I’ll admit the last two years have made it hard to find that feeling. I’m sure a lot of us can identify with Charlie Brown, especially around this time of year. Despite Christmas being a joyful time around the world, it also causes a lot of people to feel more joyless than ever. The best they can do is hide away and avoid others until the holidays are over.
When Charlie Brown can’t shake that despondent feeling, his friend Lucy suggests that he directs the neighborhood Christmas play in the hope to get him into the spirit. Things only go south from there. No one listens to Charlie or follows his direction. And when he buys a scrappy, tiny Christmas tree for the centerpiece of the play, everyone, including his beloved dog Snoopy, ridicule and laugh at him for his choice.
Just as poor Charlie hits rock bottom, the spotlight finds Linus again who gives a wonderful speech about the true meaning of Christmas. What I love about this scene is that Linus quotes the gospel of Luke. It is the hearing of the word of God that inspires the children to decorate the tree as a Christmas gift to Charlie Brown, which of course allows our hopeless hero to find his joy again.
The closer we get to Christmas, the easier it is to feel like Charlie Brown. The little joy we can muster is often overshadowed by the stress and pressure to be happy. Or worse, everything is going well in your life and then something unexpected happens that robs you of your joy. We have been given God’s Word to help us through such challenging times.
Read: Philippians 4:4-7
“Rejoice in the Lord always” and “Do not worry about anything.” It’s painfully obvious Paul that never had to scramble to find last minute gifts. Or begged God to reorder the postal service so they arrive on time! You don’t have to be skeptic to think Paul is hopelessly naïve or overly optimistic. Who in their right mind can rejoice all the time? Especially given the times we are in today?
As far as we know, Paul never suffered through a global pandemic, or was ever evicted from his home, or lost a child to a fentanyl overdose. But we do know that this particular letter was written from a jail cell, where Paul had no idea if he was going to live or die.
Despite his circumstances, Paul still found a way to ‘rejoice.’ He could do this because he knew what God could do and what God is always doing – bringing hope to the hopeless, love to the loveless, and yes, joy to the joyless. That’s what these Advent candles are here to remind us of as we wait for the One whom God sends to set it all in motion.
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I have a friend who has battled with depression most of her life. Yet in her darkest moments, she somehow always found a way to rejoice. She told me, “We all have a choice to feel joy or not. God is our guide, not fate or some circumstance.”
Paul gave up all that he had to follow Christ because he knew that in Christ, God has given the world hope. Through Christ, God has given the world eternal love. Therefore, Paul can rejoice with Christ because God is reordering the human heart from the inside out. As my friend pointed out, “Paul does not say he is happy.” I think many of us get confused believing that because we follow Jesus we are to be happy at all times.
In our overly materialistic world, joy and rejoicing are often synonymous with happiness and celebration – which probably explains why so many of us get anxious this time of year. But here’s the thing. Joy and happiness are not the same thing. Like my friend reminded me, “Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. As long as we have God’s Spirit in us, we always have joy. But it doesn’t mean we’ll always be happy.”
The world wants us to believe that our pursuit of happiness will lead to joy. Coca-Cola has spent billions to make their product synonymous with happiness. After all, “Have a coke and smile” used to be their tagline. But here’s the thing. Happiness is conditional. As long as I have a coke I’m happy. But that feeling goes away once the bottle is empty.
Pursuing happiness often proves to be a fruitless endeavor; Drugs, work, exercise, material wealth, and even religion…merely offer temporary happiness at best. Only God can offer endless, eternal joy. Like hope and love, God’s joy is not conditional. It’s a gift given freely to anyone who wants it.
While accepting this gift doesn’t stop the depression in my friend, it does allow her to find reasons to rejoice. Like Paul, she knows what God is capable of doing, because she has seen what God has done through the Christ child. In Christ and through Christ and with Christ, the Spirit of God gives her hope, love and joy.
The same is true for us today.
When Christ is in us, we too will always have a reason to rejoice. For our joy is not based on ‘if’ God loves us...but ‘because’ God loves us. And Jesus Christ is the proof of how far God is willing to go to do this. When we welcome Christ into our hearts, we ignite God’s promise hope and steadfast love within us – illuminating a deep sense of joy that can never be stolen or taken away.
Which takes us to another one of my favorite Christmas movies from my childhood.
Based on the story by Dr. Seuss, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, is about a tiny-hearted curmudgeon who lives in a cave above the land of Whoville. From his craggy hole, the Grinch looks down on the cheery Whos with disgust. This sentiment only gets worse during the Christmas season. Fed up with their merriment, the Grinch decides to dress up like Santa Claus and steal their Christmas joy.
Yet, after his mission is complete, the Grinch is surprised to see that robbing The Whos of all their material goods didn’t change a thing. The people still had joy in their hearts. They still had hope and love that kept them rejoicing because nothing of real value was taken away.
In witnessing their joy, the Grinch has a literal change of heart. Not only is it transformed but it triples in size! He discovers, joy is not found in material things. Instead, it comes from within a heart that God has reordered from the inside out.
Henri Nouwen writes, “I realize that the only way for us to stay well in the midst of the mini world is to stay close to the small, vulnerable child that lives in our hearts and in every other human being.”
We often forget that the Christ child has already come. It is already here, within us all. Like The Whos realize, that Christ light in us can never be taken away or snuffed out. Once we discover the joy of Christ within us, we can’t help but truly rejoice in the Lord always.
And so here’s what I want you to leave with today - especially if you are feeling like Charlie Brown or the Grinch. To all of us who are struggling to find joy in your life right now, listen carefully to these words that were part of a friend’s Facebook post this week.
He wrote, “While you and I search our hearts for some joyous feeling despite illness and death all around us, the Savior's birth offers tangible evidence that sorrow and sadness will not have the final word! As sure as Christ was born, God will lead His people to eternal joy.”
This is not a quote from a classic movie, but it is part of a timeless story. A story of God Incarnate who breaks through the darkness to shine light who comes into our harden hearts to us to redeem us and restore us, and who bring us home rejoicing.
The reason we can rejoice when life gets us down happens because God never lets us down. Instead God lifts us up and empowers us to move into that space between today and tomorrow - to fearlessly share our hope to the hopeless, love to the loveless, and joy to the joyless. Let us go into Anamesa so that the world can see the Christ child in us and through us. And together with Christ may they join us and rejoice.
Based on an original sermon Joy: Whenever We Need It (December 16, 2018)
Bliss, Don - Facebook post on Thursday, December 9, 2021
Nouwen, Henri J. M. You are the Beloved. (Convergent, 2017).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”