A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on December 12, 2010.
O God, author of all that is good, pure, and just, we have sought the moods promised by this season but we know that our hearts are still wanting. We confess that we have not found peace in our decorations or hope in parties that we have attended. Teach us, today, that for all of our efforts, we alone cannot make what you only can give. Turn us from pride of our assumed self-sufficiency and restore to us the hearts of children. For as your children, we ask from you what we cannot provide for ourselves. Remind us of the promises of this season and give us hope. Drive out despair, and help us to remember that with you all things are possible. Help us to remember that if you are with us, no one, no power, nothing in all creation can be against us. Give us joy. Lift these hearts that are weary with effort. Fill our souls that have been emptied with too many strains upon our lives with gladness. We pray that as you have sent your son into the world to save the world from sin that we ourselves would be prepared to receive Him anew. We pray that the gift of forgiveness would be ever fresh in our lives. Grant us great gladness for the word of forgiveness, and not forgiveness only, but also the promise that we can be delivered. Grant us joy in knowing that our past does not define us in your eyes, but that the promise of Christ helps us have a future with you, a future in which we are indeed part of your family, a part in which the righteousness of Christ stands for our unrighteousness. Help us to claim these promises and today our joy would be complete. In His name we pray. Amen.
Where God reigns, love reigns. And where love reigns, life becomes human, whole, joyful.
–Emil Bruner in Sowing and Reaping
If you have missed the fact that this is the season of joy, you have been asleep for most of the worship service. We hear the message of joy in just about everything. Chances are you have received seasonal cards at your house that proclaim joy, and this is a message that we like. Joy is good.
Hope is good, but if we think about hope for a moment, somewhere in there is the idea that things are not everything we want them to be yet. Right? If we have hope, it is because we are someplace where we are not quite at that point where we want to be.
Peace requires our participation. If we really want God’s peace in the world, there are things that we have to do to participate in them. But with joy, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy joy. Joy is good.
I like to be a student of life, society, and culture. This Sunday of the year when we light the pink candle for joy is always one of those difficult Sundays. I truly and earnestly believe that in our society we really don’t understand the distinction between happiness and joy. I think that is great.
In the Declaration of Independence, we know that the founding fathers of the country talked about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Pursue it we do. The self-help book business usually generates about 750 million dollars of sales a year. Motivational speakers in this country bring in about a billion dollars a year. Then, of course, there is the alcoholic beverage industry that brings in 115 billion dollars a year. It is all marketed on the idea of everybody being happy.
If you think about advertisements for those, you think about ballgames where everybody is having a good time and the team is winning. They never show the person who has had too much to drink at a ballgame and has torn the paper towel dispensers off the wall in the restroom or the person who has gotten into a fight because he had too much to drink and he didn’t like what someone said about his ball club. Advertisements can even make a yard sale fun. Have you seen that commercial? Everybody wants to be happy. We pursue happiness.
Our sometimes misguided pursuit of happiness and the message of Christmas joy get intertwined and people become very disappointed with the season because it didn’t produce the happiness they thought it would.
Let me take a minute to try to distinguish between happiness and joy so we can look at what Luke says about joy. In our culture, happiness is often pursued as its own end. People want to be happy and they try to go after it. People expect to be happy and they talk about deserving to be happy. They do everything they can—they demand, they grab for the gusto, they are going after happiness no matter what. They buy and acquire and sometimes it doesn’t matter what the affect is on their best friends, their marriages, and their children as long as they move towards happiness.
Joy is different. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I deserve joy.” No. have you ever heard someone say, “I am going out and I am going to get some joy today. I am going to do the things that make me joyous.” No. Joy is usually a by-product of something worthy.
If you give a gift and think, “I am going to give a gift because it will make me happy to give it,” you rarely get the response from the other person that you really hoped you would get. It never seems to be enough.
If you give a worthy thing because you love somebody and their response is good, it gives you joy. It is a by-product. It is not what you went after.
Perhaps for some reason you put off getting a degree that you wanted until late in life. You didn’t say, “I am going to work on this degree and it is going to make me happy.” There is a sense of satisfaction that comes from the completion of it and a sense of accomplishment that gives a person joy. People pursue happiness but joy is sometimes a surprise. Maybe we did something that we didn’t expect or something occurred while we were working on something else that was positive and we find ourselves joyous.
Think about a child who learns to tie her own shoes. After a child learns to tie their own shoes, they want to show everybody. When the grandparents come for Christmas, the child says, “Watch me tie my shoes.” They want to show their teacher. It is that inexpressible joy that comes as the by-product of something else. I think that is a distinct difference between happiness and joy. We hunger for happiness, expect it, and demand it, but joy dropped into our lives while we were doing something else.
