One of my favorite old Peanuts cartoons begins with Lucy asking Charlie Brown a question. “Have you ever known anybody who was really happy?” Right at that moment, Snoopy comes dancing on tiptoe into the picture. He has his nose up high in the air and a huge smile of joy on his face. He spins and bounces his way across two frames of the cartoon, and then dances away. In the last frame, Lucy says, “Have you ever known anybody who was really happy, and was still in their right mind?”
I’ve always thought that was a rather interesting question this time of year. As we move through the Sundays that lead up to Christmas, we often find ourselves talking about the virtues of hope, peace, love and joy. I’m not sure who decided that these were to be the themes of the four Sundays in Advent, and there is actually some confusion about whether today is the Sunday of love or joy. I’ve seen it both ways. But it really doesn’t matter. So today, I thought I’d talk with you about Joy.
Of these four Advent themes, it is nearly always joy that gives us the most trouble. With the other three, it seems we have a certain amount of control. There are very definite things we can do to make ourselves more hopeful, more peaceful and loving. But what success have you ever had in making yourself joyful? Happiness comes when it comes. Joy keeps its own schedule. And whenever we try too hard to make ourselves joyful, our efforts usually end up looking a little forced, sometimes pathetic.
This time of year, Pam and I always like to go back and watch our favorite Christmas movies. For a laugh, we like National Lampoon’s movie, Christmas Vacation. I’m sure most of you have seen it somewhere along the line, but on the off chance you haven’t, the basic story is this. Clark, the father of the Griswold family, played by Chevy Chase, is determined to have “the best old-fashioned Christmas ever,” come hell or high water. His determination, predictably, leads to a long string of disasters, but in the end the battered family gathers for a touching moment on the front lawn as Santa’s sleigh streaks across the sky, the result of an explosion caused by Clark’s father-in-law. I supposed you could call it a dark comedy. There are some wildly funny moments. But mostly what comes across is the pathos of a man trying with all his might to make himself and his family joyful, and failing miserably.
That’s exactly what makes this time of year so difficult for so many people. Christmas is absolutely loaded to the gills with expectations of joy, and if it happens, as it often does, that our lives are not in an especially joyful place for one reason or another, the forced joyfulness of the season can end up feeling a bit like fingernails on a blackboard. Richard Shindell, my favorite folk singer, once wrote a number called Nora, which tells the story of a man in New York pining away for the former love of his life, who has moved to Greenland and left him behind heartbroken. There is one line from the song that perfectly captures what we’re talking about. “So,” he says, “was Christmas as blue for you as it was for me? All those angels trumpeting their ecstasy.” It’s pretty hard to appreciate ecstasy, when we’re not feeling ecstatic.
For much the same reason, it can be challenging to appreciate Paul’s message that we should rejoice always, “Again I say rejoice,” as if we didn’t hear him the first time. This passage often comes up at this time of year, for obvious reasons, but it is also often used as a benediction during the rest of the year. When I was first in ministry it just seemed to keep popping up in services I led and those I went to. For a while I got really tired of hearing it. Mainly, I think, because these words are in what in English we would call, “the command voice.” “Rejoice! Do it! Do it now! Do it always!” That’s the command voice. People have occasionally told me I have a problem with authority, which is probably true. I don’t really respond very well to that command voice. But who among us likes to be commanded? And more, what sense could it possibly make to command someone to rejoice? BE HAPPY!!! No offense, but I don’t think it works that way.
I remember a time early on in my relationship with Pam, we were on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard at her parents’ cottage. Jim, Pam’s father, had planned a very generous lobster dinner for all of us. For reasons I can’t recall though, I was in a lousy mood. Jim was justifiably frustrated, but when he finally confronted me, what he said was, “We have a great dinner planned, and if you can’t be happy, I’m going to take my lobsters back!” Yeah. It’s funny now. But at the time I remember saying something like, “I can’t be happy on demand.”
