Courage to Be Joyful

Kevin Boteler

Texts:

Luke 3: 17-18
Zephaniah 3:1-4
Philippians 4: 4-7
Isaiah 12:2-6

I feel like each of my teachings begins with the saga of how I got to this point.  But, in this case, I do feel it is relevant to my message.

When David Dorsey gave me the choice of several Sundays to bring the teaching and I picked this Sunday in December, I did so without first looking at the lectionary or stopping to think which of the Advent Sundays it was.   I was excited once I realized that it was the "joy" Sunday, as I often feel joy.  How hard could it be to talk about something with which one is familiar, right?

Wrong.  As I began to think more about joy in the context of this community and the state of the world, I realized how problematic it is to try and tackle this subject even in the midst of a holiday season that is supposed to be all about "joy".  As I thought about the emotion of joy, I realized that the factors allowing me to feel joy are fairly unique and that others have a much more difficult time finding or feeling joy.  I realized that my ability to frequently feel joyful was due to two things:

  • Years ago, as I grappled with depression, I developed the ability to focus pretty narrowly on the things I can control.  I became very good at compartmentalizing and not paying much attention to what was going on in the world beyond the things that would impact me and those close to me.
  • I have been blessed with some unique experiences that make it very easy for me to appreciate many things in my daily life.  Things as simple as just being able to walk outside and see a beautiful sunset can bring me great joy.

When I thought about speaking to you about joy, I became deeply aware that my experience with joy is probably not the norm and became quite intimidated.  A hallmark of this community is your compassion.  Not only do you connect to the world beyond yourselves and your close circle, you do so with incredible compassion and sensitivity.  I listen in community prayers to the deep pain you feel because of what is going on outside these walls – whether it is this neighborhood, our city, or the innocents being impacted by the war in Yemen.  I know that, as you consider the frightening developments in the world--whether the current president or the increasing impacts of global warming--some of you believe that we are very close to the end of life as we know it. 

I think about these things and I’m humbled as I realize how difficult it must be for many of you to feel joy.  As I have prepared this teaching, I’ve even felt guilt that I do so often feel joyful.  I’m deeply grateful to an amazing friend who helped me accept that this isn’t a bad thing.

So, how do we find the courage to be joyful in the face of increasing pain and suffering and, perhaps, a looming apocalypse?  I think scripture should always be our initial resource for figuring out how to deal with the challenges of life, so we’ll go there first.  But we’re blessed that some very wise people have talked about how we should approach the challenge of joy amidst despair, so we’ll draw from those resources as well.

Three of the four passages in today’s lectionary scripture overtly speak about joy.  The gospel passage doesn’t seem to have much to do with joy, and we’ll look at that in a bit.  But as to the other three:

  • First, we have a selection from Zephaniah, a prophecy book from the time of Josiah, the last great king of Judah.  The book itself is focused on judgment against Judah and the nations, but the passage in today’s lectionary speaks to salvation from that judgement.  The word “rejoicing” is specifically used in the context of God rejoicing over Israel with singing (Note: God feels joy, and God is a singer!) – but the entire passage, especially the lines about God delivering the lame, healing the outcast, and changing shame to praise certainly create a sense of joy in the reader as well. 
  • We move to the “psalm” reading, which in this case is a reading from first Isaiah. This reading is again about salvation, but in this case the joy is ours as we “draw water with joy from the springs of salvation”
  • The Epistle selection says a lot in a very few words.  The middle sentences could be easily used as a pretty good way to live our lives: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.”   But before those life instructions, Paul tells us to rejoice—not once, but twice.  And the last sentence tells us that this combination of rejoicing and living our lives in gentleness and prayer will bring to us the peace of God.

At least in these three passages, the Bible tells us that:

  • God feels joy.
  • That we will have joy
  • And that rejoicing should be a part of our life as followers of Christ

A cynic might say that, since it is the Advent Sunday focused on joy, the coordinators of the lectionary worked to find scriptures to support the theme.  That might be true, but they didn’t have to work very hard.  The words “joy”, “joyful”, and “rejoicing” appear 532 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  In contrast, the words “pain”, “suffering”, and “sadness” appear 188 times.  If we add grief, that count increases to 226.  So it is almost two and a half times as easy to find references to joy than to pain, suffering, sadness and grief. 

That same cynic might say, “but the references to joy today center on salvation and on living an idealized Christian life.  They don’t speak how to have joy in the face of the kinds of issues we face in the world today.”  But we have only to turn to the passage from Habakkuk on which we focused in the contemplative service a few weeks ago to find joy amid trials: 

“Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
            and there’s no produce on the vine;
        though the olive crop withers,
            and the fields don’t provide food;
        though the sheep are cut off from the pen,
            and there are no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the Lord.

Even with my ability to find and feel joy, I’m not sure that I could easily find joy if I had a non-blooming fig tree, no olive crop, no sheep and no cattle.  But in the midst of bleak times, the writer of Habakkuk rejoices.  And if we studied the other instances of joy and its derivatives, we would find many other situations in which joy or rejoicing are used in the same passage as life and world events that aren’t in themselves joyful at all.

We also find examples of joy despite challenge from the examples and writings of very wise individuals.  In his book Community and Growth, Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, writes about Celebration as an essential part of community:

“Celebration expresses the true meaning of community in a concrete and tangible way.  Celebration sweeps away the irritations of daily life: we forget our little quarrels.  The aspect of ecstasy in a celebration unites our hearts; a current of life goes through us all.  Celebration is a moment of wonder when the joy of the body and the senses are linked to the joy of the spirit:

While we in the 8th day community know better, many in the world at large would look at the significant challenges faced by many of the members of L’Arche communities and wonder how individuals with such challenges could possibly feel joy.  Yet celebration—a vessel for joy—is a central part of the L’Arche community.

In my preparation for this teaching I was made aware of an amazing book titled The Book of Joy.  It is an account of a week-long series of meetings and conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  To refresh our memory:

  • The Dalai Lama was identified at the age of two as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama and thus became the political leader of Tibet and the spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists.  Trained from that early age in Buddhist principles of connection with all living creatures, he was forced in 1959 to flee for his life because he presented a threat to the communist Chinese; he has lived in exile ever since.  Imagine someone with that deep connection to be separated from his people and to be forced to watch their systematic oppression at the hands of a totalitarian power.  Not exactly a recipe for joy.
  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the Anglican Church in South Africa during the apartheid regime.  He watched his people – his flock – treated as third-class citizens.  Many of his close friends were assassinated or murdered.  Again, we would not necessarily associate “joy” with a life that had so many challenges for so many years.

But these men, spiritual leaders in both the true and titular sense, not only speak about joy, they devoted a week of conversations to it.  They speak of pain, suffering and despair, but they also speak of the existence of joy even in the face of those challenges.  They focus on hope and cite examples of things improving in the world even in the midst of the many things that seem to be getting worse.  I was also struck by their reminder that we can’t find joy solely within ourselves – that true joy only comes from helping others.  Since those of you in 8th Day have spent lifetimes helping others, you need to remember that you have seeds of joy galore.  I highly recommend this book--especially to those of us struggling to find joy. 

We have touched on how joy is addressed in three of the lectionary scriptures and we have looked at spiritual leaders who claim joy during and despite significant challenges.  But what about the gospel passage?  What on earth does John the Baptist’s tirade to a crowd who showed up for a celebrity sighting (at least in the telling of The Message translation) have to do with joy? 

It might help to remember the context of the times.  That crowd was probably made up of largely of Jews whose homeland was occupied by a foreign power.  They were living in subjugation, following a religion in which there had been no prophets for centuries.  Imagine living in a faith that promised deliverance and salvation to a people oppressed both politically and a generally hardscrabble way of life, only to have centuries of silence on the subject.  They didn’t have Donald Trump (although they did have Herod) or global warming, but it can’t have been easy to have hope.  John the Baptist gave them hope, but not for free.  John made it clear that deliverance only comes through the hard work of getting their lives straight.   

Hope, maybe.  But where’s the joy?   To find the joy I think we need to look at the end of the passage.  Notice what happens after all that hubbub: After John has called the crowd a brood of vipers and called on them to repent and then given them hope that the Messiah might be coming after all.  What does he do next?  He goes out and preaches the good news--the gospel. 

As we think of Advent--this time of waiting to celebrate the birth of a child who would fulfill the prophecies and finally bring salvation--we need to remember that is only through that birth that the gospel--the good news, the source of greatest joy--is possible.

I’ll close with a story illustrating that the way in which things come together in positive ways in my life can only be through the work of the Holy Spirit - that so many things happen for me at the right time cannot be explained by coincidence.  So it was in preparing for this teaching. 

Over the past weeks I have been participating in the School of Christian Leadership class about Christian Community.  Mike Brown has done a wonderful job in bringing in speakers from both within and outside our community, and last Sunday Ann Barnet and Fred Taylor spoke to the class about how they came to Church of the Saviour and 8th Day.  Mike gave them some questions to guide their discussion and--you guessed it--the last question was “What brings you joy’.  Thank you, Mike.

Fred’s answers to the question were so profound, that I could have just repeated them this morning and you could have started the Christmas party much sooner:

  • Paul tells us that the foolishness of the Gospel is a synthesis between joy and tragedy
  • The next two years might very well might give us greater turmoil than the last two.  But we need to remember that the call to Joy is greater than tragedy
  • We need to help each other get a perspective other than “ain’t it awful”
  • And we need to remember that, in the back and forth between joy and tragedy, the last word is joy.

We live in a world that seems to be out of control; we feel like we are surrounded by broods of vipers.  But there is still a place for joy because of the child whose birth we anticipate and celebrate. That child—our Christ, our Messiah—produced the ultimate source for joy: the good news of the Gospel.

Just as the Gospel is the focus of the last part of today’s reading from Luke, let us always remember that the last word is joy.