"The Joy Of Knowing"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 12, 2004

Isaiah 35:1010; Matthew 11:2-11

     As we light the third Advent candle of Joy, we readily recognize that a good number of people this year will not resonate with this theme.  There is so much sadness.  Many people appear to be a long way from experiencing that deep-seated confidence that all is well in their world.            

     For many people, joy comes from being in an environment that appears to produce it.  This morning we will see how our environment creates a fatal trap that captures most of us from time to time.  The coming of Jesus into our world presents us with a source of joy that often remains undiscovered.  As a result of not finding this pearl of great price, we experience so much unhappiness in our lives.

     For example, people are devastated when the person they thought was the love of their life suddenly ends their engagement.  Some of us have not moved beyond the outcome of our National elections.  We empathize with good friends who experienced the tragic death of their teenage daughter in a car accident.  

     There are people in pain, people with dramatic family issues, people who are confused about the purpose and meaning of their lives and people who have just had a parent diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  For these and similar reasons many people are not in the mood for parties, gift exchanges or even coming to church.  “Why bother,” they believe, “what do I have to celebrate?” 

     Of course, there is the other side to the environmental trap.  Joy can become associated with the purchase of a new car that has all the bells and whistles.  Joy comes when a pathology report tells us that our tumor was benign.  Joy is when our high school graduates are accepted at the universities of their choice on full academic scholarships.  Joy is when our salary is enhanced by $35,000 because our company does not want to lose us to a competitor. 

     There is something to be said about all such experiences.  We have been there. Most of us have had our share of mountaintops and valleys. Both extremes are a permanent aspect of living. We must remember, however, that these experiences come and go.  Wise people have learned never to place their identities within either arena of pain or pleasure.  

     Since change can occur very rapidly and without warning, is there a joy we can experience that does not rely on what is going on externally in our lives?   As we search for this source today, we are going to look at two models.              

     The first one appears in our lesson today.   As we have mentioned, the joy most of us are used to is a fleeting experience.  This was certainly true for John the Baptist who is saying something very different from what was recorded in last week’s lesson.  Last week, John described himself as the one who was preparing the way for a person whose sandals he was unworthy to carry.  He told his listeners that the one coming after him would baptize with fire.  Circumstances changed rapidly for John and so did the quality of his joy.           

     In today’s lesson, we find John in prison.  Not only was he behind bars, but also there is evidence that John was filled with doubts.  His joy was fading.  He sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one that John said was coming or should we look for another?” Jesus says, “Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing.  The blind can see, the lame can walk, those with leprosy have been made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life and the Good News is being preached.”  Then Jesus added, “How filled with joy are those who have no doubts about me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)            

     The second model comes from two people who sustained their confidence even though their circumstances were uncertain. There is nothing more compelling about the familiar Christmas story than the way Mary and Joseph displayed their centeredness on God’s presence during the awkward pregnancy, the timing of the Roman taxation, the crowded inn and the birth of their child in a stable.  

     None of these events made sense.  Mary and Joseph were products of a tradition where stories that featured God’s presence and actions with remarkable clarity were told and retold by their ancestors.   Moses delivered the Jews from Pharaoh in a most dramatic fashion.  Moses led them through the sea during the most spectacular event ever recorded in the collective consciousness of the Jews. Against such a background, how could Joseph and Mary possibly interpret their experiences and derive any meaning from them?  Think about their unfolding drama the next time life’s events appear to pull the carpet out from under your feet. 

     With these two models before us, where should we look for joy if not from our environment?  There is a joy that comes to us from knowing that God’s will is being done through us even though the results escape our immediate detection.  This joy enables us to rise above those moments when boyfriends and girlfriends suddenly abandon us for someone else.  This joy causes us to cling to something extremely powerful when rapid change completely alters the landscape of our life and destiny.  It is trusting the currents of the river to take us where we are most needed. 

     Joy must be redefined as coming from a quiet confidence in God.  We must refuse to allow our circumstances to define us.  Joy comes from knowing that God is working through what we say and do. We must cling to such an understanding rather than blaming and complaining when life appears bitter or celebrating and praising God when our life appears to have been singled out by God for special material blessings            

     The third Advent candle of Joy seems out of touch with so much that we are experiencing in the world today.  However, when we remember what Jesus brought, we can develop the power to change our orientation toward our world.  He brought with him a confidence, the source of which he wanted each of us to find.  It was not that Jesus was insensitive to the challenges we face; quite the contrary.   He wanted us to discover the inner joy that enables us to stand forth and reflect the same confidence in our relationship with God as he did.           

