Last Wednesday, I wore a Christmas pin. I know Christmas was over, but the Christmas season—the twelve days of Christmas— actually goes through Epiphany, which was Friday and which we celebrate today. And so I wore my Christmas pin. It is a very simple manger scene with the word “joy” on it. I have worn it before, but on this day, I was surprised by the number of people who commented on it and said how much they liked it.
As I reflected on it later, I realized that it was not so much the pin they liked, but the “joy.”
Joy—it is something everyone wants, but not many people seem to have.
Every week in Bible study, we share joys and concerns to be offered in prayer.
There are always many more concerns and sorrows than there are joys. Why is that?
We live in a somewhat sad world, a world that knows despair, depression, and dissatisfaction; we are longing for things that never come to pass, searching for something to make us happy.
That’s what the retail market is based on—providing things we can buy to make us happy. But no matter how big the toy, how expensive the gadget, how amazing the technology, still we yearn for more, for happiness.
Happiness is related to happenstance, which is a word that basically conveys the idea of chance. Happiness is that which you really can’t plan and program; it may happen, it may not happen, and it seems so elusive. It is related to the delight or the satisfaction that is tied to an occasional happening, a chance circumstance.
On the other hand, when we talk about joy, it’s not something that’s related to chance circumstance at all. We’re talking about a deep down confidence that all is well, no matter what the circumstance, no matter what the difficulty, no matter what the problem. And that’s very different from happiness.
Our church went through a process of New Beginnings last year, to discern who God was calling us to be and do. After many small group discussions and the work of many people who compiled all of the data, the Session adopted a new mission or what we understand as our invitation to the world:
“Come, just as you are, find the joy and inspiration you seek, become the person you were created to be.” There was much discussion about the words, but the one word everyone agreed had to be in it was: joy.
Joy is the one thing that people most want, but have such a hard time finding in the world.
Come, just as you are to Community Church, and find the joy you seek.
So, where can people find this joy we promise? Where do you find joy?
The first place is in the Bible.
The verb “to rejoice” appears 74 times in the New Testament.
The noun “joy” appears 59 times in the New Testament.
It’s part and parcel of Christian experience.
Joy is a narrative thread of our story of faith—from the beginning.
"In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)
God sent Jesus as a gift—the gift of good news of great joy. Joy is a gift from God—for all the people.
But how was the joy received by the shepherds?
Two ways: First, the angel said, “Do not be afraid.” That is, let go of fear and joy will find its way in.
Joy is related to God. Joy is that which becomes yours in Christ. Joy is a permanent possession of every believer, not some whimsical delight that comes and goes as chance. We’re talking about joy; much, much different than happiness. Joy takes the place of fear.
I read a definition of joy that is powerful: joy is the flag that flies on the castle of the heart when the King is in residence there. Joy is the flag that flies on the heart when God is in residence there. I love that, and that’s really it. Since Christ was born unto us and into our hearts, we can know true and lasting joy.
But what if fear has gotten the best of you and is preventing you from feeling the joy in your heart?
The angel said the second way to receive God’s gift of joy is simply “See.” Look and you will see.
The two Scripture readings for today are very different—one from Old Testament, one from the New. One a prophecy about light and one a story of wisemen following a star to Jesus. Yet, they have two things in common: both readings talk about joy, and how they found joy was by looking up.
Isaiah writes: "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Lift up your eyes and look around; Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice." (Isaiah 60:1-6)
In the Gospel of Matthew, we read: "In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, 'Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.' When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy." (Mathew 2:1-12)
How do we find joy?
We let go of fear—we give it to God. And we follow the lead of Isaiah and the wise men to look up.
When we look up and see the wonders of God’s ways, we cannot help but be overwhelmed with joy.
I am in a group of women from our church and community called Fortnightly who meet monthly on Mondays over the lunch hour to present papers on a topic. This year the topic is the Pittsburgh Bicentennial. We have presentations on Pittsburgh’s sports, industries, arts, music, community outreach, etc. Last month, Merle Culley presented on the architecture of Pittsburgh throughout the last 200 years. Despite the fires that consumed large parts of the city, buildings were re-built and thanks to people’s dedication to preservation, many historic buildings stand majestically today. Merle shared how she met with the architect of Point Park University, who is working hard to refurbish old buildings for the college, rather then tear them down and build anew. She was struck with the beautiful detail of these old buildings, when he pointed them out. As she stood there in awe of what she had not noticed before, he said, “People don’t look up enough.”
People don’t look up enough. I think that’s true. Not just at buildings, but beyond.
We don’t look up enough to lift our eyes to the hills and the heavens, from where our help and our joy comes…
So how can we look up?
My best suggestion is to follow the lead of children. They naturally look up.
About 3.5 years ago now, I met with the Pastor Nominating Committee of this church. They were good people from a good church, but I still wondered if God was calling me to serve here. That night, there was a terrible storm while we talked. As we drove away, the rain stopped and skies cleared. Brian asked, “Well, what do you think?" I said, "I am still not sure. I wish that God will send me a sign.” My daughter Rebecca said, “Mom, Look up.” When I looked up, I saw a double rainbow, bigger and brighter than any other rainbow I had ever seen. I knew then God was calling me to serve this church. And I was filled with great joy.
When we look up, we see beyond our fear and our failures, beyond our disappointments and despair, beyond our longings and our limitations. We see reminders that God is still in control, at work in the world. And that brings us deep joy.
This Christmas I received a letter from a friend who admitted that she was very sad and despairing about what this new year might bring for our country, and she was looking for joy. Her 85 year old mother offered to her these words which she shared with us from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, through God who loves us.”
I would add, Joy is ours through God who loves us.
You just have to keep your eyes open to see it and your heart open to allow the joy that is already there to be rekindled.
Desmond Tutu also said:
“Children are a wonderful gift. They have an extraordinary capacity to see into the heart of things and to expose sham and humbug for what they are.”
On Christmas Day, about 50 of us gathered here for worship. Instead of a formal sermon, I had an informal conversation with folks about the sights and smells and sounds of Christmas. I did not choose the hymns for the day, I let the congregation choose their favorite Christmas carols. At one point, I asked if anyone had a favorite Christmas carol to sing, I looked up and I saw a 4-year old raising his hand enthusiastically. I called on him. James said, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I wondered for a minute, “Can we sing Rudolph in church?” Is it proper?
And then I thought that it is Christmas Day, the day we celebrate God coming to us as a child to show us how to live and love. Scripture says, “A little child shall lead us.” And so, I followed the lead of the child and said, “Let’s sing it!”
I looked up and saw the whole congregation singing with great joy, pure joy!
Joy is the flag that flies on the castle of the heart when the King is in residence.
Joy is the flag that flies on our hearts when God is in residence.
Friends, I bring you good news of great joy: God is here. God is with you. God is in you.
And where God is, joy abounds.
So, be not afraid. Look up and behold the glory.
Celebrate the joy that is ours in Jesus Christ!
Thanks be to God. Amen.