December 11, 2022
John doesn’t know. While in prison he hears about his cousin, Jesus, and all the works and deeds of power and the signs and the feeding and such. He sends his disciples and they inquire for John, “Are you the Messiah? Or should we expect someone else?”
John doesn’t know. Where’s the joy in this?
It is the third Sunday of Advent, joy—the third candle of our advent wreath. The pink candle. The standout. The different one. This Sunday is the most important Sunday in Advent, I do believe.
I think we get hope. I think we get it. Whether you like the image of Emily Dickenson and the soft flutter of wings and the trill of birdsong. Or if you need a gritty hope like a sewer rat’s determination. I like how MaryAnn McKibben Dana put it in her meditation how we need both hope with feathers and hope as a sewer rat for, “Only when conventional hope disappears are the desperate moved to daring action. When hope stops singing, the sewer rat gets to work.”
I think hope is understood.
Peace as well. We get peace. We follow the Prince of Peace. We have the image of beating swords into plowshares. We know we can learn how to disagree and not fight, as fighting means someone has to win, and we never want to win if a loved one will lose. That’s not peace. I think peace is understood.
But joy… what is joy? Is that being happy all the time? I once had a man named Mr. Happy who would call me up when I was a pastor in the Toledo area. This guy was… quirky. Being slightly cynical, a dude named Mr. Happy sets my teeth on edge. He’d call up and want us to send people to his seminars on happiness, which I would politely decline.
One day, after a few years into his regular phone calls, and on the day after our dog died, Mr. Happy calls up. “How we doing today? I hope we’re HAPPEEEEE.” I answered, “Well, my dog died last night. I’m pretty sad.”
Mr. Happy responded, “Well, Jesus said blessed are those who mourn. I’ve been there too, and I’m sorry to hear that. It’s quite a loss for you and your family.” It was the first time I felt heard and like I was speaking to a real human being, not a cartoon character. In a moment of weakness, I went to one of his seminars and it was the worst. Absolute worst. But that’s a whole other sermon… or sermon series.
Here’s the thing: Happy can’t deal with grief. Happy runs away in conflict. Happy is fickle. Happy is a byproduct. Give me food and I’m happy. When the food is gone, I’m not as happy. Give me a nice present, I’m happy. Once I open it, I’m less happy. Sometimes the expectation is better than the gift.
Yet joy can wrap its arms around grief. At the end of life, we can tell our loved one, with tears in our eyes, stories of great joy and love. Joy can stay in conflict. Joy is the magic that turns a fight into a reminder that this is a human whom we love that we disagree with over a subject we’re both passionate about. Joy is not fickle, joy is more of a constant.
We watched theologian Rob Bell’s Introduction to Joy at the beginning of this year. I commend that again to you. He states that if you want joy, lower the bar. Lower your expectations. Joy is actually all around you. And he gives us the book of Ecclesiastes as an example of this joy. The most profound part is when he cites this passage for Ecclesiastes 6:1-2: “I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.”
Rob invites us to imagine… just hypothetically… “I’ll tell you what’s horrible: To be surrounded by goodness but unable to access it or enjoy it. That’s just flat out evil… Imagine if there was a culture that had more wealth, technology, luxury and options than any civilization in the history of humanity and yet more people were stressed, depressed, worried, and anxious and unable to enjoy all of that abundance. Try to imagine.”
We don’t know joy. We know happiness, and we often confuse the two. Joy is not happiness, and happiness is not joy. They are two different things. Happiness is fleeting. I’m not saying it’s bad to be happy either. Happy is a great thing. Be happy as much as you can in your meaningless and short life… That’s the Book of Ecclesiastes speaking not me. That’s the moral of the book: enjoy good food and wine, and love the one you’re with as this is all so short, might as well enjoy it. Happy doesn’t stay. It’s temporary so savor it when you can.
Joy on the other hand is deeper. It’s a happy that’s been through the wringer, it’s seen some things. It has seen death, separation, sin, and hopelessness. It has considered the ontological terror of existence and come out the other side. Joy can encompass all of that and get its arms around it.
Happiness is that one special Christmas that was just perfect. Joy is this coming Christmas. Happiness forgot the tension in the room or that you were fearing for your job or marriage that particular year. In the haze of nostalgia, you forgot you were mad at your cousin, and that was the happiest Christmas. Joy is this coming Christmas where the food might not come out right, or we might light the wrong candle, or you’re still mad at your cousin but everyone has gathered under one roof, as imperfect as we are, and happiness will still make a visit. Joy is deeper. Joy can deal with complexities.
Joy is the ability for a widow to dance down the aisle with tears in her eyes to “When the Saints Go Marching In” at her husbands funeral. Elaine Kujawa surprised me at her husbands funeral. She brought in a Jazz quartet cause Bernie loved jazz. She said, “Of course I’m sad Bernie is no longer with me. But I can celebrate he’s in heaven waiting for me, and I got 58 years of adventure with him.” That’s what joy can do.