Well, we went on to sort out our differences and had a very nice, happy, lobster dinner. Later though, as I was thinking this through, I realized that being happy on demand was exactly the expectation I had grown up with. In my family, the usually unspoken expectation was that we were going to act like everything was great, whether it was or not. We were going to “put on a happy face,” “accentuate the positive,” and not say anything unless what we had to say was nice.” Does that sound at all familiar? I think a lot of us grew up with those messages. And they’re fine, up to a point. But all too often, what we ended up acting like on the outside was far from what we were really feeling on the inside.
These were the rules in a great many families. “When you’re smiling, when your’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” And then there’s the one that made it into a classic Monty Python movie, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Don’t get me wrong, these are wonderful expressions of how important it is to focus on the positive when we can. I certainly understand and applaud trying to do that, but not if it means we have to lie about or ignore the problems we should be addressing. If something in our lives is making it impossible for us to rejoice, that should be a sign that something needs to change, not that we’re supposed to sacrifice our emotional honesty.
And surprise, I finally figured out that Paul was actually smart enough to know that. I have great respect for Paul, and whenever I find him saying something that doesn’t seem quite right, I’m inclined to dig deeper to make sure I have correctly understood him. As it turns out, despite how it sounds, he is not in fact commanding us to rejoice, he is commending to us the joy that he himself had found in Christ. “Rejoice always,” is a benediction, not a commandment. It is as though he was saying, “My desire for all of you, is that you will come to dwell continually in the love and joy and peace of God’s presence, as I myself have.”
That’s the key: As he himself had. On the surface of it, you wouldn’t think that Paul had all that much to be joyful about. He talks quite a bit about what a painful experience his ministry had been. At one time or another he was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, hungry, thirsty, naked, cold and imprisoned, all for the sake of Christ. Yet Paul writes again and again about his joy. For some of us, it’s hard to imagine how these two could fit together. But actually, knowing the loving presence of God does bring Joy. Leon Bloy––a name I don’t recognize except that it is associated with a quote I like very much––Leon Bloy once said: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” I’m sure Paul would have agreed. There are more than twenty references to joy in this one letter to the Philippians alone. His joy was no denial of the very real pains and suffering of his life. But his suffering was all in service to a higher good, that he had found, that had transformed his life in amazing ways, and that he had completely given his life over to. He discovered the joy of Christ and spent the rest of his life sharing it with everyone he could get to listen.
Joy comes when it comes. But if Leon Bloy is right, if joy is the most infallible sign of God’s presence and if, as our faith assures us, God’s Spirit is present and available to us at all times in all places, then joy, too, is always right there at our fingertips. The problem is not that joy isn’t real, or that it only comes around when it feels like it, the problem is that we are so tuned in to our lack of joy that we can’t see what’s right before our eyes.
This last week, at our Blue Christmas service, Lucia shared a quote by Kay Warren that says it beautifully. “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of [our lives], the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be all right, and the determined choice to praise God in all things.” Yes. Exactly.
Certainly, we can’t and shouldn’t try to force it, but we can and should make a determined choice to praise God in all things; if we’re going to be Christian that is. We can and should set our lives up in such a way that we are open to the presence of joy in the same way that we are open to the presence of God. Paul didn’t simply “rejoice always,” he rejoiced always “in the Lord.” That is the joy he commended to us. And that, as we say, made all the difference.
Clear back in the third century, there was a man that we know of because of a letter he wrote that was somehow preserved all these years. It seems he was expecting to die soon, and he wrote these last words to a friend: “It’s a bad world, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy, which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people are the Christians––and I am one of them.”
Now, I wouldn’t say that our world is quite as bad as this man felt it was, even though we obviously have a lot of problems. But I do agree that the secret of joy is part and parcel of the Christian life. If joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God, and God is always present, then all we have to do is learn to live in the faith we already proclaim. I could not, would not – and Paul does not – command you to be joyful. And I hope you won’t allow any “trumpeted ecstasy” of the season to force you to feel things you don’t genuinely feel. But I certainly do commend to all of us the joy that Paul found in the Lord. The joy that anyone who truly knows the love of Christ comes to be very familiar with.
May you have a blessed, and joyful, Christmas.