Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of FirstBaptistChurch in Rome, Ga., on December 13, 2009.
Look down upon thy servants with a patient eye…recreate in us the soul of service, the spirit of peace; renew in us the sense of joy.
—from Prayers Written at Vailima by Robert Louis Stevenson
In each of the Sundays of Advent, we have been working our way through the season by looking at aspects of different periods of our congregation’s 175 year history. For the sermon on hope, we looked at the Great Depression, a time when people throughout the country, including members of this congregation, were in need of hope.
Last week, we looked at 1864 and the dire days of the Civil War and the affect it had on us as a community and as a congregation.
Today, for the third Sunday of Advent, we look at the idea of joy. You can tell from looking at the bulletin cover that we are thinking about the 1950’s, a time that many people living today think of as the “good ole days.”
The 1930’s were a time of being deprived and being without, not because you wanted to be but just because it was that way.
The 1940’s were a time of sacrifice. If you were in the states, everything that you wanted seemed to be rationed. We hear parents, grandparents, and others talk about how they did without sugar, gasoline, and many other things. If you were involved in the military, sacrifice takes on a brand new understanding. Many who went to Europe and the Pacific gave their lives. There are many in this congregation who have family buried nearby who were lost in World War II, and there are others who sacrificed parts of their life in that war.
As we came to the end of the 1940’s, there was so much effort to bring people home to end occupation in the places where we had won and everybody was trying to get their legs back underneath their lives. By the time we got to the 1950’s and the Eisenhower administration, the wheels were rolling in the country and things were better. Lives were improving. There was a great sense of possibility. All of the things that people began to acquire, do, have, see, and enjoy just changed, it seemed, overnight.
You may be too young, but you can ask someone in your family if they remember getting their first electric refrigerator in the 1950’s. Almost everybody I know remembers getting their first television in the 1950’s. My maternal grandparents in the hills of West Virginia got their first indoor plumbing in the 1950’s. My grandfather was superintendent of schools but they were far off from many things. After raising five children in a two-bedroom house that probably was not much better than the pulpit platform in FirstBaptistChurch, they got indoor plumbing in the 1950’s. Jobs and households seemed to thrive. Churches thrived in the 1950’s and so did First Baptist.
In the late 1940’s, the grand Bunyan Stephens retired as pastor, and in 1950, a young and vivacious man, Forrest Lanier, came to be pastor. Forrest Lanier began a two-decade boom that included my predecessor, Floyd Roebuck, into what is really the modern era of this church. It was people looking for a place to belong, serve and worship in the 1950’s that really shaped who First Baptist is as a congregation today. The modern era of First Baptist’s 175 years begins in this particular time. This sanctuary was built in the late 1950’s because of the growth that began earlier in the 1950’s. If we were to look for a period where someone in your family came to this congregation, probably in the 1950’s your grandparents or parents or in-laws became a part of First Baptist.
If you read the passage from Isaiah 61, this roughly parallels the experience of the United States and this community after World War II. It is almost a psalm. It is a song of praise about what was once desolate has now been restored and things are good. If you notice in verse 3, it says, “To provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” Then in verse 4, “They shall build up the ancient ruins. They shall raise up former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities and devastations of many generations.” It is a psalm about recovery. It is a psalm about what has been desolate. What has been depressed is now recovering. God is at work among the people and they find themselves experiencing great joy. The watch word of the prophet who writes this is joy. Joy all throughout.
I have confessed before, and will confess to you again, that one of the hardest things about the Christmas season for me is to try to explain joy. If you have studied a foreign language, you know that many nouns often have gender to them, either a female noun or a male noun. We don’t have that in English, but we do have concepts that seem one way or the other. I have tested this with people and said, “Hope. Male or female.” It is generally neutral. Peace is generally neutral, but when you get to joy, people often respond that joy seems to be a female concept. How do you explain the concept of joy to a broad group of people that contains both male and female Christians who have set through Advent year after year that they have not heard a hundred times before? As I thought about it, I determined that we really do get pleasure, happiness , and joy confused. They are not the same thing, but how do you tell people what the difference is?
I thought I would take a risk and show you a visual aid this morning which probably will not look like much to you, but I am going to explain it. Here is my visual aid. Orange is pleasure. Green is happiness. Dark blue is joy. This first chart is a chart of righteousness. If you start down here with less righteousness and move all the way up here to doing God’s will, you find that down in the less righteous area, you have pleasure. Just like we mentioned last week about peace, it is impossible to have immoral peace. Can we really have joy as we understand it as Christians with God granting us that sense of goodness and well being if the things that we are participating in are immoral—not righteous? We have people who constantly look for pleasure and are doing things that provide them pleasure. This could be any number of things. It could be drinking or sex in an irresponsible relationship. It could even be something as sick as some of the things we see on Law and Order SVU. You get the idea. When there is no morality in it, it can be pleasure but it is never going to end up in joy. It is only as we move down the scale and do the things that are righteous, noble, honorable, and good—things that reflect the will of God in the world—will we come to the place where we can have joy. We might pass through happiness but only then do we get to joy.
Here is my second chart. This chart represents investing yourself. Down here is low investment of yourself and up here is high investment of yourself. Pleasure requires no investment. It doesn’t really require you to do anything that puts yourself into it. You go out, buy a lottery ticket, and win and you get a lot of pleasure. Within 13 weeks, the lives of the people who win the lottery are back to the exact same mood that it was before. You would think that winning the lottery would bring you a lot of joy, but there is no investment in it. You just buy a ticket.
Watching television can give you a lot of pleasure. That was a funny show. That was a great game. That was a great movie. But it doesn’t require you to invest anything, does it? Has anybody ever woken up one day and said, “My life is so filled with joy because of my TV. My TV just gives me great joy”? No. It might give you pleasure. It might even give you a little bit of happiness because you have a 52-inch screen with high definition, but there is no investment with yourself. There is no investment of giving yourself to something. Down here, you may train for a marathon or a number of other things, but the more we invest ourselves, the more likely it is going to move us down the scale from simple pleasure to joy.
Now for my third chart. The third chart starts as selfishness and moves to service. It starts with being only concerned about yourself and moves to being concerned about God and others. Do any of us find lasting joy in focusing on things we want for ourselves? Do any of us find a feeling of goodness and well being that truly goes beyond a season that shapes our lives when we are focused upon ourselves instead of being focused upon others?
We keep trying to do the things that keep giving us pleasure and we wind up with all these joyless pleasures that we keep doing over and over and over again, thinking that somehow if we add them up and multiply them that they will end up as joy, but it never works that way. Do you really think you are going to go to a Christmas party ten times during the month of December where the dominant activity is drinking and end with up with joy? Do you really think you are going to have a sexual conquest with a different person several times over the holiday season and think you are really going to end up with joy? No. Do you think we will always do these things and try to satisfy our desires and our needs and end up with a life that is colored by God’s blessing in joy? The answer is always no, and we end up with all these joyless pleasures and we cannot figure out what is going on.
Listen for just a moment to Isaiah. Jesus quotes these words in Luke 4, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Isaiah is invested in the mission of God in this world. He does not focus on himself. He doesn’t say, “Oh, I am so happy I won the lottery.” He is invested in the cause of God. It is not strictly a life trying to seek pleasure but it is a life in which the spiritual presence of God is dominating and he is invested in it.
He says, “For I, the Lord, love justice, and I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” These are part of that sense of righteousness. This is where the joy comes from. “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord and my whole being shall exalt in my God for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation. He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” All of these things are the things of God. They are not about simple pleasures. They are not about trying to satisfy ourselves over and over and over again with these things that leave us so joyless. But they are the things that start in the heart of God. They are the things that we invest ourselves in because God calls us to be a part of his work. Our lives reflect the character of the baby who was born in Bethlehem. These are the things that make for joy: salvation, righteousness, and service.
The title of the sermon today is Sometimes Call for . . . Joy. The truth is that every time calls for joy. Doesn’t this time in our lives, in the lives of our nation and community, call for joy? If we think that joy is only going to come if the economy rebounds, and if we think joy is only going to come if we engage in repetitive acts that give us pleasure for a moment, we are just kidding ourselves.
Joy comes in a child in a manger who calls us to look beyond ourselves to a world in need, to invest ourselves in the things that God loves, to give our hearts to the kingdom and to the mission that the child has come to establish. If we will do these things, joy will be ours in abundance, not for a particular time but for eternity.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.