A story that has become a regular part of my Christmas preparation- and to which I was introduced to Diane Waarvik, our Director of Parish Health some years ago, is “Missing Jesus.” It’s about a young family who bought a nativity set from the local five and dime store in their small town, and discovered when they got it home that there were TWO baby Jesus’ in their set: Twins! Maybe you have heard the story- or read it yourself.
The mother of the family immediately assumed that the extra Baby Jesus meant that one of the other sets in the store was lacking him. So she went back to the store and posted a note “If you’re missing Jesus, please call…” and left the family’s number. The woman’s husband pointed out- as I would have- that the sets were made far away- probably China, and the odds of the missing Jesus being in the batch at the store were few and far between. No matter: for the remainder of the days before Christmas, the children of the family- a girl and her younger brother would check the store each day to see if all the nativity sets were gone- and they would hope for a phone call so that someone’s Nativity set would be complete…
We are in week two of our Advent Sermon Series, “Hide and Seek,” And like last week, the name given to today’s Advent Candle fits in perfectly with our theme. Last week, we discussed the fear that God might be hiding from us, and the hope- the name of the first Advent Candle- we have when we know that God is not and won’t ever hide from us.
Today, we are focusing on “Seeking.” So many people- and perhaps you, today are seeking- looking for- significance- for meaning, looking for God, and in many ways “joy” is the word that embodies that seeking. It is what we are longing for; it is why we seek...
And it is something we long for not just in this season of expectation, but every day of our lives. It is, as I look around our world, something that seems to be much needed and in short supply, especially during the Christmas rush that we are now fully engulfed in. “Joyful” is not the expression I see on people’s faces in cars in traffic… or at the mall… Impatience, maybe, and stress- lots of stress, and worry.
So it is good to take a few minutes to reflect on this question of seeking God, of seeking the joy that comes from God, and only God- to see where it can be found, and receive it today, if we need to, and to take it out into our world.
Perhaps the most important thing as we begin, as you may have heard me say before, is not to confuse happiness with joy.
When I’m not reading theology, one of the things I love to study is organizational behavior. One of the things that I read years ago, and that has stuck with me is that “good is the enemy of great…” The point is that organizations always face the temptation to accept “good enough” instead of insisting on what can be great.
It was easy to make this connection to individual lives- and to the life of the church, and I wonder if it’s not the devil at work- “good enough is OK…” when God wants much more both for and from us. The devil says to us, “Seek happiness,” when what God actually wants for us is to live in joy…
Let me remind you that the definition of happy is “lucky, favored by circumstance, the enjoyment of pleasure without pain…” That’s why we have to search for happiness- whether it be in relationships, or in possessions, or jobs, or whatever.
We know that life is never entirely lucky (if it were, I’d say “Go by a lottery ticket…”). We know that we are not always favored by circumstance (indeed some people seem never to so favored), and we know that pain is a part of life, so we know that there is never always enjoyment of pleasure without pain.
When pain is present, and luck and fortune aren’t, you’re unhappy! Happiness is always temporary; it never lasts!
Joy, on the other hand, is far more wonderful and profound! The word translated “joy” in the Bible means “the present and future possession of the good!” And we see in our Bibles that this joy is a gift from God- it is something from outside ourselves.
Psalm 5: 11 says, “Let all who take refuge in you, God, rejoice; let them ever sing for joy…
Psalm 105: 43: “So God brought his people (out of Egypt) with joy, his chosen ones with singing…
Interesting the connection of joy with rejoicing and singing. George F. Handel set much of the Christmas portion of “Messiah,” from our first reading in Isaiah: “Comfort ye, my people” sings the tenor, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” answers the choir... “O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion; behold your God...” “And he will feed his flock,” sings the mezzo soprano...
In the 18th century, in England, Isaiah’s words were as relevant as they were when they were written to a people in captivity and far from home- as relevant as they were when John the Baptist proclaimed them in the first century, and as relevant as they are today: People have been seeking, searching for the promise of God’s presence, and the joy will God bring to a world that has been repaired and restored to the way God intended it to be.
As Christians, we see this good- this joy- this God in our midst become concrete with the story- the person- of Jesus. I was struck, as I was preparing, with just how often the word “joy” is used throughout the New Testament- connected directly to Jesus!
When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John the Baptist, Elizabeth exclaims, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy!”
The message that we shall hear in just a few weeks, on Christmas Eve, from the Angel to the shepherds: “For see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: for to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!
The wise men, in Matthew’s Gospel, when they found the baby Jesus, were “overwhelmed with joy!”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to obey his commandment to love each other as he has loved them- so that his joy may be in them, and their joy may be full…
Luke’s Gospel ends with joy: Jesus, raised from the dead, leads the disciples out to Bethany, and ascends into heaven. The disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy. They finally know- joy has replaced the grief and horror of Jesus’ death on the cross, and it- and Jesus, their Risen Savior can never be taken from them.
