A Sermon for Sunday, December 16, 2018 (My Final Sunday at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, Duluth, GA)
The Third Sunday of Advent, Isaiah 12:2-6 and Philippians 4:4-7
This time of year comes with many rituals in our family—decorating the tree, giving Katie and Davis a new ornament, pulling out all the beloved children’s books to read at bedtime, eating lots of goodies, drinking tasty eggnog, listening to festive tunes, and watching holiday movies. The last item is my favorite activity, especially after the kids are in bed and Elizabeth and I are sitting cozily in our living room amid the glow of Christmas lights. Of all the merry-themed films, the one I must see every season is the modern classic, Christmas Vacation.
The story revolves around the misadventures of Clark Griswold and his family as they prepare to celebrate Christmas. Clark is a kind-hearted, naïve bumbler of a guy who attempts to make the holidays perfect for his family. However, no matter how hard he tries to achieve his goal, everything turns into a disaster—either because he’s overdone it or due to the ineptness of some of his relatives.
For most of the film, Clark bounces happily along, determined to make the best of the situation. Then, on Christmas Eve, following an evening of blunders—dinner featuring an over-cooked turkey and JELLO-molds with cat food; the dog Snots chasing a squirrel through the house and Uncle Lewis accidentally setting the tree on fire with his cigar—a delivery man arrives at the home with an envelope containing what Clark believes is his traditional yearly bonus. Clark immediately tells everyone that the money will cover the down payment on the family’s big Christmas gift—a brand new pool. But when he opens the envelope, Clark discovers that instead of a bonus, it’s certificate for a free year’s membership to the Jelly of the Month Club.
This unexpected news causes Clark to snap and go on a tirade that prompts the rest of his family to grab their coats and head for the door. But a crazed Clark is not about to give up as he delivers one of the all-time greatest holiday rants (which I’ve slightly edited):
Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny flipping Kaye. And when Santa squeezes down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of jerks this side of the nuthouse!
The holidays are not so jolly and joy-filled in Clark Griswold’s home, no matter how much Clark tries to enforce it upon everyone. If we’re being honest, the holidays aren’t completely full of joy in real life either.
“Joy” is, of course, a primary theme of the Advent and Christmas seasons. We see that three-letter word on cards and decorations and hear it through the music streaming on our smart phones. Yet experience teaches us that “joy” is often allusive, especially in December.
Many people encounter inflated expectations, family tensions, loneliness, depression, grief, and sudden crises during a time in which society expects folks to constantly be cheery and bright. It’s not acceptable to be a Scrooge or get on Santa’s naughty list, we’re told repeatedly through nauseating Hallmark ads and cheesy Christmas specials. To all of this, I say, “bah humbug!”
Feeling blue and lacking merriment is completely understandable and ok right now. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
And even if you’re not dealing with one of the life challenges I just mentioned, simply processing the news about the brokenness of our world is enough to make you sad and joyless.
“Joy,” often seems to be beyond our grasp. And yet the mystery of “joy,” according to the Rev. Holly Hearon, is an invitation to further explore it’s meaning. She writes:
The allusiveness of joy invites us to pause and reflect on what it is we are seeking when we speak of joy. Is it an emotional high? A state of perpetual happiness? An absence of conflict? Or does “joy” represent hopes that have become little more than a seasonal habit
It appears that during this period in which we prepare for Christ’s birth, we’ve somehow confused joy for sentimental pleasantness. We’ve managed to convince ourselves that having “joy,” or being joyful, means everything is wonderful and grand, and our worries and fears quickly melt away. We’ve mistaken the tidings of comfort and joy from the angels hovering over the shepherds’ fields to mean that we shouldn’t feel sad during the holidays.
That’s not exactly what the angels or God or Jesus or the biblical writers had in mind when they spoke of “joy.” Today’s passage from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians explores “joy” in relation to the life of faith. As Hearon notes:
To “rejoice in the Lord always” points to a “joy” that is not only enduring but that sustains us even when we are worn down by life challenges. This requires something more than seasonal cheerfulness. It is a “joy” rooted in an ongoing relationship, built on trust, that is able to negotiate the moments of joylessness in ways that ultimately work for good. Critical, here is relationship: our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but also our relationship in community.
Hearon points out that Paul isn’t implying that everyone always agrees or gets along: “Rather, he is reminding us that each of us has a role to play in creating the supportive relationships that are the foundation of “joy” and a cause for “rejoicing.” Paul encourages readers in 4:5 to:
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 made known to God.
