A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 21, 2014
Luke 2:8-14 KJV
“When you wish someone joy, you wish them peace, love, prosperity, happiness – all the good things. “ Thus contended the late author, poet, and activist Maya Angelou.
“Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,” Luke has the angels say to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. In Luke’s story and worldview, the angels are ambassadors of joy—the greatest joy the world would ever know—as they brought news of the greatest gift that to the world had ever been given. For Luke and the early Christians, the long-awaited One sent by God who was destined to change the world had been born in a lowly manger. Nothing but angels—divine messengers sent from above—would do to share such joyous, earth-changing news!
As we consider the biblical Christmas stories and many of the beloved Christmas hymns, we find that joy holds a prominent place. “Joy to the World!” may be one of the most beloved Christmas hymns of all. Likewise, the angels fill a prominent role—in both scripture and hymns—as the ambassadors of this great Christmas joy. But all throughout this Advent season we have been trying to think about angels of hope, peace, love, and joy from a contemporary perspective. Who are “angels of joy” today?
Perhaps you have heard about the anonymous donor who every year drops a valuable coin into a South Florida Salvation Army kettle just before Christmas time. A mysterious benefactor has been giving the valuable coin for several years now. Usually the coin is worth over $1,000. The donor has already blessed the Salvation Army with this year’s anonymous gift, with an estimated value of $1,500. And although South Florida may be best known for the anonymous holiday gifts, similar anonymous donations—copycat donations, perhaps—show up in Salvation Army kettles at cities across America, which might include a valuable coin, a diamond, an expensive ring, and so on. Such anonymous donors might even be termed “Angels of Joy,” since the gifts they share bring joy to so many people.
Then this past week there was a story in The Washington Post about an anonymous donor who paid off all the layaway accounts at a Target store near Bellingham, Massachusetts. Described as a bubbly older woman, she walked into the store and paid off in full the more than 150 layaway accounts, totaling about $20,000. Reportedly, the woman offered the store manager a hug and said, “If you have it, give it.”1 Another ambassador of joy. Other “copycat” layaway payoffs have followed.
Such recent acts of generosity remind me of a retired couple who attended a church we served several years ago. One day Bob surprised the heck out of me by leaving an early Christmas gift—a check made out to me—in the mailbox at church. Because of the size of the gift, I was concerned that Bob might be on the verge of senility and didn’t really realize what he was doing. So I diplomatically mentioned the large financial gift to his wife, who assured me that Bob did, indeed, know what he was doing. You see, Bob and his wife had moved to Middle Tennessee from a little place out west called Silicon Valley, where Bob had done quite well. Bob’s wife related to me how that her husband took great joy in going to a Dollar General or some such store just before Christmas, searching for people that he thought might be struggling and in need of a little help. To such people Bob would walk up and put a $100 bill in their hand and walk off. Bob took great delight in being an ambassador of joy.
But there have been other angels or ambassadors of joy in our lives, as there may have been in yours as well. One does not have to be a wealthy benefactor in order to become an ambassador of joy to others. And such joy doesn’t have to include a financial gift.
Which leads to the question, Just what is joy? We need to be careful that we don’t mistake pleasure for joy. In the scriptures, the word translated “pleasure” often means “gratification of the natural or sinful desires.” The meanings often associated with “joy,” on the other hand, are rejoicing, thankfulness, grace; something more of a spiritual nature. There are many things that we might find pleasurable, such as a wild weekend in Las Vegas. It is true that sometimes pleasure and joy may overlap. But one may experience pleasure without there being any real joy present. And one may likewise have an abiding, inner joy void of any sense of pleasure.
The Apostle Paul is a good case in point. Paul, imprisoned and near the end of his life, wrote a letter to the church he had founded at Philippi. In that letter he said to the believers in the beloved Philippian church, “I love you and long to see you, dear friends, for you are my joy . . .” (Philippians 4:1 NLT). I am sure Paul didn’t take much pleasure in being chained and lying on a cold prison floor. But in spite of his bodily deprivations and suffering and absence of what we might think of as pleasure, he could speak of an inner joy that comforted him.
Dr. Billy Graham tells of what he terms “one of the most delightful Christians” he had ever met, a minister who had been an international tennis champion. For some reason the minister had been imprisoned some years before. But after only a week, his captors threw him out of prison. When the minister asked his captors why they were throwing him out of prison, they replied, “Because a prison is supposed to be a jail, an unhappy place, but you’re making it a happy place!” The minister explained that he was only teaching the Bible and praying.2
So a pertinent question as we near the close of this Advent season is, In what ways do we experience true, lasting joy? Who has touched our lives in such a way? Who in our life’s journey have we longed to see because they brought so much joy to our lives? Became angels or ambassadors of joy to us?
Members of this United Church have been ambassadors of joy to our family, perhaps without even knowing it. Back when our family was in the midst of crisis with our daughter being in the hospital and our granddaughter being in ICU for weeks on end, those of you who came and sat with us, who provided food for us, who sent dozens of “thinking of you cards,” sent gift cards to our daughter’s family, showed your concern by asking how things were going, and displayed other acts of kindness—you became angels of joy to us. Even in the midst of human suffering and crisis, you became our joy. As Paul indicates, people who are close to us, who have loved us and stood by us during times of trial and tribulations, people who make our lives heaven on earth—such can be for us angels of joy.
One week ago, the Oak Ridge Community lost what many might classify as a true angel of joy because of the tremendous joy he brought to so many people. Tim Myrick, who died following a year-and-half battle with cancer, has been known and admired far and wide for his volunteer and humanitarian efforts. He worked on every Habitat house that has been built in Anderson County—59 in all. He worked ardently for ADFAC. He was a big brother. He was involved in Living Waters for the World, a ministry to provide clean water for impoverished places around the world. He went on eight American Red Cross disaster assignments. He was involved in the rehabilitation of the Manly Hospitality House at Methodist Medical Center. Awards and honors bestowed upon Tim include the Starfish Award, Muddy Boot Award, Rotary Club’s Vocational Service award, and most recently, ADFAC’s Bill Wilcox Bow Tie award. But I think one of the most telling indications of who Tim was is the fact that he retired from ORNL at the age of 50 in order to “devote himself to full-time volunteer work.” One of Tim’s close friends described him as one of the most wonderful servants of God he had ever known. To borrow a phrase from that movie, As Good as It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, Tim Myrick was one of those persons who make all of us want to be a better man. Yes, Tim was a true angel or ambassador of joy. Oh, that the world might have more like him!
In the words of Bengali (beNG’ gale) poet, Rabindranath Tagore (re’ bindre’ nat tag’er), “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” During this Advent-Christmas season, we express our deepest gratitude for all those angels or ambassadors of joy who have touched our lives in so many ways. May it also be so that such angels of joy motivate us to become better men and women, as we seek to devote our lives to spreading joy as well. Amen.
1Sarah Larimer, The Washington Post, Dec. 12, 2014. 2Billy Graham, Just As I Am. P. 612.