Thursday, December 17, 2009
Singing For Joy
Singing For Joy
Zeph 3:14-20; Isa 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7
I must confess that I approach this sermon with some degree of “fear and trembling.” With all my “confessions” about how I’m not a big fan of the way we “celebrate Christmas,” I’m afraid that one more might get me tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail! After all, who doesn’t like Christmas?!? But then, of course, I do have my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek with all these “confessions.” So I’ll risk just one more “confession”—I’m not a big fan of the whole decorating thing at Christmas.
You know the routine: you climb into the attic or rummage through the garage to find all those dusty boxes you packed away last January. And since it’s been a while since you packed them away, you have to really rummage around to find them all—which means you get covered in dust and cobwebs. Then there’s the fear—the nagging fear that you may have misplaced Grandpa’s antique Christmas tree ornaments with the colored water that bubbles or Great-Grandma’s hand-made Christmas stockings. Once you find everything, then you have to go through all the lights to find the one bulb that’s keeping the whole string from not lighting. Then you have to climb up and down the ladder to get them hung on your house. Of course, you have to make at least 2 trips to the local hardware store to replace missing items. And when you finish, you stand back to admire your work and notice that once again this year your neighbor has managed to outdo you!
Then you move indoors to—the tree. And of course, once again this year you have to revisit the debate about a live tree versus a fake one. And then there’s the debate about size—five feet, seven feet, or nine feet. And then you have to search through your (still mostly dusty) boxes to find all the tree ornaments that didn’t get lost or broken last year. And when you’re done, you stand back to admire your work, and you notice out of the corner of your eye—yep, you got it: once again this year your neighbor has a taller, fuller, more handsomely decorated tree in the middle of the huge picture window right out front. So yeah, I’m not a big fan of the whole decorating thing at Christmas. Now, again, I realize that for many of you decorating is one of things you like best about Christmastime. There’s just something about all the color and the light of decorations that brings a little happiness to us all! But there is a difference between happiness and joy. I know, it’s become a cliché to say it, but I think it may be a useful cliché. Happiness lasts as long as whatever it is that makes you happy lasts. Maybe a little longer, but not indefinitely. Joy, on the other hand, is something that lasts no matter what the circumstances may be.
I’ve already made it clear that I am a big fan of Advent. One of the things I like about Advent is that it’s the season of joy. As I’ve already said, it is a time for waiting in stillness, and it is a time of looking for the fulfillment of the promised salvation. But it’s also a time of “singing for joy”! The prophets looked forward to the day of the Lord’s coming as a time of great joy. Yes, many of them, like Zephaniah, also envisioned it as a time of widespread devastation and judgment. But even Zephaniah, who has been called the “gloomiest” of the prophets, did not give devastation and judgment the last word. Even Zephaniah kept the last word for joy—joy over the Lord’s presence, joy over renewal and restoration, joy over coming home (Zeph. 3:14-20). That’s one of the things I love about the message of the prophet Isaiah. While Isaiah does have some “gloom and doom,” as a whole he looks forward to the Lord’s advent as a time for joyfully shouting, “Surely God is my salvation” (Isa. 12:2)! Isaiah looks forward to the Lord’s coming as a day when the people would drink their fill of salvation like someone drawing fresh water from a well. It would be a day of great rejoicing.
I think it was this very hope that made it possible for the Apostle Paul to write the words we heard from his letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). If you knew something of Paul’s circumstances when he wrote that letter, you would probably be surprised that he could express such joy. To say that he was not in a place that you would think conducive to happiness would be an understatement. At best, he was confined under house arrest. I’m not sure we’re capable of imagining what the worst case may have been for someone like him sitting in a Roman jail. And yet, St. Paul could say, “Rejoice!” You may wonder what he had to rejoice about in that situation. Well, he tells us—he rejoiced over the assurance that “the Lord is near.” I think there’s a dual meaning in that: Paul rejoiced because he looked forward to the Lord’s coming, but he also rejoiced because the Lord is always “near.”  And I think Paul had experienced the Lord’s constant presence in his imprisonment. And so he could say, “Rejoice!” I think in a very real sense, the Apostle Paul carried the joy of Advent with him wherever he went—even in a Roman jail.
Advent is the season of joy. It is a time for waiting in anticipation. It is a time of looking for the coming of the Lord, for the fulfillment of God’s promised restoration, for the peace that overcomes all violence and the love that makes all our hatreds evaporate like the morning mist. You might think that focusing our attention on what we long for but do not yet have might be a cause for discouragement rather than joy. But in my opinion it is that very act of watching and waiting and looking for the coming of God that inspires great joy. It inspires us to “Shout aloud and sing for joy, … for great in your midst is the Holy One” (Isa. 12:6).
 © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/13/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit (Oct-Dec 1995):17. She says it is in the “wilderness, in that empty-handed I-give-up surrender that joy is most likely to occur.”
 Joanna M. Adams, “Toward Home,” The Christian Century (Dec 12, 2006): 18.
, 17, says, “Joy happens when God is present and people know it.” Taylor
 Cf. L. Gregory Bloomquist, “Subverted by Joy: Suffering and Joy in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” Interpretation 61 (July, 2007):274-75.
 Cf. Huston Smith, “Reasons for Joy,” The Christian Century (Oct. 4, 2005):10-11. He says, “As Kierkegaard noted, if at every moment both present and future I were certain that nothing has happened or can ever happen that would separate me from the infinite love of the Infinite, that would be clearest reason there is for joy.”