"Understanding God's Process Produces Joy"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/20/1999
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Luke 1:39-44
What an incredible spectacle unfolded in front of us! Through the mediums of television and the radio we were able to hear brilliant, articulate speeches, observe legal posturing, and watch people on both sides of the aisle display emotion and passion. We have not seen anything like it in our lives. In the middle of the debate was a small document called The Constitution of the United States. It merely stood there spelling out the rules by which justice will be upheld in this country.
All of us who took the opportunity to experience the drama yesterday watched as reasonable people struggled with their interpretation of that document. They used their best wisdom. Yet in the midst of it, there was an unseen spirit that said, "We will struggle with each other on a profound level, but we also vow that we will never engage in physical violence if we cannot all be winners." The fact that a part of the world's family has come this far brings joy.
What a statement we have made to the rest of the world! And believe it, the rest of the world was watching. They poke fun at our democratic system. Other nations have chided us from their point of view by saying "we have made a lot out of nothing." But in this country with all its many faults and flaws, our form of government works.
Many times yesterday, I thought I was in church listening to good preaching. People from both political parties spoke with marvelous insight and great spiritual conviction. Rather than being one of the saddest days in our history, historically, yesterday may turn out to be one of America's finest.
What we need to affirm is not the debate and not even the outcome; what we need to salute is the process. It worked peacefully. If we are not happy with what happened yesterday, we will watch as the drama now unfolds in the Senate. And if we are still not happy with the result in the Senate, we can register those thoughts with our vote during the next election.
What we are experiencing is a process that instilled so much confidence that many Americans went Christmas shopping and watched football. They knew there was nothing happening that would make them be afraid. This event is the most recent experience that comes the closest to the joy I want to address this morning.
Too many of us define our joy by linking our experience of it to events that spike our emotions. Many of us have not yet learned how to detach ourselves from our circumstances. As a result, far too many of us experience joy as a fleeting moment of exhilaration rather than a sustaining element of our daily spiritual experience.
For example, some of us may wonder what life will be like once our children are grown. We think of the joy that will come when we no longer have to wait for them to come in at night, when we no longer have to worry about them completing their homework assignments, or which person they might bring home to meet us as the potential "one," or what they may choose to do with their future. When that day came for some of you, did it bring a sustained joy?
We may isolate joy as something a new bride experiences as she plans everything she wants to have happen on her wedding day. There may be great joy when Dad and Mom say, "Honey, you are our only daughter. We want you to remember this day forever. Here is a blank check. Plan whatever you desire." Her emotions may spike with such an invitation. Is this the kind of joy we seek?
In keeping with our Advent theme, we might imagine what the Hebrews were anticipating with their long-awaited Messiah. Their joy did not come by producing change for themselves, rather it came from their anticipating the arrival of someone who would make a decisive difference to the quality of their lives. They thought, "Won't everything be great, won't everything be wonderful once God's savior gets here?"
This theme has been a dominant thought pattern in every culture on earth, and it continues to cycle and recycle with every new generation. We see this theme in most of our movies, our novels, and our stories of success. It is deeply imbedded into us. The storyline basically is this: Some event will occur that will bring joy to our lives. Some great hero will come to save us from our enemies, from our circumstances, or from some future tragedy. The new animated film, The Prince of Egypt, rekindles this same theme all over again.
If anything has been learned from the history of the Christian Church, it has been that anticipating the arrival of a Savior places us alongside the Jews who were always looking to the future for their hope. Even for the early Christians, Jesus' arrival was not enough. When their lives once again became challenging and difficult, they were anticipating his hasty return. That did not happen.
When we believe some hero will come to save us, we postpone our taking the responsibility for sitting down together and deciding what we want our future to be. Jesus did not come among us to teach that we should wait for his coming again. Jesus sent disciples into the world with one essential commandment, "Love one another as I have loved you." He taught us that each one of us can make a difference by behaving in that manner. Do we believe that?
Israel's problem was that they felt powerless to do anything. They were waiting generation after generation for someone else to come and do for them what they felt they could not do for themselves. Their only joy came from anticipation of their hero's arrival. We do this in our personal lives all the time but we label the process with a different name.
Single people await the arrival of their "soul mate" or of that special "woman or man." We wait for the "right job" to come. We wait for God to do something to help us. We do this while we hold on to the blue print of what we want. When we believe that something does not match what we are looking for, we toss it aside and look for another. Are we being fussy or just plain blind to what God is sending us?
The myth of someone saving us from ourselves is empty. The myth of some magical circumstance capable of bringing peace and joy will never happen. Life is not like that. Jesus came and what happened? The Jews were looking for the kind of hero they had dreamed about for centuries. Their dream was so powerful that it prevented them from seeing anything other than what they wanted to see. As a result, they tossed aside the very one that God sent.
No matter how long we wait or anticipate, life's experiences will never deliver the sustained joy that all of us desire. We see this everyday in our personal lives. For example, our children wait eagerly for Christmas morning. For a brief moment everyone is filled with joy but almost as soon as the last gift is unwrapped, the struggling begins.
