"Finding Joy In Our Routines"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 8, 2002

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

     The second candle on our Advent Wreath represents joy!  We appear to recognize this emotion rather well.  Most of us have recently seen these ridiculous commercials on television where a wife or a husband creatively communicates to their spouse that a surprise awaits them in the driveway or garage.  Out there sits a new SUV with a large red bow on it.  Of course, the look on the spouse's face is one of utter joy. 

     Perhaps the most absurd story-line in such a commercial appeared last year where the setting was breakfast on Christmas morning.  A college-aged daughter was home over the seasonal break and the Dad and Mom were already sitting at the table.  As the daughter joins them, her father says, "Your mother and I have decided to give you a new CD player for Christmas, but it's outside."  They pulled the kitchen curtains aside and there in the driveway is her CD player which happens to be inside her new Lexus. . . . Right!  Most of us can identify with giving the keys to such a vehicle to our daughter as a little "stocking stuffer"!

     We tend to associate joy with a pleasant surprise, a jolting experience that makes us overwhelmed with happiness.  A woman gets an engagement ring and she dances around the room.  A young man receives a letter of acceptance from the university of his choice and he can hardly wait to share the news with his folks.  Yet we have lived long enough to understand that such joy is momentary and may not last very long. 

     The experience of joy also depends on what else is happening in our lives. For example, Christmas may be a challenge this year because this is our first one without our mate.  Parents lament when their children are no longer communicating to them.  There are people getting pink slips at the office.  Joy can be missing  when a threatening diagnosis distracts us from the celebration of Jesus' birth. Sometimes people have allowed their faith to slide into a place where it lacks relevancy.  Faith no longer works for them and there is no use pretending otherwise. When we are sad, joy appears not to lighten our load. 

     Is there a joy that will help us rise above life's routine melodramas?  In the opening chapter of Mark's Gospel, we read about John the Baptist preaching and baptizing in the desert.  John was well aware that people needed to be drawn closer to God.  They were scattered like sheep without a shepherd.  Everyone had their excuses as to why God was no longer sitting in the closest row to the stage where their life drama was unfolding.  

     John must have been a persuasive preacher because people came from Judea and Jerusalem to hear him.   People who are contented with their routines would feel little motivation to venture into the desert to hear someone preach to them.  Our lesson tells us that they came in droves, confessing their sins and being baptized. They wanted to hear about the God who had been missing from their lives.

     Historically, we know that John was living in a time where there was not much happening to bring joy to anyone.  He had little clothing to wear.  He ate grasshoppers and wild honey for nourishment.  He was extremely upset about King Herod's arrogant life-style.  He was having an open affair with his brother's wife and had brought her into the palace to live. The Jews found this intolerable and John never missed an opportunity to condemn him publicly.

     According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, "The word of God had not been heard in Israel for over 400 years prior to the arrival of John the Baptizer."  Clearly, little was happening in that part of the world that would produce joy in people's lives.

     What would motivate John to begin preaching during such a time? The answer is that John had a vision of what was to come.  His excitement was fueled by anticipating and announcing the arrival very soon of one who would make God visible. He told his listeners, "The man who will come after me is much greater than I am.  I am able to baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."  John was steadfast in his conviction that God's Spirit had entered the world in a form that humanity had never before seen. 

     If we review various chapters of our lives, we will see that sustained joy occurred when we were looking beyond the present to what was to come.  Without a vision of something wonderful coming, we can easily remain trapped by our interpretation of what is happening to us now. Such an understanding of life can be deadly.   What we fear may be an end to our road may only be a bend.  Without eager anticipation of what is to come, we often seal our fate in the present by our own judgments.  If we are eagerly anticipating something wonderful, we are sustained.

     When we read the traditional Christmas story, we might imagine that such an understanding supported Mary and Joseph during their experience. We can see them making their way to Bethlehem near her due date.  We can imagine their resignation when told that the inn was full.  We can envision them delivering their infant in an extremely inhospitable environment. They seemingly accepted what was happening without making any judgments.  Imagine having such power over our lives.   

     The joy that supported them was not found in their immediate circumstances but in the knowledge that through them God was bringing something into the world.  Think of how each of us would respond to all events if we understood our lives in this perspective.  So often we do not see ourselves in this role or context. 

     Many of us believe that our lives are too routine to be significant.  We think, "Who are we to bring something of God into the world?".  But think again!  Often we are very limited in our understanding.  Love has many forms.  Think about what Jesus asked us to be, e.g., the leaven for the loaf, the Good Samaritan, etc.  Each time we engage in such an activity, we are bringing God into our world.

