The Nature of Joy
Service of Comfort and Contemplation1
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
1-2 Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”
3-5 Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”(The Message)
To understand an experience of pain, any kind of pain, the ancient mind assumed guilt and judgment. Suffering came only to those who deserved it. Many contemporary minds continue to associate sin and suffering. To be sure, selfish or reckless decisions can lead to suffering for ourselves and others. I have certainly caused pain to myself and to others. And the lingering Calvinist in me tends to think I deserve to feel all of that suffering.
There is also more than enough random suffering out there for all of us. And the Christ in me knows that no one deserves to suffer a life-diminishing illness, the death of someone they love, depression, physical/sexual/emotional abuse, exclusion from community, or the ravages of natural disaster, random violence, or war. What we all deserve is people to walk with us through those experiences, people who will hold us, encourage us, sit quietly with us, weep with us.
Those people reveal the nature of true joy. Joy is not mere gladness and celebration. It isn’t having our wants satisfied. Nor does joy fall for the easy, everything-happens-for-a-reason platitude. That’s just another way to lay blame on those who suffer, or on God, and then to distance ourselves from suffering. Biblically speaking, joy is a fierce hope-in-the-midst-of-suffering. It’s that white-knuckled, red-faced trust that God can and does forge new wholeness and purpose out of even the fieriest of furnaces.
Joy might even be described as the faith that throws us into suffering, our own and that of others, knowing that pain is not God’s will, and that God is in the midst of it, not causing it but redeeming it. That’s what Christmas is all about – God entering human suffering.
In his book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner says this about Jesus: “He does not seem to have had much sense of humor, and unconsciously, I think, we cannot quite forgive him for that because for us it is one of the major virtues; but in order to laugh, it is necessary to step back from life a little, whereas he almost never steps back, but keeps moving deeper and deeper into the world’s pain, everyone’s pain, which becomes his own because this is the way love moves…”2
“God is love,” says John. So for us, Jesus – Emmanuel, God With Us – is himself Incarnate Love moving into our midst. To me, that makes Christmas more than a celebration. It’s our prophetic declaration that in Jesus of Nazareth, God enters the world in all its beauty and possibility, and all its frailty and brokenness. In Jesus, God immerses God’s own self in our midst fully, inextricably, and creatively. The Incarnation affirms our humanity and the goodness of the created order; and God reaffirms God’s commitment to be with us and for us. Now. Always.
I pray that some unexpected grace reveals to you where God is present in the midst of your own suffering. And I pray that in this season, and throughout your lives, you experience the redeeming and abiding presence of the Incarnate Christ – the true joy who is leading us into the light.
1This homily was used in a service often called a “Blue Christmas Service.” Such services are held to acknowledge that the Christmas season is not one of happiness and laughter for everyone. The intent is to hold one another’s suffering and declare God’s whole-making presence in the world through the Incarnate Jesus.
2Frederick Buechner. From his sermon “The Tiger,” in The Magnificent Defeat. Harper/San Francisco, 1966; p. 94.