“Joy Is Our Gift To The World”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – December 17, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 126; John 1:19-28

    This morning we have lighted our third candle of Advent, the Candle of Joy.  This surge of an emotional peak of excitement is difficult to explain.  To understand joy, we must either experience it or observe others when it is happening to them.  What we know is that any of these moments of unbridled excitement are impossible to sustain.  However, once properly understood, the joy of living can be maintained for a lifetime.

    Those of us who enjoy watching football games see remarkable exuberance being expressed when a team member sinks the ball into the net, by-passing the skills of the opposition's goalie.  Teammates seemingly lose their minds as they grab and hug each other as though they had just won the zillion-dollar lottery.  That scene is a spontaneous spike in one's experience of joy.  Somehow happiness does not adequately describe what players are experiencing.

    A YouTube presentation of a soldier coming home from Afghanistan clearly illustrated the universality of the experience of joy.  His large dog had not seen him for over a year.  When the two met for the first time, the dog could not hide his emotions as he lunged at his master with uncontrollable enthusiasm and yelping.  Anyone watching this heart-warming reunion had to identify with the dog's joy of experiencing his master's return. 

    One of the pastors that followed my dad at our church in Cheverly, Maryland had a very unique experience.  He had been away for years in the European theatre during World War II.  He was finally coming home.  He had his taxi driver drop him off near his home.  He wanted to see the changes that had occurred during his absence.   As he was walking toward his home, he saw his father sitting on the front porch.  His father just stared at him, registering absolutely no emotions.

    When the returning son actually came up on the porch, he found his father stunned, frozen and speechless.  Finally, his dad got up and gave him a big hug and burst into tears.  The young man was confused and did not understand his dad's hesitation.  He had written every month describing his experiences during the war and he told them of the day he would be coming home. 

    Unbeknownst to this returning soldier, two sergeants from the United States Army-Air Force came by the house years before to tell his parents that their son had been killed in action.  His aircraft had been shot down and crashed into the sea. The entire crew were lost.  For that mission, Captain Rohrbaugh was not on board.  Due to a series of serious mistakes by the military, none of his mail had been forwarded during all that time.  

    After his father's explanation and lots of sustained hugging and the shedding of many tears, his dad said, "You had better wait here and let me break this news to your mother as gently as I can. Seeing you alive after all this time might give her a heart attack."  Hearing the news, however, his mom came running out of the house with her arms open wide and the Captain's experience with his dad was repeated. This was another intensely joyful reunion.

    As we move into our lesson this morning, we find another reunion taking place.  The words of John the Baptist helped his listeners to remember the intimacy their ancestors had with God.  Josephus, a Jewish historian, described John's preaching this way, "The Word of God had not been heard in Israel for over four hundred years until the preaching of John, the Baptizer." 

    The Jews had been existing with a religion that was little more than a collection of rituals and celebrations of what God had done for and with their ancestors many centuries ago.

    Something within John's listeners connected to a truth that everyone recognized upon hearing his words.  John generated such excitement that several priests and Levites were dispatched by Pharisee authorities to ask him one question, "Who are you?" 

    They had to have some identifying explanation because his words had become so powerful that he was attracting hordes of listeners who were authentically eager to hear what John had to say.  His listeners were convinced that he was someone very special that had been sent by God.

    They asked him, "Are you Elijah?  Are you the Prophet?  Are you the Messiah?  To each label his listeners supplied, John answered, "No!"  They responded, "If you are not any of these, why do you baptize?"  Interestingly enough, John did not answer that question.

    John knew that his people needed to repent or change their minds from having been detached and estranged from God for generations.  Clearly their lives had lost the meaning they once had as being God's chosen people.  Most of them were living in a wasteland with little purpose or reason to exist.

    Celebrating their past was not doing much for the Jews.  God's activity had not been experienced for what must have seemed like an eternity.  Because of his preaching, many were coming into the Jordan River for baptism,  committing  themselves to finding the part of their lives that had been missing -- the recognized presence of God being among them.  John said,

There is a person who is living among us today who will bring change to your lives. In fact, I am not worthy enough to untie his sandals.  I am a voice in our wilderness asking people to prepare themselves, to open their minds and hearts to the teachings of the one who is coming after me. (John 1:25f)

    No doubt, these priests and Levites took this word back to the Pharisees.  More of them came to hear John's message for themselves.  Many of these Pharisees, in spite of their public practice of piety, were being baptized.  Expectancy filled the air that something new was about to happen. The siege of living without hope and purpose that God once provided was slowly being lifted. They had not experienced such joy for hundreds of years. 

