Shout for Joy
Synopsis: Holiday cheer can be forced and turn a blind eye to the suffering in our lives and in our world. But, according to pastor Barbara Gerlach, “There is another joy—deeper than the good times and bad times that life metes out, stronger than our best attempts and sorest failings—a joy that lifts us when we cannot lift ourselves.” This is the kind of joy expressed by Isaiah and Paul. Such joy is my wish for us and our church during this Christmas season and beyond.
Last Sunday I confessed that John the Baptist makes me uncomfortable because I’m a rather comfortable guy. I said I’d prefer to preach a nice, uplifting Christmas sermon rather than one from the assigned lectionary passage on John. Yet, I recognize that the task of a prophet is to comfort the afflicted and the afflict the comfortable. It’s good for me to feel a little afflicted.
Our lectionary Scriptures for this fourth Sunday of Advent, in contrast, focus on shouting for joy because God is our salvation. I’ve been waiting to preach this sermon! We’ll want to notice the seemingly contradictory link between shouting for joy and John’s call for repentance and for our world to change—spiritually, economically, politically, and socially. Both are tied to the dream that Isaiah saw. As pastor Barbara Gerlach explains:
I have little patience for the blind joy of those who fail to see the sufferings of the world. I am skeptical of those whose joy seems forced, happy no matter what befalls them. But there is another joy—deeper than the good times and bad times life metes out, stronger than our best attempts and sorest failings—a joy that lifts us when we cannot lift ourselves, a peace that grasps us and returns us renewed.
Like Barbara, I’m dubious of a Pollyanna approach to life that ignores the hard stuff. And I want to know more about that deeper joy. As some of us were recently talking after church, we pondered why counselors’ offices and doctors’ offices are most busy following the Christmas and holiday season. Some of you may have better explanations for that than I do. I’m guessing that holiday cheer may be forced for lots of people.
Afterall, it is right at the dead of winter, during winter solstice when the sun is lowest in the sky. Those dark days feel gloomy. That’s why we bring in Christmas trees and decorate our houses with lights. At our extended family gathering last week in Pennsylvania, one in-law who hates winter was telling me about how eager he is to get out of here and head to their vacation home in Florida.
Another reason our holiday cheer may be forced is because our work and family gatherings can be depressing. They confront us with how strained and unhappy some of those relationships are. I’ll admit to being one of those people who can only be with certain relatives for so long before feeling the need for lots of fresh air. Then I get down on myself because I’m feeling bad. I tell myself I need to be more charitable. And I don’t want to vent all that on Ruth during the drive home.
I wonder. What’s the difference between a somewhat forced holiday cheer and the kind or joy that Barbara Gerlach’s talking about? She says its “deeper than the good times and bad times life metes out, stronger than our best attempts and sorest failings.” It appears that such joy, like love, is a deep emotion and yet is more than feeling good or being happy. She describes it as “a joy that lifts us when we cannot lift ourselves, a peace that grasps us and returns us renewed.”
One aspect of such joy is the giving and receiving of gifts at Christmas. At it’s deepest and most profound level, such gift exchange mirrors our loving God who graciously and freely showers us with all the good gifts of life. Giving and receiving gifts is an expression of our love for each other. I haven’t always been as good at this as I could be and I’ll admit that Ruth is better at it than I am. Let’s put some thought into this. Buying gifts can’t take the place of loving and supportive relationships. It really is the thought that counts. Ruth and I talk with each other about gifts we will enjoy. Ruth also talks with the parents of our grandchildren about gifts they will enjoy.
A number of years ago we decided that we don’t want to give our grandchildren lots of Christmas gifts. We will instead give each of them one nice gift. Then we set up a college scholarship fund for them that we donate to each month. We knew their parents would appreciate it. Now, as our grandchildren get older, we’re pleasantly surprised by how much they love getting their yearly report at Christmas time showing how much their college fund has grown. It makes them feel grown up and valued and it teaches delayed gratification in a good way.
I don’t want to take away from a child’s sheer exuberance at receiving a much wanted gift under the Christmas tree. None of us wants to miss the joy and the excitement on a child’s face as she or he tears off the paper to reveal the much anticipated gift. I love the exuberant picture of people shouting, running, leaping and turning cartwheels that I found in one of my worship resources and put on our bulletin cover. It reminds me of the infectious joy of children at Christmas time. It’s also such an apt depiction of Isaiah’s exclamation, “Shout aloud and sing for joy . . . for great it your midst is the Holy One of God.”
Notice the trajectory in the book of Isaiah. It begins with a gloomy commentary on Judah’s troubles because of their internal failures and an armed invasion from the neighboring country of Assyria. It culminates in Isaiah’s vision of a future peaceful kingdom beginning with a meek and righteous ruler from the stump of Jesse and culminating with his dream of a future when the lion will lie down with the lamb.
Then comes the Scripture passage in our lectionary for today beginning with “Surely God is our Salvation! We will trust and not be afraid!” and ending with the exclamation, “Sing and shout for Joy, O People of God! For great in our midst lives the Holy One of God.”
Paul’s letter to the Philippians follows a similar trajectory. He’s writing from prison and things couldn’t be much worse. Still, he expresses thankfulness and joy for the steadfast faith and growth of the church in Philippi but he’s also concerned about certain issues and conflicts in their fellowship. Like Isaiah, Paul places his trust in God and this is the source of his joy. Barbara Gerlach explains:
Our deepest joy lies not in our circumstances, but in God. . .. To know the joy that comes from God is not to be carried away in blissful happiness, but to be strengthened and deepened in our love for the world.
Yes, we live in a pessimistic, callous and cynical world but that isn’t anything new. The Roman Empire, in which the early church lived, was also like this. In vivid contrast to such pessimism, our living hope is anchored to our trust in God and our dream for a new world coming. Furthermore, our world’s pessimism and lack of hope feeds corruption and violence—motivating people to “get what’s mine.”
Let’s conclude by considering the relationship between joy and hope. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that our hope creates present happiness. “Expectation makes life good, for in expectation [we] can accept [our] whole present and find joy not only in its joy but also in its pain.” That’s what Isaiah and Paul were able to do as they encouraged their people during difficult times. I love the way Paul expresses this, beginning with the exhortation, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
We refuse to be victimized by our problems, even if we’re sitting in jail as Paul was. People experience our gentleness. Our joy and forbearance is our witness to the watching world. We sense Christ’s nearness. Paul could have meant this in two different way. He could have meant that we experience Christ’s presence in our lives and in our church fellowship. Or he could have meant that Christ will soon return. Advent season is all about anticipating Christ’s coming.
Such joy is possible because God’s peace stands watch over our hearts and minds. We don’t need to anxiously scan the horizon for new threats. Alert, yes; anxious, no. Isaiah’s dream of a peaceable kingdom inspires our imaginations. This is my dream for our church in the coming years and the years ahead. As in that wonderful song “The Dream Isaiah Saw” sung by the Washington Chorus:
Nature reordered to match God's intent,
nations obeying the call to repent,
all of creation completely restored,
filled with the knowledge and love of the Lord.
Little child whose bed is straw,
take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
knowledge, wisdom, worship, awe.
 As quoted in Imaging the Word, vol. 1 (Cleveland, Pilgrim Press, 1994), 86.
 As quoted in Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 56.
 Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 72