Psalm 98, John 1:1-14
I do not know about the rest of you, but it seems that every year Christmas gets a little crazier. I look forward to it every year and then the season seems to attack me mid December. I can no longer stand the sound of Christmas carols. The bright lights annoy me. I turn into a scrooge and find myself counting down the days until the 25th, when the madness is over, and I can finally take it all in, peacefully. I realize that this is a precarious position for a priest to take. I mean, this should be the time when we love our job the most. Everyone comes to church, everyone is excited. Yet somewhere along the line, it all became too exhausting. Somewhere along the line, I forgot about joy.
It’s not that you can every completely forget about joy. It’s on all the Christmas cards. It’s in all the music. But what is it really? The word joy appears in the Bible about 250 times in some form or another. Often, like in the Psalm for today, it is an expression of praise. “Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.” Psalm 98, like many of the Psalms, is a mix of praise and exhortation. The Psalmist is not only praising God, he is encouraging others to do so as well.
One cannot help but wonder what was going on in the Psalmist life that would cause such excitement and spirit. Some have concluded that this Psalm was the result of a military victory. Verse 3 reads, “The Lord has made known his victory; his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.” I prefer to think that no event was the cause for this outpouring of joy, it was more of an awareness.
We know from our reading of the Psalms as a whole that the author(s) experienced many hardships. The Psalms of lament are just as plentiful as the Psalms of praise and thanksgiving. Many of the Psalms have elements of both lament and praise. Even the most heart wrenching, and depressing Psalms end with praise. It is easy to get in the habit of thanking God only when things are going well. Yet the Psalmist knew that God deserved praise at all times.
While some form of the word joy appears in the bible hundreds of times, forms of the word happiness only occur 25 times. In the English language, these words are often used interchangeably. But this is not so in the Bible. Happiness depends on circumstances. If something good happens, then we are happy. When we consider moments in our life when we were happy, they are almost always dependent on an event, like a wedding, or the birth of a child. Joy has more to do with the spirit of God in you. It does not depend on the situation. It has to do with your knowledge and awareness of God’s action in your life. By that rationale, you could experience sorrow, and still be joyful.
If you look up “how to be happy” on Amazon, you will get thousands of results. There is a whole section called, “Happiness-self help.” Most are how to books like, “How to make yourself happy”, “How we choose to be happy”, and “What happy people know.” The majority indicate that your efforts will allow you to be happy. That’s what happiness is about. It’s about our own efforts providing positive outcomes. If you look up “how to be joyful” on the same site, you will come up with much fewer. Only about 10 are actually relevant and most are religious. Why are their so few books on making yourself joyful? Because there is no systematic approach to being joyful. It’s all about reliance on God.
So why even desire it? If it is not something we can achieve with our own hard work, what’s the point? In C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he describes joy as, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction…I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.” Well that sounds pretty tempting. How do we acquire this elusive joy? The most frustrating thing about joy is also the most beautiful thing about it. You can’t earn it. You can’t force it. Whereas happiness is something we pursue, like we pursue any accomplishment, joy is something that is given. It was given to us when God gave us the power to be the children of God.
That line from John has challenged me during my sermon preparation. “He gave them power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” This is a completely different understanding of power than we are accustomed to. But when we put it in the context of joy, it starts to come together. We have been given the power to become children of God. And when we are able to fully appreciate that power, then we will know pure joy. That does not mean that we will know constant happiness. That does not mean things will fall into place and our life will turn out just as we always wanted. It means that we have finally accepted our role as God’s children. Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection was what gave us that power. And once we have that, we have no choice but to shout with the joy, and join with the rivers and the sea in exultation.
I suppose I have always put too much emphasis on the idea of being happy during Advent and Christmas. Then, when I was not happy I thought I must be missing something. Yet now I realize that it’s about joy, not happiness. If happiness comes along with it, all the better. But for now, I will rest in my awareness of God’s presence and that will bring me joy. So I wish you not a merry Christmas, but a joyful one.