Which brings me back to John. John doesn’t know if Jesus is the messiah or not and sends his disciples to ask. Where’s the joy here? It’s on every line. It’s between the line. It’s all around. I think we do a disservice to our biblical characters to treat them as something other than human. We do a disservice to treat them as these holy, removed cartoons. John is in prison, not a happy or hopeful place. If we’re honest, most of our saints had records. He is still hopeful for the messiah. He’s still wondering. Joy is in the response of Jesus. I can only think that Jesus gives the reply with a smirk. “Listen… tell John here’s what’s happening. Lives are changing and good news is being proclaimed to the poor. Why did the rest of you go out into the wilderness to hear this guy? He was saying something. He was a prophet. He prepared the way. No one on earth is as cool as John but John is a nerd in the kingdom of heaven.” Pastor Luke paraphrase.
No one on earth is as cool as John but John is the least in the kingdom of heaven.And John hearing his story repeated back and having to consider Jesus’ words while in prison… which is not a happy place… I think John would have laughed and smiled and found joy in that response.
Now some scholars think that this part was placed in Matthew’s account to win over former disciples of John. Like it’s an invitation to join the Jesus movement. John’s followers would have been in deep mourning. Their grief would have been immense. John was THE Baptist. “This was our guy. He told the truth. He was killed for it, and the bad guy is still in charge.” And here’s this Jesus guy. Similar to John, but empowering people to take up their own agency and tell the truth and boldly love their neighbor. John was THE Baptist… but Jesus was healing and walking on water and such and telling his followers, “These things I do, you can do and greater than these.”
John was the only one telling the truth and they killed him. Imagine if all of us said something, how would they be able to stop that? The parched land of their hearts would be glad. The barren wilderness would rejoice and blossom. There would be shouts of joy.
In this time… this leafless, cold, dark time… it is easy to despair. With the uncertainty in our culture. With the fighting and noise and attacks. With the drive to BUY! BUY! BUY! With the kids and grandkids having a case of the gimmes with Amazon Wishlist 150 items long and the cheapest is $80. Happiness can be hard to find but joy can be found everywhere.
Joy is for everybody. It’s not for members only. I think of our children’s pageant and the joy on stage. How one child was very stressed about learning a song, but she worked hard and proved to herself that she could do hard things. That’s joy!
How our kids had a vision. They got with our Sunday school volunteers and crafted a clever play. They acted in front of you all. The number 1 fear in America should be heart disease is that’s what’s killing us, but it’s actually public speaking. And they did that for us! They proved to themselves that they can do hard things and turn dreams into reality. That’s joy.
Our Sunday school volunteers are raising our tribe on the Jesus Vibe, hence the name “Jesus Vibes.” They blew up what was safe and familiar and “what we’ve always done” for Sunday school. They are learning right along with the kids. They are more flexible. It’s a little scary, a little frustrating and overwhelming at times, but there is a more creativity and joy downstairs than I’ve heard in all of my ministry. That’s joy right there.
Obligation is not grounds for joy. Obligation I associate with sorrow and sighing. We sigh and say… “This again.” Where else in our life do we do this? Do we wake up and sigh, “Well, another Saturday, another college football day. SIGH.” No. Or we’d stop watching.
Do we sigh and say, “Well, I guess I’ll root for my favorite team today.” Or do we bring joy whether we win or lose. If you’re a Browns fan, you know the unique agony and joy of being a fan. They often lose and don’t bring us happiness with their decisions, yet we love that team because JOY can take their losing and missteps. Joy is saying, “There’s always next season.”
John didn’t know. And if we’re honest, we don’t either. We don’t know what’s coming at us. If John doubted, it’s okay if you do too. If you’re unsure of Jesus, talk to someone. Ask in prayer. It was joy that led John out in the wilderness. Obligation was everyone else just following along with Herod, but John had joy! It was joy of the way of life in faith that caused him to speak truth to power about Herod. This is authentic faith.
It is joy that propels Jesus. It’s called GOOD NEWS for God’s sake. And it is for God’s sake! And it’s for our sake. Joy has to be the engine. We’ve tried obligation in church and where has that gotten us? Where are the kids who had to memorize the catechism and the history and creeds and doctrines? Most of them are not here. Yet we are seeing more and more visitors because of what we’re doing in the community. Joy is our engine. What we’re preaching here. We’re saying, “We find Joy in Jesus. We try and sometimes fail, and we’re not always happy and our dogs die and we’re sad but we’re real and we’re not hiding that.”
When our mask falls off… The masks that we wear that pretends everything is alright and we’re not dying inside… when we stop being Mr Happy and call someone up and tell how we’re really feeling, that person can say, “I hear you and I love you.” That’s Joy. Joy can handle our imperfections and how we’re really feeling and still stick around.
Whether you know Jesus is the messiah or if you’re still considering… may you find joy today. And may you find joy in the considering of what has been said here and now. Amen.
 I preached on the “sewer rat of hope” and two days later this devotional came out and I love it more than my sermon: https://maryannmckibbendana.substack.com/p/in-praise-of-the-sewer-rat?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email