We all know the drama by heart. Our youngest will say, "Jimmy's teddy bear is brown and mine is white. I want a brown one too. I don't want some dumb, stupid polar bear. Besides his is bigger than mine! Mom!" Parents roll their eyes, knowing how hard it is to match the image their child holds of what will bring them joy. Think about God who has billions of us, each one of us believing and praying for something different that each "needs" before joy comes.
Consider that bride. No matter of how touching, magnificent and expensive the long anticipated wedding was, couples ultimately begin their real bonding the moment each of them begins to deal with all the unresolved issues that are going to come up for them. This is how it should be. This is what marriages do. Marriages supply the classroom for refinement. Such conflicts will always arise in the areas of values, habits and traditions. Couples who do not struggle in these areas have become masters of control. And they wonder why their marriages fail.
We control each other by saying things like, "That issue is not negotiable. Period! End of discussion." Or we will cry and say, "You are not listening to me." Or, we will use labels, "You are stubborn and bullheaded. You want only what you want and no one else's thoughts or opinions matter." Have we ever had such discussions in our relationships? Comments like these are all very effective ways of saying, "You are not behaving the way I want you to. When you conform to my expectations, joy will return to our marriage."
We have spent a lot of time talking about what produces fleeting moments of joy. And we have talked about why so many of life's thrilling events are unable to sustain that joy every day of our lives. What is it that you want? What are we looking for? The answer may surprise you. Joy has little to do with your circumstances. As we witnessed yesterday in the halls of Congress, joy causes us to rise above who wins and loses. Joy comes when we discover there is a process that works. What is that process that as it governs our spiritual evolution? Let me describe it for you.
We cannot place our trust in God and then expect that life will unfold according to our design for joy. If there is anyone who demonstrated this, it was Jesus himself. Jesus was totally confident that his life was part of a process which would eventually liberate people from hatred, bitterness, strife, jealousy, and hypocrisy. Such thought patterns have the power to enslave us. Each time one of these is part of your spirit, you know you are being held prisoner. There is no mistaking this. There can be no sustained joy when even one of these demons consumes our heart, mind and spirit.
In our classical Christmas story, Mary and Joseph shared a common journey that was hard and difficult. This is why we love this story. They never complained. They never felt cheated by God. They never felt that life was harsh or that God had abandoned them. Their joy came from a confidence that no matter what they were experiencing the process of God's Will was being done through them. We see this same understanding within all the major personalities in the Hebrew Bible.
For example, when Joseph was sold as a slave to a traveling caravan of Midianite traders, his faith said, "God must have something for me to do in Egypt. And that 'something' will be revealed to me once I get there." This understanding was the basis for his hope. This belief gave Joseph a consistent joy. Nothing destroyed him emotionally or spiritually because he understood everything as God's Will unfolding around him. Joseph was not looking for or waiting for anyone else to save him. Do we see the difference? Moses never waited for someone else to arrive and save the day.
Some people long for a savior while others rise to the occasion and lead people, build arks, speak the truth, sit in the front of buses marked "Whites Only," and dare to stand for causes that arise from within them. Joseph rose to the occasion because of his faith and so can each of us.
Do you believe that God has equipped you with everything you need to fulfill your destiny? If so, there is great joy in living it. And that joy will be sustained regardless of where we are or what is happening to us. In essence, God created us to be exactly who we want to be. We can wait for someone else or we can be the being God created. Jesus was the latter. We do not have to judge the worth of every experience because every one of them has worth in it for us. We simply have to bring our joy and confidence to all of them. When we do that, we will see miracles happening all around us. Experiencing these miracles brings sustained joy.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
How grateful we are, O God, that you created us with the ability to experience joy. Those of us who have participated in the creation of new life know joy. those of us who delight in the smiles and laughter of children know joy. Those of us who anticipate your presence in every experience know joy. Those of us who have surrendered to you our fears, worries, and our sense of unworthiness know joy in our soul. Thank you for giving us an appetite for inspiration and the capacity to experience it when such moments come. Lead us, O God, not to seek joy but to be joy. May the peaceful radiance of our spirits inspire all of us to be filled with confidence and gratitude this day. Your presence has touched the earth. We were blind and now we see. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Our days have passed so quickly, O God, and we find ourselves seated in our pews for the final Sunday of our walk through Advent. We count every moment a blessing if our walk has helped us think more creatively, if our walk has helped to cause those thoughts to seek expression, and if our walk has helped us see all the other angels in the flesh who are helping our world to become a brighter and more peaceful place to live.
Thank you, God, for your faithfulness to us. Thank you for giving us Bethlehem, a scene that has helped all of us to understand how your nature reveals itself. So often we want to focus on the issues that affected Mary and Joseph. We are impacted by taxes, by trips, by the number of places that have no room for us, and by the numbers of people who appear insensitive to our needs. You have taught us to turn aside from such images in order to see where you have given birth to a miracle.
Awaken us from the dreams we have been having and direct our attention to matters within the Kingdom that your Son brought to us, those of hope, peace, love and joy. We pray all of these things through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .