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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
December 12, 2021
When people are asked to define their prime goal in life, a common response is “to be happy.” What is your personal recipe for the happy life? The pandemic has turned happiness on its head. Many on this planet live in deprivation; happiness is having basic needs met. Then there are recipes for happiness linked to family, children, marriage, health, friends, safety, enough money, steady work. As people’s stories unfold, things become more complicated. Many people lament not getting the life they wanted. Regardless of receiving doses of happiness, we easily can become tangled in our irritations and agitations. Looks deceive. What people look like on the outside may mask the suffering inside. We easily get trapped in the “If I only had X” syndrome—“If only, then I would be happy.” Delusions abound. We chase dreams, wanting just a little more of this, and less of that. Is there anything solid we can depend on? What can satisfy our hungry hearts? What about “joy”? Happiness might be a fruit in life, but the root of life is joy. So where is joy to be found? St. Paul is our guide in the lesson for today. Let’s look at the four jewels of joy.
First, “Cocooned in Christ.” Our nation’s constitution declares that one of our unalienable rights is to pursue happiness. And do we ever pursue——putting our attention, time, money, and labor into many things that we hope will soothe are aching lives. And if that doesn’t work—our world provides substances to numb our sadness—more food, more drink, more games, more pills, more cosmetics, more excitement, more bitcoin. Tim Keller, a well known Presbyterian pastor and writer in New York, is suffering from pancreatic cancer, diagnosed in early 2020. In The Atlantic Monthly, he writes about growing his faith in the face of death, emphasizing this point—that when we try to make heaven out of this world, trying to find comfort and security in things, and people, and our accomplishments, the more empty we become over a lifetime. He calls all these things “pseudo-salvations” and writes: “When we turn good things into ultimate things, when we make them our greatest consolations and loves, they will necessarily disappoint us bitterly.” Happiness has a short shelf life.
Paul knew from his experience how the hype of life can so easily descend into darkness. So he announces with urgency — “Rejoice in the Lord always. (He repeats!) I will say it again: Rejoice!” This is the absolute, cornerstone of life. Notice he doesn’t say follow the Lord or remember the Lord. We can love like Jesus, but that’s fruit, not root. We mix this up all the time. The root is relationship, not our response. Listen! Rejoice “in the Lord”…be joined, be claimed, be taken up in the Lord. It’s about the relationship above all. The main message is not about reforming the world, but being transformed by the Word. Our work in the world depends on being born and blossoming in the wonder of God. Before you roll up your sleeves to serve, open up your heart to surrender.
The Eucharist—we take into ourselves the bread and wine, body and blood of Christ. Baptism—in the water, we are named in Christ, die in Christ, will be raised in Christ. The Bible is filled with this sensory language. We are told not only to believe that God is good, but to “taste” God’s goodness. If you are outside a cathedral and look at the stained glass windows, they may appear gray, black, dull. But go inside the cathedral, gaze up into the light and the splendor, brightness, power, and wonder of the stories will dazzle and sparkle and stir the heart. Being in the Lord will ignite imagination and courage and love that cannot be experienced from being on the outside. Another image—As the squishy caterpillar cocooning in metamorphosis grows and rises up with the beauty of a butterfly, so we also, cocooning in Christ are raised up to engage in new life. The wonder of transformation inside unleashes the beauty and work outside. All of worship, our prayers, our hymns, our gathering, our reading, our silence feed our cocooning in Christ. Augustine, in his most famous sentence sums it up: “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” And the irony, writes Tim Keller is this: “Kathy (his wife) and I have discovered that the less we try to make this world into a heaven, the more we will be able to enjoy it.” And, I might add, the more we will be able to serve the world with gusto and grace.
Second, “Held in Hope.” In our world, hope faces heavy headwinds. Paul proclaims joy while he is in joyless circumstances—he awaits his death in a Roman prison and members in the congregation of Philippi are arguing. Paul doesn’t say rejoice as long as your life is joyful; he commands “Rejoice always—in all circumstances, no exception. “Always” would be impossible if this were our joy. But, remember, we don’t achieve this joy; we receive this joy, a gift from the Lord, in the Lord. That’s a world of difference. Joy in the Lord has power, it’s elastic, withstands heat and cold, does not fluctuate with the ups and downs of life. Henri Nouwen describes it this way: our true joy is in “the quiet stream that lies beneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of life.” We are so easily impacted by how life and others treat us—as if the ups and downs of our lives control us. The quiet stream in Nouwen’s image lies beneath the many fluctuations of life. This is the home of God where we are grounded, guided, and graced. The home of hope is in the heart of God—where we are defined, kept, and blessed. We are not captives of the world, but we are children of God. And Paul reminds us that this peace often cannot be explained. So he alerts us that this peace “ passes all understanding”…we can’t sort it out, but we experience something. The heart has reason which reason knows not (Pasqual). Thankfully our faith doesn’t depend on the map in our mind, but rests in the lap of the Lord.
Only one thing is required–we are summoned to surrender, difficult in this world of ego. But surrender is the primary posture of faith. One of the most powerful, simple prayers of surrender is Oscar Romero’s prayer. Archbishop of El Salvador in the 1970s, killed in March, 1980 he led reforms against poverty, social injustice, torture tactics. At a very low point, held in hope by his Lord, but weakened, Romero prayed this: “ I cannot. You must. I am Yours. Show me the way”. This simple prayer of surrender summarizes the true path of joy. What are you now being summoned to surrender into the lap of your Lord?
