy is not fully attached to emotion, although it is often expressed that way. It is an attitude, a confidence, it is deeply tied to our faith in Christ as Savior knowing that we are not only saved later at the end of life, we are saved now. Living this type of faith life is how we flesh out John 15:9-11
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
This Christmas take time for joy, not just the feeling but the attitude and assurance that comes from living in Christ. This assurance is the gift of God, the promise that if we will only believe, we will have salvation. Now that is something that should make you happy!
Grace and Peace,