    Many people in our own generation have been demonstrating for years the results of a drought from being detached and estranged from God.  Many people are starving to death to reconnect with a divine presence without knowing how to label accurately what they are feeling.  If people do not have the background, they have no idea what spiritual starvation does to people.

    Their search has taken them to medications, psychiatric specialists and alternative lifestyles to help them stabilize their emotions and rid themselves of pain.   If anyone talks to them about the life-sustaining power of faith and the spiritual development that results from participating in a spiritual community, they may roll their eyes and confess that they are not the least bit interested in what institutional religion has to offer.

    Without experiencing the joy that comes from the awareness of God's presence in our lives or feeling intuitively that we are surrounded by loving spirit-guides on a daily basis, we are missing key ingredients that feed our enthusiasm and zest for being alive.

    I remember talking to the CEO of a major accounting firm. He was the keynote speaker of an association meeting I was attending in California. Upon seeing him eating by himself, I joined him.   When he learned that I was a pastor, he took the conversation into a venue that surprised me.  He let me know about his own faith-orientation to life in an interesting manner.  He said:

I cannot tell you exactly how I arrived to occupy the corner office on the fifteenth floor of my building with my name on the door as the company's Chief Executive Officer.  If I had to lay my finger on one thing that opened doors for me, it is that people have always liked my attitude. Those above me in the company kept promoting me.  I really don't have any particular smarts that are more refined than the people that surround me.


My entire career has resulted from having a consistency in my daily attitudes. I am happy every day. I have tried to instill this quality in my key executive staff but doing so remains a chore.  Sometimes I feel like a fireman who spends a lot of time putting out unnecessary fires. What I take for granted in myself cannot be taught.  It has to be chosen.  


A weekly challenge I face in my job is dealing with people who are highly skilled in what they do, but few of them are happy.  Why do people dwell on what's wrong with everything?  As Jesus once said, they are missing the joy of living because they are busy straining a tiny gnat from their soup. How can anyone complain about anything when all of us are surrounded by so much bounty and opportunity?

    I gave him my business card and told him that if he ever figured out how to give away to others what he has, to please send me the formula for doing so.  There is great wisdom found in the saying, "You can lead horses to water but you cannot make any of them drink it."

    When we look at what Jesus brought into our world, it was his insight that everything that we need to excel at living was already neatly packaged within us.  No one can give us more of what we already have.  Just because people do not access and use what they have, does not mean that they do not have it. 

    Each of us is the trigger for what we allow to show up in the spirit of our personality.  No person or group owns the exclusive rights to possessing kind, friendly, supportive, good-natured attitudes.  The one thing I remember from that executive was his comment, "What I take for granted in myself cannot be taught.  It has to be chosen."  He had set himself up for success by practicing remarkable, winning attitudes for most of his life.

    The way that Jesus chose to give away what he had found in his own life was to teach that The Kingdom of God is within us.  Our world is the setting where we get to show up and display what living in that Kingdom looks like. 

    Once we have awakened our spiritual nature, our enthusiastic, cheerful presence is what we share with those who surround us. Just as God worked through the life and teachings of Jesus, so God will work through our living joyous lives that overflow with happiness.  This is what the Jews had been missing for centuries.  Perhaps many people today are experiencing the same absence. 



Eternal God, as we live in a world that keeps tensions swirling around us, we remain grateful for these moments.  Worship reminds us that the quality of our lives depends on how we understand our relationship with you.  As our spirits become refreshed today, we thank you for giving us increased opportunities to give away the joy we have found.  Help us to teach others that what our faith radiates comes from our trust in your presence in our lives.  Amen.


PASTORAL PRAYER                              

Our days continue to pass so rapidly, O God, and we find ourselves in our place of worship once again as we continue our journey through Advent.  We have learned that just as a candle can illuminate a large room, so the life of Jesus has ignited a burning desire in the hearts of billions of people over thousands of years to make his message of loving our neighbors visible all over the world.  Inspire us to remember that in every circumstance, we have within us the power not only to survive but also to thrive.

From you we have learned that not all strength appears as strength.  We have learned that not all love comes in a form that we recognize.  We have learned that some of our greatest disappointments do not need to block our sensitivities to your presence. We have learned that sometimes we need to accept life as it comes, because we lack the understanding of where life is leading us.  We cannot have many thoughts about our destination until we arrive and look back on what seemed to be silently guiding us.  All we hope for is that we will grow in any garden in which we have been planted.

We thank you that while our minds and hearts are not perfect, you still send guidance.  Even though our lives are not lived in harmony with you, you still send music to which we can dance. During this Season of Joy, enable us to discover how to become better instruments for communicating your love.   Help each of us to become the message we wish to send. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .