Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Joy for the Journey

Message preached December 14, 2014
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Order of Worship

 listen to this sermon (mp3)

             Perhaps you noticed that today’s candle, which we lit earlier in our service, is a different color from all the others. In our Advent wreath, the candles for the other Sundays leading up to Christmas are purple. I’m told that’s because purple stands for penitence - since purple or dark blue somehow touch on sorrow, I guess. When we’re down, we say we’re feeling “blue,” right? Expressing sorrow for sin is often the first step in turning, in repenting from it, and turning toward God (which was the theme of last week’s service). I’ve also read that purple is a royal color, which is appropriate as we anticipate the coming of a “King.”

             Today’s candle is different. It’s pink, or rose (depending on how you look at it). This is because, as I’ve been told, this color represents “Joy.” When life is good, we may say, “things are coming up roses.” Or, we sometimes remark that someone is looking through “rose colored glasses,” who sees the positive rather than the negative in the world around them.

             Actually, I’m not very good at colors, as many of you well know. It’s not that I’m color blind. It’s just that I am “aesthetically challenged.” I depend upon other persons for good taste in arranging things, because that’s not really my gift. These colors seem to escape me every year, which is why I point them out to you today, in case you are like me. Whether or not we associate pink with “Joy,” we definitely need Joy as much as we need repentance, especially as we wait the coming of our King Jesus.

             Joy… No language has as many words for “joy” and “rejoicing” as does Hebrew. In the Old Testament, thirteen Hebrew roots, found in twenty‑seven different words, are used primarily for some aspect of joy or joyful participation in religious worship. Hebrew religious ritual demonstrates God as the source of joy. In contrast to the rituals of other faiths of the ancient near-east, Israelite worship was essentially a joyous proclamation and celebration. The good Israelite regarded the act of thanking God as the supreme joy of his life.  Pure “joy” is joy-in-God as both its source and object.  The psalmist (16:11) says, “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

             Joy… In the language of the New Testament, there is one primary word for joy: “chara.” This word contains the rich meanings of all those Old Testament terms, but it adds another element. Whereas the Hebrews found “Joy” as they focused upon the salvation of God - the saving works of the Lord, remembered and repeated over and over - the early followers of Jesus discovered Joy everywhere, even in suffering. Paul called it one of the “fruit of the Spirit.” The importance of Joy in our life-in-Christ is seen in its connection to other familiar words. When we speak of Grace, we are using a word translated from the greek, “charis,” which is just a breath away from “chara,” or Joy. This is the season for giving gifts, right? Well, the greek word for Gift is “charisma.” Connected also is the most often used word for Gratitude (or thanks-giving), “eucharistia,” (from which we pull the word “eucharist,” which we sometimes use when describing the sacrament - or ordinance - of communion). Furthermore, “chairo” means “to rejoice.”

            All these important words are tied tightly together. By God’s grace, no matter what our circumstances in life, there is joy all around us, a gift we cannot buy with all the money in the world. It’s something that is freely given to us as we find ourselves able to receive it. It is also something we cannot contain within us. Joy overflows into our everyday life. The most joyful people are the most thankful, who recognize how much of a gift every moment is, who see a blessing from God in even the most rotten situation. Yes, Joy does lead us to see through rose-colored glasses. That is, we become able to observe in all things the seed from which God can bring forth a flower.

             Of course, there’s that realist in each of us, who considers such Joy suspect. We’ve lived long enough to experience the thorns of life.  “Good Christian friends rejoice,” we may sing, “with heart, and soul, and voice.” But do we really? For all the “joy” of this pre-Christmas season, it is one of the most stressful times of year. Am I wrong? What once may have been somewhat magical, has become more of a burden for all too many of us. The older we get, the more we say “Christmas is for children.” If anything, we work hard to make it possible for our little ones to experience what we once did, so that (perhaps) we might vicariously experience it through them.

             Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Notice, he didn’t say, “unless you vicariously experience your life through the eyes of these little ones in my lap...” Part of the changing, the turning, the repenting of this season of Advent involves the opening of our own minds and hearts to receive the Joy which God has to give us. 

