Thursday, December 13, 2012

Joy Vs. Happiness

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

           This Sunday I will not be preaching a sermon.  Instead, you will hear a sermon expressed in song by our wonderful choir under the direction of our Minister of Music Jerry Cundiff and our accompanist Jerry Pope.  I am blessed each week in worship by the beautiful music of our choir and Jerry Pope's thoughtful and masterful preludes.  I am also blessed to work alongside both Jerrys as we seek to design meaningful worship experiences.  So, I eagerly look forward to the choir's performance of Vivaldi's Gloria and although I love preaching, it will be nice to experience this great music without trying to keep the details of my sermon straight in my head at the same time.
            This Sunday is the third one in Advent and on it we will light the candle of joy.  Although the Advent wreath is a modern effort to enhance the meaning of Advent and wasn't a part of early Christian practice, the experience of hope, peace, joy and love was an essential part of Christianity from its beginning.  Were I to preach this week, I would preach on joy and I would try to differentiate the concept of joy from the concept of happiness.
            Happiness comes from good feelings that in turn come from our circumstances.  It increases or decreases according to our level of comfort and the positive conditions we experience.  Joy, however, is a sense of wonder, awe and delight that is not dependent upon our possessions or our situation but rather upon the activity of God in our lives.  In Luke's Gospel, which I will be regularly preaching from throughout the coming year, joy is a regular experience for the characters caught up in God's unfolding activity in the world.  This is especially true of Luke's stories that we read this time of year.  The angels declare "tidings of great joy" and Mary sings the Magnificat for joy over what God is doing in her life and in the world.  Joy is present when God is present in the lives of God's people.
            Yet Luke's story is not all a happy story.  The baby lying in a manger grows up to suffer and die.  Jesus' mother Mary who is pictured pondering the presence of angels and shepherds at her baby's birth will years later watch her son suffer.  Joy remains, however, even when happiness fades.
        Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "The only condition for joy is the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it, which means that it can erupt in a depressed economy, in the middle of a war, in an intensive care waiting room."  In the early church, Paul writes that even in the midst of suffering joy is possible, because God is with us in every circumstance.  Is joy possible for us in the midst of our lives as it was for the early Christians?
        Our culture does not celebrate Advent; instead November and December are considered the "holiday season" or the "Christmas season."  Diana Butler Bass recently wrote on the Huffington Post that all the concern about the so-called "War on Christmas" really amounts to a war on Advent, because there is no priority given to preparing our hearts for what Christmas represents.  I've often felt that our consumer-driven economy is more of an attack on the spiritual meaning of Christmas than any debate over a town having a Christmas tree or a sales clerk saying "happy holidays" rather than "merry Christmas" could ever be. 
        Our materialism (and I include myself here too) and the false controversies of cable news leaves no room for joy-and it is debatable if either can deliver happiness.  Also, the holidays are not happy but sad for those experiencing grief and those who struggle with addiction.  Yet, if we allow time for Advent-to prepare ourselves for the spiritual meaning of Christmas-then we perhaps can become aware of God's presence in our lives.  When we realize God is present in the midst of good times and bad, we experience joy.
        This Sunday let us worship God and experience God's joy together.  As our choir and musicians bless us with Vivaldi's Gloria, may we offer glory to God for giving us joy, whether we find ourselves in a season filled with or lacking happiness.

        Grace and Peace,

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