     One day a woman called me about a lot of towels and washcloths she wanted to give away.  It just so happened that I knew a social worker who was involved in settling a family into a new residence, a family who had virtually nothing.  Debbie took these articles to this family and I received a beautiful thank you note from the mother which I forwarded to the donor. 

     The woman who made the gift called me.  She said, "I am so glad you sent me that note.  When something so simple as old towels and washcloths mean so much to a family with very little, it makes me want to empty my whole house and give it to them."  That woman brought God into the world for a family of strangers, a family who believed that no one cared.  Even had I not sent the note to the donor, love would have become visible in the family who had received.

     Recently many of us went shopping for kids that we will never meet.  We either bought a number of useful items for children whose parents are in jail or we purchased a sweatshirt for children who live in families operating in or around poverty levels. We know that the new member's class has been collecting children's clothing for Martha's Closet.  What we do not know is what will happen as a result.  We do not realize that we are bringing something of God into their world.

     Before Jim and Marge Gribble moved to the Eastern Shore, they were members of St. Matthew's.  Marge worked at the Prince George's County Detention Center.  She was on the inside when our Christmas stockings were distributed to the families.  She told me that when the children saw their names printed on the individual stockings, the experience of receiving them became very personal.  It became extremely important to them that someone knew their names.  

     When we take our teddy bears around to the various senior centers, the staff frequently tells us stories about how our bears appear to energize the residence.  They do not feel as alone when they have their bear. Some of our bears accompany patients as they enter the operating room for surgery.  They become the first thing they hold on to as they lie in the recovery room.  Yet suppose we knew none of these stories.  Love would have still entered the lives of strangers because we made those bears possible.

     John the Baptist was motivated to preach because of his vision.  He was murdered before he knew what his role had been. We have the joy of taking into the world what John could only announce was coming.  No deed done in love is ever wasted because God is the one using each of them to heal lives as tomorrow is fashioned.  Timeless joy comes in knowing that we are the vehicles of God's creativity.

     Life can be boring and routine.  A stay-at-home Mom can talk herself into being starved for intellectual stimulation. A middle management executive can feel undervalued and not appreciated.  A retiree may agonize over what he accomplished during his career. What transforms every life without exception is when we realize that we are a valuable part of an expansion of God's creativity that is well beyond our comprehension to grasp.      

     When we hold this vision, stay-at-home mothers can realize that they are preparing their children to be tomorrow's saviors.  Middle management executives can sense that they are making decisions that were influencing the development of something like the Hubble Telescope.  Retirees can become aware that they were on the ground floor of something like stem cell research that could lead to cures that may save thousands of lives from premature deaths.

     With all of this being said, the results we cherish and savor today are nothing compared to the future God creates with what each of us brings into the world.  This understanding can and will produce timeless joy in us.  Those of us who think that our lives do not count for much remain unaware of the power we possess each time we bring something of God into the world, something every bit as vital as John the Baptist's words or Mary and Joseph's infant son.  After all, would the life and teachings of Jesus exist today had no one brought a written record of them into our world?

     Our faithful discipleship allows God's essence to mutate into millions of different forms as we bring love into the world.  When we understand our role, absolutely nothing can remain routine.  When we know this, everything we do for another person has purpose.  Knowing this helps us find timeless joy in what we typically call routine. 


     Eternal yet always present God, as we live in a world that constantly keeps tensions swirling around us, we are grateful for these moments.  Worship stills our minds.  Our experience together helps us focus on the essentials for living.  When Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of me," he knew how easily we can wander from his Kingdom.  Give us the grace to share the experience of our church family with others.  As our spirits are nourished, help us reveal more of your kingdom.  Amen.


     As we enter our worship experience this morning, we come from a variety of experiences.  Some of us have just had surgery.  Some of us have had the joy of no school for two days.  Some of us have experienced the loss of a loved one.  Even though this is Advent, the odd and unexpected experiences of life never stop happening to us. 

     This season comes around every year and we are seldom prepared for all that occasionally comes with it -- pulling us, distracting us, making us doubt, or surprising us, healing us and helping us to feel loved.  None of us share these experiences alone, even though we often feel that way.  Touch us this morning with the sense of community.  We can sit alone in our pews while never knowing what is happening in the lives of those sitting next to us.  Bless them, Lord.  Help each of us to understand that we are not alone.  Help us realize that we are loved and that you created us to love.

      As we continue our walk into Advent, may each of us remain sensitized by the specific role Jesus asked us to play in your world.  As we make his message visible, we bring a part of you into the lives of others.  May each of us find enormous comfort and peace in realizing that by bringing your spirit into the lives of others, we are as important as Mary and Joseph who brought Jesus into the world.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .