“Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.
Zephaniah 3: 19-20
John the Baptist said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to him to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” As the people were in expectation, and all questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie: he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire…”
In December 1979, the Iranian Foreign Ministry invited three American religious leaders—Thomas Gumbleton, a Roman Catholic bishop from Detroit; William Howard, President of the National Council of Churches; and William Sloane Coffin, from Riverside Church in New Your City—to celebrate Christmas with the 53 hostages being held captive in the American Embassy of Tehran. The hostage crisis had begun on November 4th of that year, and no one had any idea how long it would last. For the hostages and their families, each day was an eternity and Christmas Day was fast approaching.
The religious leaders were only allowed to meet with the hostages in groups of three or four. The first four that William Sloane Coffin met with were Marines. Coffin hugged them and they hugged back, which he took as a good sign. The men took turns picking carols to sing. Coffin opened a Bible to the Gospel of Luke and passed the book around, and each read portions of the Christmas story.
Then Coffin spoke to them of the first Christmas. “It was cold,” he said, “dark, dank, and lonely. Joseph must have been tired, Mary exhausted. We read, ‘There was no room for them in the inn,’ but of course there was. There was room in the inn, but no one would move over for a poor, pregnant woman. So they ended up in a stable and he who was to be the bread of life for all humankind was laid in the feedbox of animals.” “It was a terrible Christmas,” Coffin said again. “But do you see what I’m getting at? God’s love can change no place into some place, just as the love of God changes a person who feels like a nobody into a somebody.” As he said goodbye, he said, “I know this is not a happy Christmas for you. But it might well be the most meaningful.” (William Sloane Coffin, “Report From Tehran,” in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 275)
This is a good time of year to ponder the distinction between happiness and meaning, or even more pointedly, between happiness and one of the fruits of meaning, which is joy. Happiness and joy have a lot in common. Both are emotional states of well being. But when I think about what makes me or another person happy as compared to what brings joy, while there may be common ground, there are important distinctions. It would be near impossible to think of the hostages in Iran, or anywhere else in the world, being happy at Christmas. But it isn’t out of the question to think of them being graced by moments of deep meaning and joy, even as their hearts were breaking. Prior to his trip, William Sloane Coffin met with family members of several hostages. One little girl asked him to deliver a kiss to her father. The kiss, Coffin said, was enough to melt him on the spot. When he met the girl’s father and said, “I’m going to give you a big kiss from your daughter.” Coffin said it was as if the Christmas tree outside the White House turned on in that man’s head. “Never,” he said, “had I seen such illumination.” (Ibid., 277.)
Happiness is something we strive for; in the words of our nation’s founding fathers, it can be pursued. The pursuit of happiness is the fulfillment of desire. It is also subjective, for each person has a different definition of happiness and therefore a unique path of pursuit.
The pursuit of happiness is a good thing. Thomas Jefferson rightly identified it as one of the unalienable rights of humankind. Yet there is a limitation to happiness, dependent as it is upon external circumstances and subjective experience. One of the most liberating insights of my life, that I must relearn over and over again, is that it is impossible to make other people happy. We can strive to bring happiness to others, based on what we know about them, but we can’t control their response. It’s also sobering to realize how our definitions of happiness are influenced—some would say controlled—by what we see around us. “Be content with what you have,” John the Baptist told those who had the power to take what they wanted from other people. We can never be happy in a perpetual state of want.
Joy, on the other hand, goes deeper in us than happiness can reach, into the realm of meaning. Joy doesn’t depend on external circumstances or good fortune, nor is it something that we can pursue. Joy comes to us, often in unlikely times and places. “Happiness,” writes the spiritual author Frederick Buechner, “turns up more or less where you’d expect it to–a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.” (Frederick Buechner, A Seeker’s ABCs , 57-8.)
One would expect joy at a wedding; but it can be equally palpable at a funeral. One would hope for joy on the perfect Christmas morning. Yet it can also come to us in the loneliness of imperfection, when nothing turned out the way we hoped it would, after an argument, and even in a jail cell. Joy is a gift that God gives, and with it a deep sense of being at home in an all too imperfect world.
The Scriptures often speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear. Not only does joy come to the unexpecting, but also to the undeserving. The book of the prophet Zephaniah, from which we read this morning, is a good example, for it contains in its succinct three chapters some of the most compelling prophetic judgement against God’s people, a catalogue of reasons why God is fully justified in ridding himself of the burden of them once and for all. Yet in these final six verses of Zephaniah, God does one of those great cosmic turn-arounds. Instead of punishment, God offers a promise of healing and reconciliation. “The Lord is not interested in your shame or sorrow,” the prophet tells the people of Israel. “God will lift you up even from the despair of your own creation. God will take you from your desolate places and bring you home.” This is about joy, in part because the promises are beyond anyone’s capacity to pursue or accomplish. Moreover, they are promises not yet fulfilled; they are more of a hope than reality. Yet what happens when we hold onto words like these is that the seeds of joy take root in us long before there is anything to be happy about. Happiness needs immediate gratification, while the promise of joy is often joy enough.
We also hear from John the Baptist this morning, as we do every year in Advent. I don’t know how you picture John as you consider his words today, but he doesn’t strike me as a particularly happy guy. He is on a mission, with a fierce truth to proclaim and a people to prepare for the coming Messiah. I have a hard time imagining anyone being happy with what John said to them when they asked what they should do. But I can see how what he said could serve as a precursor to joy, not the kind of joy that lives alongside happiness, but the kind that comes with having your soul purged of what it doesn’t need and made right with God.
To allow space for God in your heart, he said, make peace with what is yours, and share with those who have less than you do. Strive for the kind of freedom that comes for needing less. When the One who is coming after me arrives, all that you imagine you need to be happy will be revealed for the superficial things that they are and burned away like chaff from wheat.
I doubt that John was thinking about joy when he said these things—his interest was righteousness. But long after John died, and after Jesus died, for that matter, when those trying to explain the mystery of God’s presence in Christ looked back, they saw in John the kind of truth-telling and fearless living that leads to deep meaning and joy.
John would have harsh words for us if he saw that in our pursuit of happiness we had lost sight of what matters most. He would remind us that sometimes we have to go through pain to get to joy. I wouldn’t dare argue with John. But what I take from his harsh tone in the midst of this Advent season, which begins in judgment and ends in joy, is a reminder that joy can be experienced while facing difficult truths or living through tough times. Happiness is a fickle friend, the one who shows up, as Buechner said, where you’d expect. But joy can show up anywhere, and in fact, it will show up where we least expect it. John thought God was coming to whip us all into shape, and he was wrong. Jesus came, as he said once, “so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”
Like all of you, I wish happiness for those I love. But this may or not be a happy Christmas, depending on circumstances beyond our control. Whether it will be a joyful Christmas depends not on our pursuit, but rather upon our openness to receive. For what God gives can come in the loneliest hour and the darkest night. “Weeping may spend the night,” the psalmist wrote, “but joy comes in the morning.” Joy comes in happiness or sorrow, calm or chaos—it doesn’t matter. For it is God’s doing, God coming to us as we are, in the world as it is, with an assurance of deep meaning and the promise of joy.
May I pray for you?
Gracious and loving God, I hold before you these, your beloved ones in this place. No matter the circumstances of their lives, Lord, I pray that they may know your joy, your love and your peace in this holy season. Help us all to trust you, and to receive the gifts you long to give. And God, we know that there more people and places in need of your joy than we can imagine, much less respond to ourselves, but we ask that through us, in ways large and small, others may know something of your joy. Help us to heed the words of John, and to share what we have and live with integrity and generosity of spirit. All this we pray in the name of Jesus who came to show us your way of love. Amen.