"Joy Is Being Fully Alive”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – December 14, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 126; Isaiah 61:8-11


    This is our third Sunday in Advent and we have lighted the candle of Joy.  If there is something that the populations of our planet need right now, it is a source of inspiration that produces more joy.  There is more to life than falling oil prices, our responses to horrible tragedies happening all over the world or our complaining about the long lines at airports when we are trying to get back to our island.  We need more smiles and laughter in our lives.

    Not long ago, someone sent me an email that featured scene after scene that completely changed my inner chemistry.  Joy is the best word I can use to describe my response to what I was seeing.   The e-mail showed babies that were old enough to sit up.  These little ones were laughing so hard that they could hardly contain themselves. Some even fell backward and continued their laugher.  It was among the funniest sequences that I have ever seen.

    Any viewer of these innocent children could not help but laugh, too.  Why?  Laughter is contagious; it signals a light-hearted spirit in the person filled with little else but pure joy. Whatever was stimulating their laughter was left to our imaginations.  We wish that such joy would last and last, but often it is short-lived as we return to what we call normal.   

    More than likely most of us do not think about experiencing joy that often.  When it happens, it happens.  We are not people that search for joyful moments.  Still, what produces joy?  Where does it come from?  Why do light-hearted moments have such a short shelf-life?  There actually is a scientific explanation for joy. 

    Science is forever changing what we know about our physiology.  For years, we have been told that romantic love cannot possibly sustain itself because it has its basis in the chemistry of our brains.  Recently, a company released the strongest evidence thus far to substantiate this claim.  Researchers have isolated a substance found in the brain that separates people who are romantically involved from those of us who have been married for one or more years.

    High levels of a genetic marker were found in individuals who had fallen in love.  This is the substance responsible for the inability to concentrate, the daily obsessing over this person and the sense that this object of their affection is the One. We have all known people like this, and, no doubt, there was a time when many of us experienced such strong, uncontrollable feelings ourselves. 

    The study revealed that after the first year of marriage, this chemical marker had dramatically declined to more normal levels. Nothing had changed in either partner except the illusions each held about the other.  As time passed, each discovered that their boyfriend was not the devoted knight in shining armor, nor was she the answer for no more nights of being alone. The honeymoon period was over and their brain chemistry measurements provided the evidence.   

    This same spike in serotonin may have been responsible for the euphoria experienced by the Jews on Palm Sunday.  Think about it.  They thought their Messiah was the one that would liberate them and restore Israel as a sovereign nation. They believed during those moments that everything they had hoped for and had fantasized about for centuries was materializing before their eyes. 

    However, just like what happens to the fantasies of a couple that is dating, once reality set in, the Jews in Jerusalem turned away and went back to their family observances of Passover.  Their hope of a coming savior had not materialized.

    What is interesting about the joy of Jesus' coming is that he provided a way to live that is different from physically doing for people what they need to do for themselves.  Jesus did not liberate people from their demons by removing for them their eating disorder, by removing their negative thought patterns or by removing the self-absorbed attitudes that sabotaged so many of their relationships.  Instead, what Jesus was teaching his listeners was how to live among the Romans and be at peace.

    When Jesus began teaching and preaching about the Kingdom of God, an entirely new universe was being opened to his listeners.  Never before had the Jews been taught anything other than their need to comply and be obedient to the Laws of Moses.  Jesus began teaching that a joyful life does not result from obedience. 

    Connecting with God was a matter of choosing each day to radiate this contagious energy by giving, sharing, helping others, and being compassionate toward their neighbors—none of which had anything to do with obedience.  It had to do with changed attitudes and a new desire to be of service to others.

    In a former church, I was talking to one of our members after our second service.  She said,

I have had a growing concern caused by the number of programs going on in the church during Advent. You have been asking us to buy presents to go into stockings for children whose parents are in prison, to buy sweatshirts for indigent school children who don't have winter coats, and to buy canned and dry goods for the Christmas food baskets that are going to poor families.  Now, you have asked us to buy quality teddy bears for children who will be in the hospital over Christmas.  I found myself thinking, 'When is enough going to be enough?

    As I stood there feeling like I had just been scolded for asking too much of the congregation, the unexpected happened.  She reached out with both arms and hugged me.  She drew back and then with both hands on my shoulders she said:

I finally got it, Dick!  Last week it hit me.  I began to understand why you have been asking us to do all these things and why there is a steady stream of more things we can do.


My kids have always had everything.  Our home has everything.  We have love in our family.  I know these other kids have little that tells them they are loved.  Right now I don't care what it costs because giving more is something I can and want to do.  I can't put into words what I am feeling right now.

    You could have knocked me over with a feather.  The last thing I expected from this woman was a hug and a message that said, "I finally got it, Dick!  Last week it hit me."  This was not a spike in her brain chemistry.  Her joy was coming from changed attitudes and a changed motivation.  This is what Jesus was teaching Nicodemus when he said, "The change I am talking about is like being born again."

    Life can be filled with joyful moments when we find ourselves doing things for others, listening to their stories, finding time to take someone to lunch, or putting something in the kettle of the Salvation Army.  It does not matter what the deed is or who receives it.   Our joy is even greater when we do something that is known only to God.  Today, people call such thoughtful activities random acts of kindness.     

    Many people do not fully grasp the incredible power of the spirit that dwells within us.  When we give eyes to our spirits, they will allow us to see what other people are not taking the time to notice.  Because God is spirit, a spirit that is always giving, always creating, always attempting to touch each of our lives in many different ways, when we finally get it, we are surprised and overwhelmed by joy. 

    We have just graduated from being an average human being with all our limitations and distractions, to becoming an angel-in-the-flesh that allows God's energy to flow through us.  If we heard God say to us, "You are my daughter.  You are my son.  I am very pleased with the way you love others," would we live any differently from the way we are now?

    Living a life filled with joy in this world is like living a miracle; it is like being a light in darkness.  This does not mean that we are refusing to take life-events seriously; rather it means that we are no longer allowing the world's constant drama to determine the spirit by which we live.   Anger and frustration only dim our spiritual energy.  Living with spontaneous, serendipitous attitudes filled with joy is the alternative. This response is the joy each of us experiences when we realize that Jesus wants us to represent God in our world just as he did.

    During the last couple of weeks, we have been captivated by the scent of Christmas trees that are being sold near the grocery store where we shop.  The scent of pine takes me back to the days when we used to drive out into the countryside to a Christmas tree farm and cut down our own tree. 

    On one of these occasions, as we were searching for a tree, we overheard one of the attendants talking to another family he was helping.  He said, "You should have no trouble finding just the right tree. All you have to decide is the height that you want. All of them are so perfect."  The little girl in the family spoke up immediately.  She said, "I don't want to find a perfect tree.  I always like to find one that no one wants.  That tree needs us.  We take it home where Mommy, Daddy and I can make it look beautiful." 

    It is interesting how we see and hear things when we have given our senses refreshed abilities to hear and see what others could easily miss. That little girl found joy in taking something quite average and making it beautiful.  Somewhere there is a sermon in this experience.

    God used Bethlehem as another way to embrace people that believe that they are very average individuals.  Through the life of the baby that was born there, God has helped people through the ages to realize the perfect beauty with which they were born. All that each of us has to do to experience this magnificence is to give ourselves away.  What we really accomplish in the world depends on how God uses what we do and say.  We receive the joy while God continues to create through our lives.