Another distinction of happiness is that it can occur in a variety of settings, but I think joy requires right relationships for it to be truly joy. I think about that poor man in West Virginia several years ago who won the lottery. It seemed like everything in his family turned to tragedy. His granddaughter died of an overdose of drugs. He was robbed while attending a club he should not have been attending. Everything seemed to go wrong.
Have you ever known a person whose life is built around manipulation, deception, or a grudge who really has joy in their lives? Genuine joy requires the right relationships around us. With this, we look at Luke and we are told that the message of the angels comes to the shepherds. It is tidings of great joy. We can almost quote by heart this scripture. We hear it every year and we long for it. We are looking forward to that Sunday or the Christmas Eve service where this part of the story is read. But this is not the first time nor the last time that joy is mentioned in Luke.
When Mary receives word that she is going to be the mother of the Messiah, she rejoices. In the end of the gospel when the disciples have seen the risen Lord, they returned back into Jerusalem rejoicing. The message of the gospel is joy. Everyone in the Gospel of Luke seems to be experiencing this great and wonderful joy, and not happiness. It doesn’t say tidings of great happiness. It says tidings of joy.
God could say, “Let me make everybody happy.” We all know that none of us could do that but if God wanted to, God could make everybody happy. But God did not say that. God said, “Let me save them from their sins. Let me reclaim what sin has destroyed. Let me take light and life and put it in place of the darkness and death that has come into their lives. God could be an indulgent parent and grant us everything we wanted, but instead he gives us that sense of peace and wholeness and the by-product is joy.
What a poor God we would have if God’s only desire was to make us happy, but God grants us forgiveness. Jesus came to save us from our sins. What we find in that experience and in that sense of letting go of guilt and all the things that constrain us is the joy that we really wanted. Interwoven in all this is the sense of the relationship being right. The message of the Gospel from the beginning to the end is that our relationship with God is made right and brought together.
What is the story of the Prodigal Son except for the one who had been far away is allowed to come back. What is the story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go find the one except a story of reclamation and bringing home? Jesus uses an illustration in Jerusalem like a mother hen which shelters her chicks under her wings. This is what he wants to do. It is the story of the relationship made right. So many times we stand off afar and wait for someone to take the first step. The good news of Christmas is that God has taken the first step and the relationship is made right.
I misled you a little earlier. I said that the story does not say tidings of happiness. The truth is there is no word that simply means happiness in the Greek in which the New Testament is written. There is no word taken in isolation that simply means everybody is happy. The words that circle around happiness all have to do with the relationship with God. There is the word blessed and sometimes where that word is used, instead of saying blessed are you, they will say happy are you. But that is really not quite it. If there were no sense of God’s blessing, that is what produces the happiness. The word joy is always the result of the gift of God. It is related to the word gift. There is no joy without Christ.
I think those of us who would pursue happiness are doomed for failure. If that is our goal, from my own experience and from what I have observed, we fail drastically at that. It just never lasts.
Where the relationships are right, where we are focused on the things that are good and worthy, where we are focused on our relationship with God and Christ, joy comes to us and surprises us. It comes to us in such a way that it has to be shared.
Happiness can be shared. There is no doubt about it. There are good things that happen to us that we want other people to know about. But happiness can also be incredibly selfish. In each of our lives, we can remember times where we did something to be happy that excluded other people or ignored the needs of other people.
Joy requires that things be right from the beginning. Joy requires that, in some way, we take the good that has happened to us in Christ and then want other people to have the same experience.
As we look at our theme for the year, “Now That I Believe,” how could we come to Christmas and experience something in our lives that we would describe as joy and not want other people to have it, too. Now that I believe in Jesus Christ and because I have met the child of Bethlehem, I spread joy. I spread the word of Christ. Because God has extended grace towards me, I extend grace towards others. If my relationship with God has been made right, I want to make my relationship right with other people. As I have been forgiven, I want to be forgiven.
Have you seen the bumper sticker, Christians aren’t perfect—just forgiven? I think sometimes we should put on there, Christians aren’t perfect—just forgiving. If we have been forgiven, we also forgive. It is part of spreading the joy of Jesus Christ.
Hope is nice. That is good. We all long for peace. But joy wells up within us. Joy satisfies. Joy somehow lifts us. Joy must be expressed. If you try to snuff it out and hold it to yourself, it is not the same thing. As a matter of fact, if you do that, maybe it is not joy at all.
Now that I believe, I can experience the joy of Christ in my life that is greater than happiness, longer lasting, more enduring, and more satisfying, and I will share it with others.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.