"The Joy Of Knowing"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 12, 2004
Isaiah 35:1010; Matthew 11:2-11
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?”
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)
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
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
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
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
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
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 . . .