             What would it mean for you, as you prepare for the coming of our King, to do as Jesus said: to become like a child? … Now, I can think of things that it doesn’t mean. For instance, it doesn’t mean having a short attention span. How many Christmas presents are opened by children one day and discarded the next? Is that how we are to approach God’s gifts? I think not. And what about jealousy?

“His gift is bigger, or better.”
“That’s what I wanted.”
“You didn’t spend as much on me as you did her.”

The pains of childhood, the feelings of being neglected can be very intense. Of course, jealousy doesn’t go away once we reach a certain age, does it? There’s a part of us that may be jealous that our children get to experience something we no longer can.   Or can we?

             When the apostle Paul wrote about putting “an end to childish ways(1 Corinthians 13:11), he was referring to certain aspects of childhood which stand in the way of God’s love and joy becoming active in our lives. He wasn’t contradicting Jesus. We need the balance that each of these two scriptures bring. So, let me ask again: what would it mean for you to become like a child this Advent season? Is it possible?

             Last week, I spoke about the road we travel as Christians, how it is always under construction as we are preparing the way of the Lord. Repentance, I said, is construction work. Now, this image of a road is familiar territory to us, for we spend quite a lot of our time on one sort of road or another. Because of this, we find comfort in thinking about life as a journey.  The phrase, “One step at a time,” has become a theme for many of us. Appropriately so. Life is a journey. Once we stop walking (literally or figuratively), we grow sedentary, settled, stuck in place. If we stop seeking first what God wants; if we stop hungering and thirsting for what is just and right; if we stop testifying to the way of Christ through what we say as well as how we live; if we stop trying to reach out to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, and all the rest; if  we stop continuing the work of Jesus - we will become glued in place and slowly wither and fade. Isn’t that the truth? The journey must continue! However, this image of a journey is incomplete without a sense of journey’s end. Every journey has a destination.

             Advent is a journey, we say. In one sense, it is leading us toward Christmas, toward celebrating again the birth of Jesus. In another sense, Advent shifts our horizon a bit further down the road. We anticipate another destination, the culmination of time. When we speak of Jesus returning, his second coming, we’re not saying he is absent from this world at the present time. No, we believe his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is present with us always, “even to the end of the age.  Instead, we are saying there is an ending to this present journey. It does not go on forever. There is more to come. There is a destination toward which this journey aims. Actually, our journey is being pulled toward this destination. You see, according to the Bible, God is not just our Creator who stands at the beginning of our journey propelling us forward. God also awaits at the end of the journey. The force of God’s eternal being is what draws us onward.

             Our destination is the Kingdom of Heaven. Before this new realm comes into being, however, the old realm needs to end. The transition between the new and the old is never easy. Scripture speaks of the rough road which lies ahead. Still, through it all there is the promise that the journey will end, that the Kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

             When we speak of  Joy, as Christians, it is filled with anticipation for the destination.  Think of that Joy we find in a child’s eye at this time of year. It’s like a bubbling over of excitement for something which is not quite yet. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the joy fizzles out once the present is open? It is wide-eyed anticipation. “Somebody loves me so much that they have given this present to me, all wrapped up - and I’ve got to wait to open it until the right time.” But the time will come! Would there be joy for a child if there was no Christmas Day, no time to open the presents, no destination for this journey of waiting, which sometimes seems so unbearably delightful? Heavens, no!

             The same is true for us, who seek to become like children according to the call of Jesus. Our journey has a destination. It would be hell if it didn’t, literally. There is more to come than we can even imagine. There is a present under that tree of life that we hardly can wait to open. Of such heavenly anticipation is Joy.  In joy, we know that there is more to come, and it bubbles over inside of us, even as we may experience some pretty rotten situations.  This joy is for the journey.

             Let me speak to that child inside of you. Did you know that there is a present especially for you, all wrapped up, ready to be opened when the time is right? It is there for you because you are loved with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3).  No, you can’t open it right now, though you can shake it around a bit, to try to hear what’s inside. The time will come, though, when you can open it. For now, allow the joy of this gift, of your anticipation of it, to flavor your present journey. That is, after all, how joy is received. May it overflow your heart, O child of God, whether you’re feeling blue or pink, this hectic, stressful season.

             Joy to the world, the Lord is coming, the Lord is come ... receive your King.   

©2014 (revised from 1996) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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