     It took time and some failures before Jesus acquired this skill.  The Scriptures are very clear on this.  None of what he taught came to him automatically. Yes, he angrily overturned the tables of the moneychangers when they set up their practice in the Temple courtyard.  Yes, he frequently lost patience with his disciples.  Yes, he was bothered and had to withdraw from everyone when John the Baptist was senselessly beheaded. Yes, he wrestled with his own wants and desires in the garden when he asked God to take the cup of suffering from him.  

     What Jesus learned, however, was how to set aside his own stuff in order to become a more purified form through which God could work.  He constantly reminded his listeners of a reality that we often find difficult to accept.  He said, “The words that I have spoken to you do not come from me.  It is God who remains in me who does the works you see.” (John 14:10b) 

     He had this sense of knowing that in spite of what could happen to him, God would communicate through him until his physical form could no longer do so.  We have to remember that he invited us to follow him because Jesus was convinced that we could do the same.  He believed in us as much as he trusted God. 

     On Thursday afternoon, I was with a group of pastors who had been invited by our new Bishop to listen and respond to his vision for our Annual Conference.  He used a PowerPoint presentation to highlight his vision.  Then the questions and comments started.  Many pastors appeared to have missed the possibilities that might grow from the bishop’s insights.

     One said, “Every bishop who comes to this Annual Conference tries something like this.”  Another said, “Are you going to be there for us personally when these changes are not received well by the members of our churches?”   Still another said, “The piece in your vision that is missing for me is the face that needs to confront the power brokers in Baltimore’s City Government.  Are you going to represent the United Methodist Church and confront the injustices that we see?”  

     I wanted so badly to hear Bishop John Schol say, “My kingdom is not of this world.”   So many pastors want to fix structures and forms instead of healing hearts and bringing people together that hold diverse points of view.   Many of us clergy remain committed to rearranging the furniture on the decks of the Titanic. We forget that, like Jesus, we were called to be a light in darkness.  

     We cannot communicate timeless joy if we are always searching for it among our circumstances.  We must find it coming from God who alone can supply every need.  Sometimes even we pastors forget this and lose our way.             

     Joy becomes a byproduct of total confidence as our faithfulness to God prepares us to become a critical instrument in creation, one that will hasten the day when the lamb will lie down by the lion.  When life takes those unpredictable turns, as it will, we must simply trust that our branch will grow in the direction it has been bent.            

     We will not find joy if our stuff remains the center of our attention instead of God whose will we claim to be serving.  We will not find joy as long as we personalize every unkind response that others make to us.  We will not find joy if we believe that we have failed.  Moses had to leave his tasks to Joshua.  Jesus had to leave his mission to eleven very insecure disciples.  Paul had to leave the substance of his ministry to a number of letters that he wrote.   BUT look what happened when they did.  We do not know who is taking their cues for living from us.  We do not know whom we are influencing.  We do not understand the meaning of events that come into our path.  We do not know what God will do with us.  All we have the potential to do is bloom where we are planted.  

     Jesus brought this confidence in God into our world just as did his parents when they were preparing for his birth.  Dare we develop this same trust as we look forward to his coming?  Jesus came to teach us the way to do this.  The big question is:  Will we follow?     


    We enter the sanctuary this morning aware of our own poverty in being joyful in all circumstances.  We sense the patience of Mary and Joseph while remembering our responses when life is difficult.  We sense their acceptance of delivering their son in a stable, while we remember our anger when fairness appears missing in our lives.  We sense their trusting you for their outcome, while we recall moments when we engaged in faultfinding and blame.  How easy it is, O God, to see love in others and yet miss giving it away ourselves.  Teach us how to bring joy into the lives of people who remain unhappy because of the tyranny of little things.  Amen.


    Our days have passed so quickly, O God, and we find ourselves seated in our church for our third Sunday in Advent.  We count every moment during our journey as a blessing if our walk has helped us think more creatively, if our walk has helped our loving thoughts to seek a more refined and explicit expression, and if our walk has helped us recognize all the angels in the flesh who are helping our world to become a brighter and more peaceful place to live. 

    We have learned that just as a tiny match can reduce a large building to ashes, so one life has ignited a burning desire in millions of people over thousands of years to make his message visible all over the world.  Thank you for your presence in us.  May we learn that in every circumstance, you have given us what is sufficient not only to survive but also to thrive.  As we increase our trust in your leading, may we find ourselves in a unique place in time when, like Jesus, we might influence the course of history by simply being alive and faithful to our understanding of you. 

    Inspire those who join our fellowship today.  What a gift they represent to our church family.  Empower them to be faithful members of the Body of Christ.  Bless their lives with seized moments to make love visible.   We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .