A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 18, 2016
Psalm 30:4-5 ESV; Luke 1:26-44 CEB
“Don’t Hesitate,” by Mary Oliver
The words “joy” and “rejoice” are two of the most common words during the Advent-Christmas season. They crop up everywhere. For instance, we find the words joy and rejoice at least five times in the biblical Christmas stories:
The angel to Zechariah, foretelling the birth of Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, “you will have joy and gladness” (Luke 1:14).
Elizabeth’s exclamation that “the baby in my womb [John the Baptist] leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44).
The angel Gabriel to Mary, “Rejoice, favored one” (Luke 1:28 CEB).
The angel to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10).
And of the Wise Men, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (Matthew
And then as you would imagine, “joy” and “rejoice” show up in several Christmas carols:
“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel!”
“Shepherds, why this jubiliee? Why your joyous strains prolong?”
“Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies;”
“Good Christian men, rejoice, With heart and soul and voice;”
“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,”
“O tidings of comfort and joy,”
And then one of the most popular of all, “Joy to the World! The Lord is come:”
You get the picture – Joy and rejoicing are at the very heart of the Advent-Christmas season. So it should not surprise us that the fourth candle of the Advent Wreath would be the Candle of Joy.
Yet, not everyone experiences this radiant joy – this sense of delight or gladness – that is so much a part of the Advent-Christmas season during the month of December, even those who might be expected to be the most joyous. I clipped a cartoon from the Wall Street Journal this past week depicting Santa Claus stretched out on a therapist’s couch and confessing to the therapist, “It’s not easy always being jolly” (“Pepper . . . And Salt,” WSJ, 12-12-16). Perhaps some of us can relate to that. For a variety of reasons, many find the days leading up to the holidays to be the most joy–less days of the year. Financial stresses, from not having money to pay the bills, to no money to buy Christmas gifts for loved ones; less sunlight and more hours of darkness, leading to Seasonal Affective Disorder; missing loved ones who have died, as an empty chair at the table or around the Christmas tree is a reminder of the loss, making Christmas the hardest time of all; and other situations can make for a joy-less Advent-Christmas season for many.
But every now and then, we do well to be reminded that even in some of life’s darkest days and hardest situations, at least some joy is possible. Fellow United Church of Christ preacher Lillian Daniel pointed this out in a recent online devotional. Daniel says, “Don’t promise me that I will be happy. Tell me instead about joy. Happiness is a feeling,” Daniel contends, “brought on by inner and outer circumstances. But joy is a theological concept that speaks to more than feelings or circumstances.” Daniel quotes a Harvard psychology lecturer who observes, “joy is the intersection of deep pleasure and deep meaning. Joy can occur even in unhappy situations. . . Joy is pure grace, a gift that is bigger than our human imaginations and sneaks up on us like a silent friend with a soft should to cry on. Joy is big enough to contain our deeply felt tears,” Daniel concludes (UCC still speaking Daily Devotional, Nov. 30, 2016).
Yes, as Daniel points out, joy can be present even in the midst of pain, sacrifice, or loss. The psalmist of old knew and testified to this when he said, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5 ESV). A good example of this is a funeral or memorial service. When we gather here in the Chapel for a funeral or memorial service, we have suffered a great loss, one of the greatest losses known to humankind. And as we do so, none of us are really happy. But at the same time, most of our funerals and memorial services are also now looked upon as celebrations of life. Even as we gather during our time of grief and loss, there is still a sense of deep, abiding joy for the life that our loved one lived, how they touched our lives, and how they helped make the world a better place. And for many there is joy because of the hope that cherished for some sort of existence or life beyond death.
And yet, I am inclined to think that often joy doesn’t just come to us, whether we are open to it or not. As Daniel points out, “joy is pure grace, a gift. . .” But joy doesn’t necessarily force itself upon us. We have to be open to it. A gift is something that needs to be received and appreciated. As we consider the Christmas stories, Mary had to make herself open to the unexpected joyous news that she – as an unwed teenager – was with child. And the “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” had to be open to the angels’ message of “good tidings of great joy” and make a conscious decision to “go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass” (Luke 2:8, 10, 15 KJV). What if the shepherds in the Christmas story had not been open to the gift of joy – the grace of joy – as it was presented to them? What if the shepherds had hesitated or argued among themselves – It’s too late in the night to go trapsing off to Bethlehem. It’s too cold. I’m too tired. What if they had not been open to the joy? They would have missed out on the greatest blessing ever.
And so, I fear that all too often we miss out on so much of life’s joys because we were too busy, too preoccupied to notice, perhaps too skeptical to open ourselves to the possibilities. And that is why if an experience of joy presents itself to us, we need to be open to it, we need to embrace it, we need to receive it as the sacred gift of grace that it is.
Surely this is one of the most important lessons to be learned in the season of Advent – Seize the joy! when it avails itself to us! And such is why I chose that short reading by Mary Oliver titled “Don’t Hesitate.” “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.” How many times in life have we hesitated in the presence of joy! How many times in life have we ignored joy, been too busy, gone on our not-so-merry way, missing out on the gracious gift of joy as it came to us?
Christmas gatherings with family and friends present wonderful opportunities for us to be open to the joy as it presents itself to us. But let’s just be honest with ourselves: It can be so easy to have the attitude of, “Well, let’s just go and get this family dinner or neighborhood gathering or work office party over and done with.” Anyone care to admit you have been there? But what if we went into such situations with a conscious intent of engaging in some real conversation with someone, or with the determination to be open to some good news that someone might have to share with us, or with the aim of doing some kind deed or saying some kind word to brighten someone’s day. Perhaps if we did so, we might open ourselves to some gracious gifts of joy.
Yes, joy and rejoicing are at the heart of the Advent-Christmas season. Let’s be careful that we don’t get so caught up in the hectic pace, the factors that can lead to stress, and the personality differences we have with others that we miss out on the joy and rejoicing that we sing about. May our fourth Sunday of Advent resolve be that we are going to seize the joy! Amen.