Third, “Grounded in Gratitude.” The theologian Karl Barth once said “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” The 13th century theologian, Meister Eckhart said that “If the only prayer you said was Thank You, that would be enough.” Paul accents thanksgiving in our lesson because he knows: Joy blossoms in the soil of the thankful heart. Interestingly, the Greek word for “thanksgiving” is “eucharistia”. If you thank someone in Greece for good service today, you would say “eucharistome.” Sound like another word in worship “Eucharist” (communion)…means “Thanksgiving.” The Eucharist is the perpetual thanksgiving dinner. God, the Giver of it all, showers us all with unending simple gifts. Begin and end each day with thanksgiving and your heart will soften.
Then sometimes we are stunned into gratitude by the mystery of God’s workings. Case in point—With permission, I share this story. A man I know has been discouraged by a variety of disappointments with a future that seemed to be empty. He had been feeling lonely, absent of energy, depleted. One night he went to a small out of the way Mexican cafe—to eat, to read, to feed his loneliness. The host welcomed him and invited him to hang out, eat, and work—he felt a nibble of God’s grace. Near him was a young Hispanic couple enjoying their meal. Awhile later, they got up, smiled at him, wished him a good day, and left. Minutes passed and the co-owner, a middle aged Hispanic woman came by his table. He pulled out his wallet and she said, “Sir there is no charge.” He repeated that he certainly was ready to pay, but she also repeated, “There is no charge.” Now he was baffled and asked why. She pointed to the nearby table and said the young couple paid for his dinner. He was stunned! He told her he had not talked with them, didn’t know them. Why would they do this? Who was he to them?
And then God cracked him open as God often does. His own words: “It was then that I began to lose my composure and weep as I experienced the full impact of this totally unmerited act of kindness, offered to me at the very moment I needed it most by the unlikeliest of people; a young Hispanic couple out on a date whom I didn’t even know and wouldn’t even recognize if I saw them again. I was overcome by this totally impossible act of grace. As I regained enough composure to speak, I told the owner through my tears, “You have absolutely no idea what this means to me with what’s going on in my life right now, what it means to me at this very moment.” Standing over my chair and without saying a word, she opened her loving arms, placed them around my neck and gave me an enormous hug, saying “You know Jesus loves you!” I was now completely undone. Never had I experienced such acts of grace in so powerful a way at the precise moment when my heart had been so profoundly prepared to receive them.”
And the name of the restaurant was “Mi Puerta”—“My Door”. He went from outside to the inside through the door and found what he never expected. What mysterious door is God opening for your now so that you might taste the goodness of God? Isn’t it interesting how God used the simple acts of kindness of the couple and the hostess as instruments to manifest God’s great mercy. How will God use you, as simple as your acts of kindness might be, to help transport the beauty of love and grace, the fruits of the wonder of God?
Fourth, “Wrapped in Wonder.” Paul writes today that we should not be anxious (easier said than done). And he provides an antidote to worry—“The Lord is near, he reminds us, in every situation, with prayer and petition, present your requests to God.” “The Lord is near.”—some take that to mean Jesus is soon coming again. But more importantly, it also means the Lord is near, here, dear…now with you, in your midst, by your side, listening. Often we live as if Jesus were dead—simply a memory of love. But Paul says the Lord is near and here—let him sit by you, talk with him, don’t keep your worries and agitations to yourself…put them in the Lord’s lap. I Peter reminds us “Cast all your cares upon the Lord for he cares for you.” Worry is not the main problem; it’s where you put your worry. Martin Luther in his last letter written to his wife, Katy, before his death, wrote this simple line—“Pray and let God worry.” Give your worry to God whose arms are wide open for you. This doesn’t mean you sit on your bottom and give up. It means you link your worry to God’s wonder..the God who is present, not absent.
Luther was drawn to Meister Eckhart, the 13th century theologian who underscored the dynamic presence of the Lord in our lives. Eckhart wrote: “I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.” Prayer is being wrapped into the wonder of God. And prayer is more about listening– being alert, eyes open, ears tuned, heart prepared for what door God is about to open in your life as we have seen.
In Luke 1, the story of Mary illuminates this God of surprise and the miracle of faith. Little Mary, and was she ever—a poor wife to be, unknown, unremarkable, lowly, ordinary. Then Luke reports that something happened, unexpected, out of the blue, to this little, teenager, ordinary one—An angel appeared and the word “angel” in Greek means “messenger.” So who really knows how Gabriel was dressed. At any rate, Gabriel enters her life with the assurance “The Lord is with you, and you are favored by God.” God always rolls out the welcome mat for us regardless of our fear. Luke writes that she is perplexed, doesn’t really know what’s going on, maybe suspicious. Gabriel again assures her—don’t be afraid. As we know he announces that Mary will give birth to Jesus. Mary pushes back—can’t be, I’m a virgin, etc, etc. We all have excuses to evade God’s surprises that might turn us upside down. Gabriel delivers the promise to Mary that is given to us as well –“The power of the Most High will overshadow you and the Holy Spirit will come upon you.” This is a beautiful and powerful promise for us all—overshadowed by the Most High, nourished by the Spirit. And then comes the miracle of faith, gift of the Spirit. Mary responds to this whirlwind of worry: “Here am I, servant of the Lord, let it be according to your Word.” Little Mary take a big step into a magnificent miracle. Luther said there were three miracles at Christmas: The first was that God became human. The second was that this baby was born of a virgin. And the third was that Mary believed all of this…and Luther added that the third miracle is the greatest. Surrendering in faith to the wonder of God is the precious gift of the Spirit and the source of all true joy. May all this be so and may it all be now. In the name of Jesus, Amen.