Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 2013, Week 3: Joy for the Woebegone

A number of small but significant events happened in my week that caused me to pause and think about the trajectory of my life. Other people make choices that impact me; but I, too, make decisions that impact the direction my life takes. And these decisions - something as little as my response to a situation - can take on a life of their own and become of greater consequence than the initial action that spawned this response.

I went to Big Valley Church on Sunday morning and sat in the back row by myself. In the quiet I got out my notebook and made two columns: the things I felt I would be sacrificing comprised the left column and what I would be gaining went into the right column. In my present state of unhappiness, the two columns were tilted heavily to one side. My bleak mood darkened several shades.

And then Pastor Allan lit the third Advent candle. "We're going to be talking about Joy today," he said. "One of the biggest misconceptions is that in order to be joyful, you have to be happy. 

"But joyfulness and happiness are not mutually inclusive."

Back in the day, when the Ark of the Covenant was being brought back to Jerusalem under the cautious auspices of King David, the people were joyful - including David! There was dancing, trumpets and cornets blaring, percussion pounding away, people shouting. Allan commented, "So often today we sit still and say, with glum faces, 'We have the joy of the Lord ...' But we don't have to be afraid of showing the joy that we have. We are reconciled with God - we should be joyful!"

He gave us three instances where we are encouraged by the joy of the Lord:

  • Nehemiah tells us that it is our strength
  • The Psalmist says that if we put our trust in the Lord God we should be joyful because He is our defender
  • The Psalmist again says that God is his exceeding joy
In each of these three situations, Allan, pointed out, it is God who is both the source and the object of our joy: He brings joy to us, and He is the one to whom we offer our joy back.

And then, a few minutes later, Allan said something that made me wonder if I had been saying my thoughts aloud, if someone had been reading over my shoulder at my list. "Circumstances!" he said.

It's easy to be joyful when everything is good; but the letter that St James wrote challenges us to be joyful even in terrible times, looking ahead to see the result of our trials should we allow our faith to work. The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us that this is what Jesus Himself did: He thought of the trials, the desertions, betrayals, denials, beatings; He thought of the actual crucifixion and burial; most horrific of all, He thought of His own Father turning His face from His Son. Jesus looked past all of this, willing to endure it all because of the end result: reconciliation of humankind to the God who so dearly loves us despite ourselves.

We need, sometimes, to have that physical, material suffering to produce spiritual strength, Allan mused. No one is happy about suffering - Jesus wasn't happy about the horrendous suffering He would endure, and He doesn't tell us to be happy in our trials; rather, He says, through James, "Count it all joy ..." You cannot possibly be happy in the circumstance of a terminal illness, the death of a loved one, a job loss, a physical calamity. But you can be joyful.

We need to have a vision of what is on the other side of our suffering in order for us to be joyful through the untenable circumstance in which we might find ourselves. We are more than just physical creatures; we're also spiritual beings, and as we go through our lives, the deeper our spiritual relationship with God is, the deeper the joy we will experience.

"Seek God for your strength," Allan urged. "Seek God for the joy you need. Don't look at just your external circumstances; look at God."

As he dismissed us I looked at my list again, and made a break for my car. Every single thing in the negative column was a secondary, external item. As I sat in the driver's seat, stunned, my friend Winnie came out and squatted down to talk to me. I told her a little bit about the impact the sermon had had on me, and how all the negative emotionalism and feeling sorry for myself was swept away by the objective words I had just heard. 

Then I glanced down at my list. On the positive side the top three things were, none of them, superficial. And this beautiful woman, it turned out, was at the top of the list. God sent specifically her out to my car to remind me of what was important, to remind me of the people He was bringing into my life who would befriend and come alongside of me.

And I thought that even in our moments of doubt, even in our trials, God often provides us with tangible support. All we have to do is to keep our eyes fixed on Him:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

It's simple; it just isn't always easy. 

If we could only seek His face more and look less at our own "stuff," our circumstances might not change one whit; but our attitude and our inner resolution will rise up with joy, giving us strength for the next hour or day or circumstance.

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