The events in Sandy Hook Elementary have taken the nation by surprise, and have wounded us deeply. The darkness seems overwhelming, the lights dim and distant. The Third Sunday in Advent, which we celebrated this week focuses on the idea of joy. This week was a difficult week to be joyful, and I wrestled as I worked on the sermon this week with what we could say about joy as the nation mourns a tragedy. I wish my words had been more eloquent and I were better able to convey how joy can still be present even in the midst of tragedy. My sermon for this Sunday on Philippians 4:4-7 and Zephaniah 3:14-20 is found at the bottom of the page, but I wanted to post the thoughts and meditations of a few others who I felt were better able to articulate what it means to believe in God when things happen in our world that are unbelievable.
This letter comes from Max Lucado, a pastor in San Antonio and author of many books and Bible studies: http://maxlucado.com/read/blog/a-christmas-prayer/
Here is a sermon that I found powerful, it’s by the former pastor of the church I grew up in in Austin: If This Is Good News, I’d Hate to Hear Bad News.
And finally, here is my sermon from Sunday, December 16th, 2012.
Rejoice in the Lord. Always
Today is a difficult day to be talking about joy. There was another shooting this week, this time in an elementary school, and more than 20 are dead, many of them young children. The civil war in Syria drags on, and the success of the Egyptian revolution hangs by a thread. Holiday stress is overwhelming, and the lack of rain adds layers of worry onto our faces. During weeks like this I can feel part of myself wishing the Mayans were right, and that the world would end on December 21st, just so that the world would not have to bear so much sorrow.
Joy is the subject of the Third Sunday in Advent. Our reading from Philippians tells us, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” The prophet Zephaniah proclaims from his place in the Judean court, “Rejoice in the Lord with all your heart!”
But today joy seems hard to reach. Reading and watching the news this week has been heartbreaking. And closer to home, we all have our own tragedies, our own difficulties. We may be going through something ourselves, or we may be watching a partners, friend, or child go through something painful, which is much harder than we expect. When tragedy strikes, when something happens that turns our world upside down, joy is hard to find.
Now Paul knows what it’s like to have his world turned upside down. On the road to Damascus he was struck blind, and spent three days wondering if he would ever see again. Years later, he writes to the Philippians and tells them, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and being in need.” In other words, Paul knows sorrow. He knows pain. He knows difficulty. At Ephesus he was beaten to within an inch of his life. But yet he tells us anyway, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Always. He says to rejoice all the time, when we are full and when we are hungry, when we feel uplifted, and when we long for a comforting word, a healing hand.
Now joy is often confused with happiness. Many confuse the two, because someone who is joyful is often happy, but they are not the same. Happiness is a feeling, that often comes to us when something goes our way. We feel happy when we receive a present, or when we wake up in the morning and see an inch of rain in the rain gauge. But joy, instead, is a state of being. It does not pass when we see that someone else’s present was bigger. It does not diminish when the it doesn’t rain again for three weeks. Joy is something deeper than a feeling. Joy is a reality. Happiness is dependent on outward circumstances. But joy is something inward, constant.
The comedian Stephen Colbert doesn’t seem to take anything seriously. His satiric on-air persona seems to stop at nothing to get a laugh. But what many people don’t know about him is that Colbert is a deeply religious man, and that his faith has helped him through difficult times in his life. When Stephen was ten years old, he lost his father and two older brothers in a plane crash. It was his faith that got him through his loss. He still carries a card with him that that a priest gave him. It says, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” He goes out to do his show every night with the same goal on his mind, to “teach joy, the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
When Paul tells us to rejoice, he isn’t saying to celebrate because the world will arrange itself to make us happy. The reason he tells us to rejoice always is that the Lord is near. We hear the same thing from Zephaniah: “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” There is no need to fear disaster when we know that God will carry us through it. There is no need because God has come to earth, God is here in our midst.
The heart of the Advent season is waiting, waiting for God-made-flesh to come into our lives. The coming that we wait for, and that we celebrate through the season of Advent is three-fold. We are celebrating that God came in the past. Almighty God took on weakness and came down and walked among us in flesh in the form of Jesus Christ, because God wanted to be with us. In Advent we also celebrate that God will come again in the future. When Jesus came down he promised to return in glory and set right that which is wrong about our world and bring God’s kingdom here to earth. And finally we celebrate that God is coming in the present moment. Here and now among us, God comes to be close to us, to be present to us. Past
What we have to be joyful about today is that God is with us. When we are on our best behavior, God is near. When we are on our worst behavior, God is near. When we are happy, God is near. And when happiness is nothing but a distant memory, God is even closer.
Martin Rinkhart was a Lutheran Pastor in Eilenburg, Germany during the Thirty-years war in the 1600’s. In 1637, Eilenburg was full of refugees and surrounded by the Swedish Army. Famine and pestilence plagued the city, and people were dying by the dozens. There were only four ministers in the city of Eilenburg. One left for greener pastures and refused to return. Rinkhart buried the other two when they succumbed to disease. As the only minister left, Rinkhart did 40 to 50 funerals a day. In all he performed more than 4,000 funerals, including one for his wife, who died that May. But somewhere within the suffering all around him, including his own, he wrote this hymn:
Now thank we all our God,
With hearts and hands and voices
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices,
Who from our mother’s arms
Hath led us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
In the midst of war, disease, death, and loss, Martin Rinkhart wrote a hymn of joy.
Being joyful is not about praising God because our lives are going well. If that is the root of our joy, it rests on shaky foundations. Good things in our life are merely signs of God’s love. In any given day, they can disappear as quickly as they come. The real blessing, the real joy, is the love itself. If we get too attached to the signs, we can lose our grasp on the God who gives them. We’re not joyful because we are blessed. We are joyful the Lord is near even when our blessings are slipping away.
The joy that Paul and Zephaniah are telling us about is not something that is dependent on how our lives are going. It is not transitory, based on the blessings that help us to know that we are loved. It is a joy which is based in the knowledge that whether we feel it or not, the love is still there. Our joy is in the belief that God has come, is coming, and will come. Our joy is that God is in our midst. The promise of the incarnation, the promise that we celebrate each year with Christmas, is that God is present even at our worst moments, even at the most difficult times. So even as things are falling apart, and sorrow stands before us, hope is nowhere to be found, we still have much to rejoice in.
We rejoice that the God who came down in the flesh to be with us, is still with us here today. God holds our hands as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. God walks with us through the difficult moments in our lives, and loves us until we have the strength to move on. We rejoice that we have been promised a return, that Jesus will come again and deliver us from our enemies, free us from our bondage. He will rejoice over us in gladness, and renew us in his love. So let us rejoice in the Lord always, again Let us say rejoice. Not because we are happy, not because we’re happy, and not because things are all right with the world, but because even though they are not, the Lord is still near.