There are words that are synonymous with a season. This is true both in the church and in our world.
At Easter, we talk about resurrection and grace. The world talks about jelly beans and the Easter Bunny.
On New Year’s Day, you might hear the church speak about renewing our commitment to Christ. In the world, you’ll hear talk of bowl games and diets.
Christmas is no different. There are things that are central in our focus. We talk about the true reason for the season. The greatest gift we have received – the Son of God. We talk about what this birth means. At the same time, the world focuses on gifts, parties, decorations, and snow.
Now, this is not to start a sermon where we contrast these different views. We cannot control how the world views Christmas, but only how we respond to God’s love and how we are sharing that love with others.
Throughout this sermon series, we have focused on the key words and phrases the church uses during Advent. We’ve looked at hope and we’ve seen John the Baptist’s influence. Today, is no different. We are going to look at what it means to live with a contagious joy.
This is a word we see all throughout the Advent and Christmas season. Our Christmas cards feature this word. We have ornaments that are decorated with the word. We sing carols and hymns that focus on this word “joy,” such as “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”
Joy is a word we can drop quite easily without fully knowing what it means or how it relates to us as followers of Christ. I never want to assume that common words in the faith are common to you. So, indulge me again as we define this word.
With joy, we are thinking of an inner and outward expression of happiness. In its inner form, we joy is peace and happiness that reaches the depths of our soul. In its outer form, it is the expression of our own joy we share with others. This can be seen in several ways, such as a greeting to others, smiling, or simply sharing life with the people around you.
This time of year is filled with joy, or at least we hope it is. But, where does joy come from?
If we listen to the world, joy comes when we acquire new things. That’s why commercials, like the latest ones from Honda, are both annoying and a reflection of us. It’s annoying, because who can afford to buy someone a new car for Christmas. It is a reflection of us, because we believe we can only be happy if we have something new.
We have all acted as if joy only comes from material goods. We are like Ralphie from “The Christmas Story.” We’ve all seen this classic movie. TBS makes sure of it. The plot is that Ralphie wants an “official Red Ryder carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle,” but everyone tells him “you’ll shoot your eye out.” Eventually, his “old man” comes through for him on Christmas morning. Of course when he goes outside with the gun, he “shoots his eye out” when he hits an icicle.
We’ve all been like Ralphie. We get so excited about receiving something on our “wish list” that we believe we will only be happy if we get this gift. But, what happens when we receive the gift? Within a couple of days, it becomes just another item in the house. It loses its special quality. Soon, we will want something else just to get the rush we felt on Christmas morning.
In its purest form, joy does not come from receiving a gift. It comes from our relationship with God. Joy is a gift, a fruit of the spirit, that comes in the grace we receive from Christ. This pure form of joy has an inner and outer expression.
The inner expression is our confidence in God. We can be filled with joy because of God’s action in the world. Psalm 126 makes this clear. The Psalmist writes about being filled with joy because the Lord the people of Israel have returned to Jerusalem after the Exile. There was an overwhelming sense of happiness that God had shown his love in bringing the people of Israel home. Today, we can have joy because of God’s love for us. Joy is our response to the grace of God. We can have this inner sense of happiness and peace, because we worship the God who came to earth and will come again.
What would it look like to live with joy each day? We all know people who refuse to live with joy. They claim they are Christian, but you wouldn’t know it by how they live. They just mope. They complain. They bicker. They argue. Nothing is good enough. They are never pleasant to be around.
When we are filled with joy, something different is expressed. We are pleasant. People want to be around us. They want to come and be in relationship with us. Even more, if a church is filled with joy people are going to want to share life with us. This is how we should desire to live everyday.
But, we cannot hold onto this happiness for ourselves. God’s act of salvation is not a gift for us to hold on for ourselves. The joy we feel should be expressed as an outward sense of happiness. It means living life in a way that people know there is something different about us. Our inner sense of happiness allows us to live with joy.
In this Christmas season, there is a great way we can live with happiness and joy. We can do so by being content. In our passage from Philippians, Paul talks of how he had to learn how to be content with whatever he had. That’s not something we like to hear, is it? The message of the world is you should be looking out for the “next big thing.” If you have something old, the world says, then you are “behind the times.”
There is nothing wrong with Christians having nice things. Riches are not banned in Scripture. However, if we are constantly pursuing material goods we will never be filled with joy. We will be filled with greed that will cripple us in our faith and in our lives. When we are constantly chasing after the next big thing we tend to forget the big thing in our life, which is our faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul had to take a humble position to know his happiness did not come from things. Instead, it came from strength of the Lord who provided for Paul’s every need. This sense of contentment helps us in times of plenty to be humble and thankful for the things God has given us. It also helps us in times of need to know that God is there.
Is living with joy easy? What about times when we shouldn’t be “thrilled” with our situation. What does it mean to be content when there are injustices that occur throughout our world and our communities? What about when there are things in our homes that are problematic? What about when there are struggles that occur in the life of the church?
We don’t always believe God calls us to be content in these situations, because it is a challenge. Being content doesn’t mean we accept these situations and say, “There is nothing we can do about it,” or “Let’s just smile and pray things get better.” Instead, being content means we accept a basic truth. That is God is present in not only the best of situations, but also the worst of situations.
Psalm 23 says we should not fear the worst of times, because our God is with us. We are never alone. We can be filled with peace when we face these times. We can have joy knowing God doesn’t need us to fix things. We do not have to be Superman. Instead, God calls us to participate in what he is doing in our midst. This means we allow God to be at work and seek God’s will for our lives. We do not sit back, but we join with God in what is taking place. We can be filled with joy, because we are never alone and God is at work.
Joy can be something that defines us. The question for us is how do we want to live? How do we want to be defined?
That is not for me to answer for you. It is up to each of us, in prayer, to seek God and what it means for us to be filled with joy as a church, as a people, and as a community.
May that prayer begin today.