The Greek word for gentleness is “epieikes” (epy-a-case) which is defined as tolerance— “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom.” Thus, demonstrating “epieikes” is to “recognize we have a choice in how we behave toward others,” says Hearon. “It is not just about being nice or kind; it is about the exercise of power. … To choose not to exercise power, or to exercise it differently, requires self-awareness and humility. This is the power of Christ. It is in this way that Paul says we are to engage everyone.”
Joy. Being joyful. Rejoicing—none are just about being nice or kind or happy or pain-free.
Two of the world’s most influential religious leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, remind us of such through their abiding friendship and incredible outlook on life, which is chronicled in their collaborative work, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureates who have endured the hardships of exile and violent oppression, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama understand the true nature of joy.
In their book, both men insist that joy and sorrow are inevitably fastened together. They describe a kind of joy that is defined by self-understanding, meaning, growth and acceptance, including suffering, sadness and grief. Archbishop Tutu says:
We are fragile creatures, and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy. Life is filled with challenges and adversity. …Discovering more joy does not save us from… hardship and heartbreak. … Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.
Joy is not the absence of suffering. Joy is the thing we find which helps us to live with and get through our hardships and heartbreaks. Joy is all about those ordinary moments of life that help us know there is something beyond ourselves, a glimmer of hope amid the gloom:
The man who steered his partner, seated in a wheelchair, toward the communion table.
The men and women who sang praises to God last Sunday morning.
The wife who forgave her husband with a kiss on the head after he’d been a grump over the weekend.
The parents who held each other close as they watch their young daughter respond well to the treatments she’s received in the hospital.
The teenager who wrote a beautiful reflection on social media about how she misses her deceased father but is happy for every moment she was able to spend with him.
The people who will gather in the sanctuary this afternoon for a Blue Christmas service to honor the tension between joy and grief and afterwards, break bread together at a local restaurant.
Joy is deep appreciation for the extraordinary hidden in the ordinary. The prophet Isaiah imparts this message to the people of Israel after the Babylonian Empire banished them to the wilderness. Using a song of praise and old language reminiscent of Israel’s experience with the God of the Exodus, the prophet proclaims the Almighty’s good works is ever present in their moment of distress. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,” the prophet declares. “Sing praises to the Lord for the Lord has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy!”
Joy is in the community of Israelites who hold close to each other and God’s promises of salvation, pressing onward despite their exile. And joy is in all communities where dependence on others is highly valued. As the Dalai Lama said during his conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
Taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life. …We are social animals. Even for kings or queens or spiritual leaders, their survival depends on the rest of the community. So therefore, if you want a happy life and fewer problems, you have to develop a serious concern for the well being of others.
In response to His Holinesses’ wisdom, Tutu added:
“Joy is the reward, really, of seeking to give joy to others. When you show compassion, when you show caring, when you show love to others. … You have a deep joy that you can get in no other way. …You suddenly feel a warm glow in your heart, because you have, in fact, wiped the tears from the eyes of another.
God comes into this messed up world as a bundle of joy—a small, poor vulnerable baby who giggles and coos and screams and poops like all other babies. God draws near with “joy” so that we can witness “joy” up close and personal together, and so that we can go out and share joy—share compassion and love with others.
Seeking to give joy is our calling as Christians, as God’s creations, as God’s servant leaders. It is my calling as an ordained minister and it has been my calling as one of your pastors at Pleasant Hill for the last 10 + years.
We have shared so many moments of joy that to name everyone would have us here till this time next Sunday. So, I will attempt to mention some of them—the extraordinary experiences hidden in the ordinary work of ministry, a joyful compilation of the greatest hits:
Mixing cement and swinging hammers on adult mission trips; playing with children in third world countries; and clumsily knocking over the wall of a latrine that the mason had just built in the Honduran village we visited in October.
Wrecking the side of the old church bus at The Varsity on my first youth group trip downtown while the vehicle was full of middle schoolers; attending numerous faith-shaping, messy and wonderous Montreat youth and college conferences, and youth mission trips.
Youth Sunday. Mental Health Awareness Workshops. The Blessing of the Animals. The Lil Pantry. The Family Promise Host Weeks and Bed Races.
Worship. Church school. Bible studies. Weddings. Funerals. Sharing meaningful conversations, laughter and tears. Having my children baptized and seeing them raised and nurtured in their faith. Working alongside some of the finest pastors and staff that I know.
My time here and with each one of you, even on the hardest of days, has been filled with immense joy because of the love and care you give to people within and outside these walls, including me and my family.
Friends, may you continue to let your gentleness be known to everyone you meet, regardless of the hardships and the heartbreaks.
And may you rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, Rejoice!
The Lord draws near with “joy.” Be ready to receive it and pass it on.