The Language of Advent: Joy
Psalm 30; Matthew 2:9-15
December 15, 2019
In our postmodern world, where truth is increasingly viewed as something subjective, where my truth is my truth, and your truth is your truth, there is at least one truth that I would argue is undeniably objective and applies to everyone who has ever lived – young or old, black or white, in western culture or eastern culture. That truth is that everyone loves stories.
We love telling stories and we love being told a good story. As kids we grow up enamored with stories that seem larger than life: stories of wizards and hobbits, princesses and princes, battles over galaxies and many more. A child’s world becomes a magical place because everything is part of the story. Sticks in the backyard become lightsabers ready for dueling. Cardboard boxes become castles and forts. The dark corners of a room become hiding places for monsters and other non-desirables. When you’re a kid everything is a story waiting to happen—the more magical the better. Stories are the fodder for a delightful childhood that gives the world greater meaning and significance than what we settle for as adults.
As we get older we think ourselves more sophisticated because we have outgrown childish worlds of magic and instead prefer stories grounded in reality, facts, numbers and work. But we do not stop telling stories—our stories just become more dull, less magical and less full of whimsical delight at the world we live in. We tell stories about our job, our family, our hobbies and the past. While the stories we tell might be blander the older we get, we still recognize a good story when we hear it. We enjoy a good book, a good movie or TV show that draws us in.
Whether fiction or nonfiction, stories capture our imaginations and provide the fertile soil for life. I was watching a documentary this week on the creation of Disneyland and the other Disney parks. And what sets Disneyland apart from most other theme parks, is that its rides and the design of the park tell a story. Each ride tells a unique story and the décor and layout of the park immerse you in make-believe worlds that convince your senses that you just might be there. The engineers and creative artists of the Disney parks understand this universal human truth: stories draw us in, capture our imagination and create meaningful experiences for us like nothing else is able to.
This is because stories aren’t just for entertainment, though most of us adults have come to think that’s all they’re good for. But story-telling is primarily about meaning making. A good story is one that makes us think more deeply about what it means to be human. Every good story deals with transcendent human themes such as life and death, joy and conflict, hope and heartbreak.
We all tell stories about ourselves and our journey through life. The story you tell about yourself is what gives your life meaning and purpose; it is what shapes the trajectory and direction of your life. Some of our stories have tones of resilience and endurance; others have themes of grit and determination. And of course, we all tell stories about God. And these stories are perhaps the most important of all our stories, because the stories we tell about God have incredible power to either enhance or ruin lives.
Story-telling is a powerful tool that can give wonderful meaning and purpose to life, or it can ruin a life. The type of story you tell is important: Is the God of this world an angry and wrathful one, or is God loving and gentle? Is the world we live in a delightful place full of wonders and curiosities waiting to be discovered and reveled in? Or is this world a fearful place where you are just waiting for the next bad thing to happen? Is everything random and meaningless or is there Someone who is somehow working all things towards good and redemptive ends? Does my life have worth and value, or am I an accident, a coincidence, someone who is without worth? The type of story we tell is important because we will interpret everything that happens in our life–every joy and every suffering–through the lens of that story.
Now as some of you might have noticed, the title of my sermon today is on joy. And you might be wondering: why does he keep going on about stories and Disneyland? What does joy have to do with story-telling?
Well, today I want to move toward a slightly different understanding of joy than most of us are used to. Most of us tend to think of joy as a feeling or an emotion, much like happiness. But a close look at how Scripture talks about joy reveals that there is something more to the experience of joy than a feeling of happiness. I want to suggest that joy is not a feeling as much as it is a way of making meaning from the complexities of life. Christian joy is the experience of living inside God’s story for your life, trusting that the ending will be a good one.
There’s a story in the psalm that Linda read for us earlier, and it has something to show us about joy. The structure of this psalm tells a three part story that may not be so different from most of our own life-stories.
The first five verses of this psalm state the psalmist’s intention to praise God: “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up and have not let my foes rejoice over me…Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.” Our psalmist begins in a state of joy, praising God for God’s wondrous deeds. Life is good. Everything is in its place. Enemies are nowhere to be found and God is on the scene. Everything seems outlined in gold as our psalmist enjoys the safety and security provided by God’s hedge of protection.
This is how most stories begin, including our own. We enter the world wide-eyed and gushing at the beauty of it all. The world is magical and full of mysteries waiting to be discovered. We feel safe and comfortable. We feel like God is always right there, ready to save us from whatever might befall us.
And then something happens to shatter the safety, security and joy we assumed was written into the fabric of life itself. Unfortunately some of us have our childhood joy and fascination with the world shattered at too young an age due to abuse or trauma. Others of us last longer into our teens or twenties, unjaded and un-cynical of the world. But something always happens that unceremoniously rips us from the comfort of a life we thought God had under control. Death happens to a loved one and we realize how fragile life really is. Illness or an accident hits and suddenly we realize that life is out of our control. Trouble and conflict disrupt our story. Trouble introduces doubt about whether we are really going to get to where we want to go. It causes us to question the direction our story is heading.
This disruption or disorientation can happen to us many times over the course of a life-time. We have a master script and direction for our story; we know where we want to go and how our life will unfold. And then tragedy or trouble strikes; it leaves us wondering about whether the ending to our story will actually be a good one. Surely God can’t be in control, because if God was this never would’ve happened. Illness, death and loss are disorienting because they seem to rewrite our story without our permission.
The psalmist narrates their own disorientation in the face of trouble and conflict: “God, you looked the other way and I fell to pieces” (MSG). I cried out to you God and feared for my very life. What good am I to you if I am in the grave? So please, help me!
Experiences of tragedy, trouble and conflict threaten to rob us of our joy. The world becomes an unsafe place and we doubt whether the ending to our story will be a good one. Circumstances are not as we wished they were – physically, financially, or emotionally. There are so many influences that can squeeze the joy out of our lives and make us wonder where our story is really heading.
But again, as I mentioned earlier, Christian joy is not as much an emotion as it is a way of making meaning from life’s troubles, tragedies and conflicts. Christian joy is trusting that we are living in a story much grander than our own. Joy comes from trusting that our story has been taken up into God’s story, and that our story has become part of a much larger one with themes of redemption, renewal and resurrection. Joy is the peace of mind and the hope that is born from knowing that no matter what kind of trouble, conflict or tragedy comes our way, that the ending to our story will indeed be a good one. Hope keeps us buoyed during the difficult seasons of life, and joy is that experience of hope in the midst of the storm.
And our psalmist’s story does indeed have a beautiful end: “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness.” “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Psalm 30 mirrors the human experience. Our story begins in a place of comfort, security and joy until trouble and conflict hits, leaving us disoriented and wondering if we can trust where the things are heading. The story of every major character in the Bible follows this pattern. Even Mary and Joseph, after the joyful high of giving birth to Jesus, surrounded by angels, shepherds and wise men, are forced to become refugees in a foreign land—forced to flee for their lives from Herod. The birth of Jesus is not without disorientation and trouble. Even after God shows up on the scene, we wonder whether the ending will be a good one.
And at the pinnacle of Jesus’ life, as he is brutally killed on a cross, his disciples and loved ones fear that this is the end of the story. A life ended in tragedy. But the biblical narrative shows us again and again, most poignantly through Jesus, that suffering and death will not write the last chapter to our stories, but it is God who pens the final lines, and those lines will surely be about redemption, the restoration of what is broken, and the resurrection of what was dead and thought lost.
This is why the Apostle Paul could write from his prison cage that he will choose joy, even if he gets executed (Phil. 3:1). This does not mean he doesn’t express sorrow, fear or grief, because he does at many points throughout his letters, but he called this “being full of sorrow and yet choosing joy” (2 Cor. 6:10). Paul shows us how to choose joy, regardless of circumstances in life, regardless of what chapter our story is on right now. Paul is able to choose joy because he trusts that God is present in the joys and the troubles of life, bringing it all to a beautiful resolution that will one day leave us all in wonder and amazement at God’s ability to redeem and resurrect all things. Paul knew that when you believe Jesus’ love has overcome death itself, joy becomes reasonable in the darkest of circumstances.
The stories you tell about God are important, because whether God is a bystander, a side-character or a main character in your story will make all the difference as to where you see your story going. When hardship and trouble inevitably hits us, do we trust that the ending to our story will still be a good one? Christian joy and hope says it will.
Stories are powerful because of how they create meaning where there was none. Perhaps this is why the primary medium of the Bible is story-telling. What we get in our Bibles in not a list of rules and doctrine, contrary to what many believe and preach, but we get stories. And God is not presented in abstract principles or attributes; God is shown to be enmeshed in the stories of his people. I wonder if Christians have a harder time finding joy and hope in the stories of their lives because we have largely taken God out of the story, or maybe rather, we have taken the story out of God.
Nowadays the Bible has largely been reduced to a laundry list of doctrine, theological propositions and morals, stripped of the stories that actually give it shape and meaning. God has also been stripped down to a list of attributes and abstract truths that we can talk about and wrap our minds around, all the while forgetting that God reveals himself to us in stories, namely our own story.
While we prefer theological truths about God because we can control them and can fit them neatly into our worldviews, they do not accurately represent our God who put on flesh to come live inside our stories and who beckons us to live inside a story much larger than our own. God is living and breathing, unlike facts, doctrine and morals; God cannot be contained or fully grasped, and so we are forced to relinquish control and let the story unfold, trusting that God is somehow enmeshed in it, bringing it toward a beautiful goal.
Psalm 30 as well as the birth narrative and the whole of the gospels narrate a story that envisions God as present in the joy and in the trouble, that is, in all of life (W. H. Bellinger Jr.). God is present in your story and is bringing it to a beautiful consummation. Christian joy comes from trusting that your story is part of a much grander one that is being directed towards redemption and resurrection.
It seems only fitting that I should close with a story:
Paul Brand, a medical doctor who did pioneering work in leprosy treatment, grew up in India, where his parents were missionaries. At the age of nine he was sent to boarding school in England. Five years later, while a 14 year old student there, he received a telegram informing him that his beloved father had died of blackwater fever. Brand cherished fond memories of his father, a man who had a great love for people and a great love for the natural world around him.
A short time after he received news of his father’s death Paul Brand received a letter from his father. It had been posted prior to his father’s death but took some time to reach Brand as it came by ship. Its words impacted deeply upon the young son. Paul’s father described the hills around their home and then finished with these words: “God means us to delight in his world. It isn’t necessary to know botany or zoology or biology in order to enjoy the manifold life of nature. Just observe. And remember. And compare. And be always looking to God with thankfulness and joy for having placed you in such a delightful corner of the universe as the planet Earth.”
Friends, God delights in your story and is more enmeshed in it than you know, bringing it towards a beautiful goal. Joy is the experience of sharing in God’s delight at your story, trusting that the ending will be a good one. God is the author of life, and we are in for a grand adventure.