Where is the joy?

Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Joy to the world!
Joyful joyful we adore thee!
How great our joy!
O tidings of comfort and joy!
Joyful all ye nations rise!
Bringing joy to every boy and girl!

… Do you ever get tired of being told this is the season of joy?

What if I don’t feel jolly at all?

I spent some time this week sitting and waiting in Walmart waiting on my car battery to be replaced. Across from me was a thirty-foot-long display of “Christmas Joy.” Trinkets imported from China, sharp cinnamon candles, glittery baubles for decorating a tree, and everywhere smiling snowmen and reindeer. The people who walked past this, perused it, and picked things up looked like zombies. Their eyes were glazed over, they looked like this was a chore they felt obligated to do, but it sure wasn’t enjoyable.

I like to make up dialogue for people whenever I’m people watching. So I heard one woman think, “Another season. Another day I’m supposed to smile and be happy and rejoice to see my mother.”

Her mother, walking with her, was thinking, “It’s Christmas already? I seems like it was just Easter. I’m not ready. Well, I mean, I still have the lights up from last year – I never got to taking them down – will last year’s candy do for the grandkids too?”

I saw a man standing in traditional zombie stance with his mouth hanging open and his eyes unfocused as he stood before the “Ready for Wrapping!” makeup case. I pictured him having no thoughts — so overwhelmed — maybe a bit of miserable sorrow since whatever he picked wouldn’t be the right kind of make up… yet the real makeup aisle is ever more overwhelming… Why did his teen daughter have to ask for makeup?

Maybe cash. I think he thinks as he walks away empty handed. Cash is easier. Is it too… crass? He stops at the end of the aisle, grabs the first pre-wrapped makeup case his hand falls on, and hurries away. This makeup is cheaper than cash.

When I went to pay for my battery, there was a line of unhappy people frowning at one another and upset that it was taking ten or more minutes for the line to move. The unhappy workers were upset with the crowds, and yet everyone is here… stuck.

The crowds don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to by social pressure. But this is the season of joy, so shut up and be happy, smile and spend!

The workers don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to to pay the bills. But this is the season of joy! So wear red to work and smile to the angry customers!

Maybe some of those workers would be in the crowd later, unhappily spending their money to purchase things their relatives don’t really want or need… but they don’t want to give their relatives nothing for the holiday. Who wants to be a scrooge? Who wants to say bah-humbug?

Can you be Christian and not feel the feeling of Christmas?

Can you be Christian and think this isn’t the season of joy?

Can you be Christian and just want Christmas to come and be over with already?

“Christmas joy.”

Maybe that’s the feeling you get when you finally have the Christmas decorations put away.

It’s kinda weird, but the first Christmas wasn’t all joyful either.

Some people say Mary gave birth as miraculously as she conceived – a sparkle of light and surprise! There’s a baby. Most people say no, she had a labor. I mean, she was riding a donkey for a reason – it hurts to walk when you’re in labor. There’s a lot of pain in giving birth. Joy, too, but also pain. Fear. Worry. Anxiety.

The shepherds didn’t have joy until after they saw the babe. Until then, they were scared, curious.

Herold sure didn’t greet the news of a new king with joy.

Just like life, the first Christmas was a mixed bag of emotions. Sometimes joyful, sometimes sorrowful.

The Bible, and its stories, lead more insight into our true meaning of the season than the aisle of “JOY!” at Wal-mart too.

You see, the crowds who came to John in the wilderness were far more unhappy and joyless than the folks waiting in line. But these ancient crowds, too, were stuck. You see, as Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the Amistad UCC Chaple writes, “in [John’s] day, the powers-that-be had arranged a world based on empire, with those at the top grabbing – through force and greed – the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. It wasn’t just the Roman Empire and their puppets that experienced John’s anger and sharp words, but also the religious institutions as well felt the sting of John’s rebuke…

John’s message about the forgiveness of sins and being baptized in a river made the Temple and its elaborate systems run by powerful priests sound rather unnecessary. The priests, including the ones listed when John first appears, couldn’t have greeted his preaching with enthusiasm, because the people on top, whether religious or political leaders, ‘abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt’ (William Herzog, New Proclamation Year C 2006). The abuse of position and power for profit is nothing that we have invented ourselves.”

And the crowds are desperate. Things are near a breaking point. People have had enough and can’t stand anymore. None of their leaders seem trustworthy. None of their religious institutions — their very priests!– seem trustworthy. Even the old, old story of the Exodus, and God’s promised covenant to be with the people no longer seems trustworthy since everything is going so, so wrong. The people want a Messiah. They want revolt. They need things to change.

So why did people come to John? He wasn’t winning any Public Relations contests. He was dressed in nasty camel’s hair, looked and spoke like a wild man, and he welcomed people by yelling at them, “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! WHO WARNED YOU OF THE COMING WRATH?!”

Maybe some came in desperation. Maybe others in curiosity. Maybe some liked that he was fiery. Others liked he wasn’t going along with Rome and the temple. Maybe, for some, he was stirring that dim, jaded, barely remembered childhood wonder and hope hidden in the people’s hearts.

That hope and wonder we remember as kids looking up at the ceiling at the glittering Christmas lights reflected off the white paint.

That excitement, and joy, we remember ourselves having as we crawled into our cold sheets Christmas Eve dreaming of tomorrow’s Christmas Day gifts.

Maybe, John awoke the message of the Exodus, of God’s promise to abide with us, in a way that spoke to hearts heavily weighed by taxes, bills, occupation, corruption, and being stuck in a system where you’re unhappy but nothing changes.

You see, John came preaching the advent, the coming, of the kindom of God. He told us to prepare the way for the Lord. This sounds like a humongous, gigantic task. As gigantic and as seemingly impossible as achieving world joy or world peace.

But John breaks down the work into things we can actually tackle: little deeds, little actions, we can actually accomplish…. but which make a huge impact.

“He doesn’t tell the people to get back to church, to overthrow the [government], to transform the world in some sudden, drastic revolution. No, he tells them the same things that [their and our parents have always told us:] ‘Share with one another. Be kind to one another. Don’t fight. Be fair. Don’t hoard, or lord it over one another.’

I don’t mean to reduce John’s message in any way, but at the heart of it, it seems to me John” is teaching that basic justice and goodness “will knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we’ve built.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews) He’s saying God’s way is a way built of daily deeds of justice and goodness, and these daily deeds “take the air, the power, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another’s children.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews)

The people coming to John were desperate. The people I saw in Wal-Mart were getting desperate. The crowds ask, “What should we do?” What should we do if Christmas comes and we feel no joy? What should we do if the world is large and scary and we are tiny and scared? What should we do if everything seems out of control and we are powerless even to change a tiny bit? What should we do when it seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t?

John’s message is this: be generous. Be just. Be repentant. These prepare the way for the Lord.

The beginning of joy to the world is the beginning of simply offering hospitality to someone who needs a place to stay.

It is welcoming a baby into the world.

It is repenting — saying you are sorry to others and to God when you mess up.

The beginning of the Christmas spirit, Christmas joy, is a Christian life.

A Christian life is one that produces good fruits.

Good fruits… like joy, love, peace, and hope.

Good fruits, like forgiveness, patience, kindness, and generosity.

John’s examples of good fruits is so simple: don’t use your power to hurt others. If you own more than you need, give it to someone who is needy. Don’t sell it to them. Give it.

If you collect money on a bill, take what is fair. Don’t jack the price up. Don’t overcharge. Don’t cheat people.

If you are a soldier, protect people. Don’t intimidate and threaten. Don’t be a bully.

In today’s children’s chat, we read about many ways to prepare the way for the lord. Little deeds, random acts of kindness, are like rain drops. This rain like grace becomes rivers of life-giving water. Rivers for redemption, for repentance, for making people whole.

Not feeling the Christmas joy? It’s okay. Christmas is full of many emotions. You don’t HAVE TO do Christmas. You don’t HAVE TO purchase presents, visit people, and fake a smile. These are heavy burdens, and we can repent and lay them down. Instead of carrying these HAVE TOs, we can carry divine love. Divine love might feel joyful, or it might be peaceful and still. Divine love might be sorrowful, or lonely. Divine love is our gift at Christmas and just like the stories of old, divine love comes in many forms and many expressions.

Sometimes we “rejoice in the Lord” with celebrations and loud music. And sometimes we rejoice in the Lord by being grateful God is with us when we’re feeling alone, and sad.

Our God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore Ohio, 12-13-15

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