Saturday, January 9, 2021

"Do Not Be Afraid: Practice Joy" - December 13, 2020

Text: Luke 2:1-14


Did you know that Christmas is 12 days away?  It doesn’t seem possible, does it?  Part of the reason is that we have been missing so many of the usual markers of the season.  As far as our church goes, we didn’t have a Christmas Dinner.  We haven’t gone caroling.  We aren’t getting ready for the Vespers service at Northcrest.  We have missed out on so many seasonal get-togethers, and most of us will not be gathering with families or groups of friends as we usually do this year.  That was also true of Thanksgiving, so maybe we weren’t primed as we usually are to enter into this season.

The theme for this third Sunday of Advent is joy.  I don’t know about you, but this does not feel like an especially joyful time.  Rather than joyful, in many ways we are living through a miserable season.  A season of feeling disconnected, a season of loss, a season of anxiety.  But the thing is, God tends to come to us and surprise us in such times.

The prophet Isaiah had a vision of God coming to redeem Israel in the midst of such a time, and the poetry of his vision is just soaring.  This is from Isaiah 35:

The wilderness and dry land shall be glad,
The desert shall rejoice and blossom,
Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
And rejoice with joy and singing…
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert.
I have lived pretty much my whole life in the Midwest, and to be honest I am not all that familiar with deserts.  Most of you probably are not, either.  But there are those desert places where everything is dry and dead and bleak and barren, but every once in a while there will be torrential rain, and then almost overnight the desert is in bloom.  There is color and life and newness. There is a transformation.

Isaiah said that when the Messiah comes, the desert will bloom with joy.  The coming of Christ would turn a bleak landscape into one of joy and gladness.

Isaiah, of course, was not talking about plant life; he was talking about the life of the nation.  And while we Midwesterners may be unfamiliar with desert conditions, the fact is that there are those times, maybe times like right now, when we are actually living in a desert.  Because life can be a desert – dry, burned up, burned out, lifeless.

Grief can be a desert, and the holidays can heighten the sense of loss.

Illness can be a desert.  Struggling with pain, struggling with not knowing what is coming next, struggling with the whole medical system – it can feel like a desert.
Or, losing a job and losing income and not knowing where to turn because there seems to be nowhere to turn and all of the anxiety that goes with it – it’s a desert.

Facing times of loneliness, or battling depression, or watching someone you love make destructive choices -  they can all be deserts.  Living in a pandemic – definitely a desert.

But the prophet said that the desert shall rejoice and blossom.  A word of hope.  A word of anticipation.

An angel appeared to shepherds out in their fields.  What does the angel say?  You should know this because we keep hearing it, over and over: “Do not be afraid.”  Well, they were living in the desert.  They were shepherds.  They were on the low rung of the social ladder.  Heavenly messengers did not speak to people like them.  But an angel appears and the glory of God shone all around them.  Of course they were afraid.  They were terrified.

The angel said, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

A young boy was given an important part in the church Christmas play.  He was the angel who announces the birth of Jesus.  For weeks he had been rehearsing his line: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!”

The whole family got in on it.  His older siblings would walk in the room and say, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!”  His grandparents came to visit and he dressed up in his costume and rehearsed his part for them.  “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!”  His grandparents were very impressed by his dramatic ability and told him he could have a future in theater, or maybe as a movie star.

The night came for the great Christmas pageant.  Church members and friends and extended family were there.  The children were all in costumes.  The three kings had their crowns and the angels had halos and wings.  Everybody was excited and pumped up.  There was electricity in the air.
The program began.  The dramatic event in the first part of the play was the announcement of the angel, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”  The spotlight hit this young boy, and as he stood center stage in the middle of all this excitement, his brain froze.  He just froze.  We’ve all been there.  He just could not remember his part.  His family in the audience was all mouthing the words for him.  But it didn’t help.

You could see him trying to come up with the line – you could almost see the gears turning in his brain, but it just wouldn’t come.  And then finally, in a heroic moment, he filled his lungs with breath and blurted out the words; “Have I got news for you!”

Have I got news for you!  That was the angel’s message.  That is the message of Christmas that we need to hear, that our world needs to hear.  In the midst of the sorrow and disappointment and loss and chaos of life that we all experience, maybe this year more than most, the angel says to us: “Have I got news for you!”

Good tidings of great joy.  

Now the shepherds had been understandably afraid.  And the angel’s announcement that a savior had been born – one that would bring life and joy to the nation – perhaps did not seem to make that much of an impact at first.  It is hard to go from terror to joy in a matter of seconds.  But suddenly the angel was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host – a choir from heaven praising God – almost as though they were showing the shepherds how it was done, reminding them of what it was to give praise and be joyful.

“Fear not,” the angel said, “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people, for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  If the angels announced this to shepherds, then it surely was for all people.  It is good news of great joy for us.  Suddenly, the desert was blooming.

Rather than being afraid, we would do well to practice joy.  Now that may sound a little odd because so often, joy just happens.  It kind of kind of sneaks up on us.  An angel appears saying: ”Have I got news for you!” and we experience joy.  But joy is also something we can cultivate.      

There was a young woman named Sarah Beth Thursby who was listed in an obituary a few years ago.  Her life was an example of practicing joy.

"On August 4, Sarah Beth Thursby, our precious gift from God, lost her battle with a rare aggressive cancer.  Sarah was serene to the end, blessed with an inner peace that she shared with all who knew her, comforting others even as they were grieving her passing.  Her body dying, Sarah’s spirit was strong and vibrant and full of joy.  She laughed and sang and danced as best she could up until the end. . .”.

“Sarah touched every life she met.  She was that rare individual who retained her child-like appreciation of the world without cynicism or deceit, while displaying a wisdom and maturity that few attain in a lifetime.”

The name of her religious congregation and the fact that she taught a class there was mentioned.  Her family and close friends who survived her were named, and three grandparents who would be “greeting her in heaven.”  Then it listed where to send memorials.  But instead of ending there, it went on to say, “Here are some things we learned from Sarah.”

  • Accept life as it happens.  It is what it is.  Banging one’s head against a wall gives you a headache.
  • Chill.  Useless energy is best spent petting a dog.
  • Accept yourself as you are.  Even bald and yellow.
  • Laugh out loud whenever possible.
  • Always have a positive outlook.  Negative people are energy suckers.
  • Enjoy life.  Dance if you can.  At the very least, move your shoulders.
  • Have no enemies.  Be good to your friends.
  • Be patient.  It is what it is and it takes the time that it does.  You’ll get where you’re going anyway.
  • Trust that most people are acting with good intentions.
  • Be calm in a storm.  There’s plenty of time to flip out later.

Here was a woman who had found joy – not a temporary happiness that depended on the circumstances, but a deep inner joy that is a gift of God.  Here was somebody who found life and a profusion of blooms even in the desert.  This young woman practiced joy.

I have noticed on social media as somebody I know shares a reason for joy every day.  Even when things are not going so well, they share a joy.  This is not a way of denying the difficulty of life, it is a way of celebrating God’s presence with us – a way of practicing joy.

The birth of Christ brought joy.  Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us, and Christ, who is with us each day, continues to bring us joy.  Joy enough to bring life in the desert.  Amen.

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