Happiness is circumstantial; it happens to you…
But Joy is eternal; it belongs to you, and is there through everything!
When you have joy, you know you have value- it comes from belonging to God! It’s not about being lucky, or who you are. It’s about whose you are! You are loved, you are known by the God who created all that is!
When you have joy, you have a bridge between the good times and the bad times- the happy times and the unhappy times- you can see them all as a part of your life. You can face everything that life brings- even in the midst of sadness, darkness and sorrow, you have something- no, better than that, some one you can hold onto- who will hold onto you! You’re never left alone!
But I know there could well be those of us who have been believers, perhaps for all our lives, and who don’t feel particularly joyful today. Sometimes it may feel as that joy has fled- or is buried very deeply, but God’s promise is that joy is there, and can be found.
And incredibly enough, we get a glimpse of how to recover, how to find that joy in the person of John the Baptist in our Gospel reading today.
John is a pretty gloomy guy- even announcing the presence of the arrival of Jesus, he both looks and sounds less than joyful. Our icon on the worship folder cover portrays him as stern- even angry (there are some of these icons that I find beautiful; others not so much- this would be one of those...).
But I would hold up several things: first of all, John is in Bethany, across the Jordan. People are coming to him at the Jordan; he’s not at the religious place- the Temple. Second, he is not who they are expecting: he’s not the Messiah, he’s not Elijah, or the prophet- he is (and here he quotes our first reading from Isaiah!) “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’”
Seeking God will take you out into the world- into some strange places, and what you find may not be what, or who you expect!
Then, as we work through the Gospels, and find John’s preaching in Luke, we hear him tell us that “those who have two coats, let them share with those who have none; and those who have food, let them do likewise...”
Serving; meeting someone’s needs is John’s word to you and me. Reaching out to someone you might never meet, but who needs your gift, or working with someone in need causes joy to come out of your heart and surround your whole being like nothing else I know…
Jesus, too, was not what people expected as Messiah. He spent his time where people- poor people- outcast people- lived. Jesus served; he preached that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” His greatest act of service- his death on the cross, came not in some religious place, certainly not the temple, but on a garbage heap outside the city walls of Jerusalem. And in his resurrection, he both knew the “joy of his father,” and he shared it with the people around him- and sent them out into the world!
Here’s my point: there are whole generations seeking God today, and they’re not seeking God here! For the first time, “Seekers” aren’t coming to church- but they are willing to serve others with us in the most unlikely places. Your call is to serve along side them, and help them- and you- to see that it is in serving that Joy- that God finds you!
In the story of Missing Jesus, Christmas Eve finally rolled around- it was freezing outside- well below 0. The children insisted on one last walk to the five and dime, and to their delight the last nativity set was gone: for sure they would get a phone call, and be able to deliver Jesus…
When they returned home, their mom was not there- a surprise- and then the phone DID ring. It was their mom- with instructions for the whole family to come to an address eight blocks away- and to bring milk, cookies and blankets, right away… Back out into the freezing cold- and now it was dark, to boot!
When they found the address, it was a small house that was nearly completely dark. Mom was waiting, and she ushered them in- there was a young mom, and five little children huddling together in the cold. Dad was given instructions to work on the furnace, mom took the milk and cookies into the tiny kitchen, and heated the milk; the children took the blankets into the living room, and tucked the shivering younger children in…
The Dad was successful in lighting the oil burner, Mom brought in warm milk and cookies for the children, and the young mom retold her story: “It’s been so hard since my husband left us- but I’ve been working hard, and we were surviving. But the furnace broke- and I didn’t have money for it, and it’s been so cold… I saw your sign in the store about “Missing Jesus,” and I sure have been looking for him- we needed him… so I called, and now you know why you are all here…
Dad took their son and daughter home and got on the phone: “Ed, I need to borrow your truck- and we need to find some oil, and maybe a small tree. The two children grabbed toys they thought the others would like, clothes that no longer fit them- and the “missing Jesus.” Later that evening, they all- Dad, two children, and those recruited to help returned to the house- made sure the furnace was fixed, decorated the house and distributed the presents.
You could almost hear the angels’ song anew: Glad tidings of Great Joy! Jesus wasn’t missing, he was right there (on the table!) and it had to have been among the most joyous and memorable of Christmas’s ever- for the struggling young family and all who had been privileged to serve- to be Jesus for them!
This Advent season God offers us hope and joy. God is not hiding from us- and as we seek, we realize that in Jesus, we have already been found. Hope and joy will transform your life- change your life forever for the better…. And neither is fully realized unless and until they are shared with the people God brings into our lives, in a world that needs to know the Good News we have been given.
Will you pray with me: Lord God, today we give you thanks that you have called us to be your children. Fill us with the love of our Savior; help us to grow in the joy you have promised to all who follow him. And lead us out in that joy to share him where we live, work, play and serve. We ask this in Jesus’ Name! Amen.