Below is a revised version of my sermon from this past Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent.
Years ago a friend of mine—who is typically not the most emotionally expressive—said this: “I party on the inside.”
I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us who are Christians party on the inside. That is, we don’t naturally express our emotions. We’re not effusive. If we’re feeling especially joyful, it might not show on the outside.
Once a Presbyterian pastor made sure everyone in church had a helium balloon. Knowing his congregation was not outwardly expressive, he told them to release their balloon during the service at the moment they had a sense of inner-joy. Eventually, people began letting go of their balloons. By the end of the service most of the balloons were on the ceiling.
Are we joyful? If I had handed out helium balloons, would they all be on the ceiling by the end of the service?
I might be wrong, but I sometimes wonder if of all the Advent themes—hope, peace, joy, and love—joy is the most difficult one for us to actually experience.
We look at the world, at the kinds of difficulties we and our loved ones experience, and joy seems impossible. Joy seems unrealistic. Or dishonest. Or even unfair. Who are we to be joyful when there’s much wrong with the world?
Let’s be honest: a lot of the time we tend to focus on negative things than on positive things, on what we can complain about rather than what we can rejoice over. What does it mean, then, to experience joy here and now, in our lives, whatever else is going on?
Last week we talked about how God is a God of peace. We talked about how our God never panics and is never overwhelmed by fear. But did you also know our God is a joyful God?
Listen to these words from Zephaniah 3:17: The Lord your God is among you, a warrior who saves. He will rejoice over you with gladness. He will be quiet in his love. He will delight in you with singing.
So what do we see here? God rejoices over his people with gladness. He delights in his people with singing. God’s love for you leads him to rejoice over you, to take delight in you, and to sing because of you.
And that’s not the only place in Scripture we see this. Consider Jesus’ parable of the lost coin from Luke 15:8—10:
Or what woman who has ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found the silver coin I lost!’ I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.”
Again, do you hear what Jesus is saying here? When God finds and saves a lost sinner, he rejoices. And there is joy and celebration in heaven in the presence of all of the angels.
Maybe think of it this way: God loves to throw a party. God loves to celebrate. And to do so because he redeems and restores, he heals and he saves, he rescues and delivers, and all of this because he loves us.
So: experiencing joy is possible because we have a joyful God.
We don’t worship or serve a God who is sour and dour. We don’t love and follow a morose Savior. We have a God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who is joy. The delight he has known from all eternity within the triune Godhead, he pours out on us. He wants us to experience the very joy that he is.
Have you ever thought of God as joyful? And that God rejoices over you, celebrates and takes great joy in how you trust him and love him and seek to live for him? What do you think about this? And doesn’t it bring you even a little bit of joy?
Maybe we still think: “I don’t feel joyful. There’s too much to be upset or worried or sad about.”
After the people of Israel had returned from exile—a devastating time of darkness and despair—and had begun to put things back together again, Ezra the priest read the Law of Moses to the people. In Nehemiah 8:9—10 we read this:
Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all of them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go and eat what is rich, drink what is sweet, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, since today is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, because the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Upon hearing the Law, the wept. They took the Law of the Lord seriously. However, Ezra and Nehemiah and the other leaders told the people not to mourn or weep. William MacDonald describes the scene this way:
“The people’s tears showed that the message was taken seriously (v. 9). They were right in taking the Word of God seriously, but they did not need to be overwhelmed by grief. The feast was not for weeping but for rejoicing. Only one occasion for mourning and fasting was found among Israel’s feasts, and that was the Day of Atonement. The rest of the feasts were to be kept with joy and celebration. The fruit of the Spirit was to be visible: love, in sharing with the less fortunate; joy, in eating and drinking before the Lord; peace, in calming their fears and putting their hearts at rest. Their sadness was turned to joy, and the joy of the LORD was their strength.”
Experiencing joy is possible when we celebrate God’s work in our lives.
And maybe that’s a good word to think about when we’re thinking about what it means to experience joy: celebrate.
To celebrate means to do something special or enjoyable for an important event, occasion, or holiday; to praise someone or something; to say that someone or something is great or important; and to perform a religious ceremony.
We see some of this in our passage from Nehemiah. We also see this in the parable of the lost coin. Celebration! Maybe we need more of that!
Here’s the thing: if we want to experience joy, we have to practice joy. It’s not always about waiting to experience joy. Sometimes it’s about cultivating joy. About doing things that remind us why we should be joyful.
Think of the word rejoice. When I hear that word I think of a few things. I think of thanksgiving. I think of blessing. I think of celebration. And, of course, joy. To rejoice is to rehearse our reasons for joy. It’s to practice being joyful. And we do this to train our hearts and minds to be more consistently aware of why we can be joyful.
Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen once said: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
That’s why the people of Israel had regular feasts and celebrations. They had scheduled times for rejoicing! They needed reminding and so do we.
Think of the words from Nehemiah. The joy of the Lord is your strength. The joy that is at the heart of our God can also be ours. Who God is and what God does is our greatest source of joy.
And having God as our source of joy means we can experience joy even when circumstances aren’t what we want them to be. Taking joy in who God is and what he does gives us strength—strength to keep trusting, strength to face difficult situations, strength to keep praying, to keep serving Jesus, to keep going day by day.
What are some simple and small ways you can celebrate who God is and what God does? How can you remind yourself that our God is a God of joy and that he our greatest source of joy?
In Philippians 4:4 Paul says these seemingly impossible words: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
This is not a suggestion. It’s an exhortation, a command. And remember that when the Lord tells us to do something, he does so for our well-being, so we can grow in our faith, draw nearer to him, and be more and more transformed into people whose attitudes and actions are not altogether determined by our circumstances.
I think we have an obligation—a holy responsibility, actually—to be people of joy, to live like people who worship a joyful God.
I think our world needs people like us whose joy, happiness, contentment, and peace is not determined by what’s going on all around us, by the bad news we hear or the trials and troubles we face.
I think we need to be people of joy because so many people are discouraged, tired, fearful, and worried.
I think we need to be people of joy because we need to take our eyes off of what’re struggling with, what we can’t control, and put our eyes on Jesus, our Lord, our Savior, God with us.
Put simply: experiencing joy is how we share the joy of the Lord.
Where do you and those you love need to know the joy of the Lord? How might you bring some of that joy into the situation? How can you help others experience the joy of the Lord?
One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Here is one of the verses:
O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high, And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.
I think we need to pay attention to these words. These words are a prayer, are they not? And listen to that refrain: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.
Theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said: “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Advent is a season of hopefully waiting, of entering more deeply into God’s peace, of reflecting on the meaning of Jesus as God with us; and of joy. Joy that God has come to us in Christ. Joy that he seeks us out to forgive, to heal, and to rescue us. Joy that we are more than our circumstances. Joy that is at the very heart of God himself.