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Live With Joy

Sermon – 12/11/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 126

1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."

3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb [desert].

5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.


You know the Christmas season is supposed to be a joyous season.  We have all kinds of Christmas carols filled with references to that joy -- Joy To The World (the savior is born), Oh Come All Ye Faithful (joyful and triumphant), Hark The Herald Angels Sing (glory to the newborn King), Joyful All Ye Nations Rise (join the triumph of the skies), Angels We Have Heard On High (sweetly singing or' the plains and the mountains in reply echoing their joyous strains).  You know all those songs. 

And the secular songs as well join in the happy chorus.  Whether laughing all the way through Jingle Bells, or shouting out with glee for Rudolph.  It's a joyous time.

So why is it that so often it seems to be a bleak time?  Why is it that there's so much depression in December?  Why is it that suicide rates always go up in the Christmas season?

I've always wondered what the correlation is between the increase of depression in society and typically the increase in worship attendance in December.  Is there some connection here?  Are you a person that comes to church because you're depressed or are you a person who gets depressed after you come to church?!  J  I hope that's not the case, certainly that's not what we seek to create.  If you've been to churches like that, that are filled with depressed people (they begin with a funeral dirge and then it goes downhill from there).  But we want to uplift people, depressed people.

There are many reasons why holidays can be hard, especially the Christmas season.  LeBron McBride, a Disciples pastor and family therapist in Georgia, names 8 causes for the holiday blues in this month's DisciplesWorld magazine (it's a great magazine, if you don't have a subscription you should get one, but if not we'd be glad to give you a copy of this article).  He provides some suggestions for how to combat those blues.  The 8 causes he cites (let's see how many of these fit):

First, for those without families, holidays are a painful time that remind them that they are alone.

Second, for those who have recently lost a loved one or a job or their marriage, the holidays remind them of that loss.

Third, holidays are a time of over-indulgence in alcohol, fat, and sugar.  None of them very good for our bodies, creates shame and guilt, and physically we don't feel as well as a result.

Fourth, holidays can be an enormous financial burden, or simply remind us that we never have enough to buy all those wonderful things we see advertised.

Fifth, holidays are a very busy time for us, resulting in physical exhaustion.

Sixth, holidays often add stress to our lives.

Seventh, when it has been a difficult year, coming to the end of the year causes us to reflect on the pain of the past year and brings all of that up again.

And then lastly, especially at Christmas time, the religious emphasis of the holidays may call up feelings of spiritual emptiness or lack of meaning in our lives.

Now that I've reminded you of all those things (to bring you down) -- do you feel any better?  J

Well, there are many sources of help, and the article cites many of those.  Things such as seeking out a friend, seeking help from a counselor or therapist or a physician, starting a good regimen of exercise and diet, meditation and prayer.  Giving of yourself -- holiday season is a time to give.  It's often in that giving of ourselves that we are renewed in our own spirit.  And it's precisely because all of us have felt some of these things at some time in our life that we need to hear the good news in this Psalm.

So I want you to take note that the context of Psalm 126, with its three references in just 6 short verses, to shouts of joy, to mouths filled with laughter and rejoicing, that the context is NOT (I repeat, not) some joyous holiday, a great victory celebration.  The perspective is not one of being on the inside for a festive party, pitying those on the outside, on the street with their signs.  And you know that feeling -- be thankful that you're here and not out there.  That's not the perspective of this Psalm.  

The context, instead, is that of those that have lost their fortunes.  Those who sow in tears.  And go out weeping, as the Psalm says, to reap their pitiful harvest that they know is woefully inadequate to provide their means.  The worker laid off at Christmas time.  The parent with no money to buy Christmas gifts for their children.  The man or woman diagnosed with a terminal disease.  People who have every right to be bitter, angry, or depressed, and yet somehow, inexplicably, have discovered in spite of everything else, in the midst of all their difficulties, that it is still better to live with joy rather than in sorrow.

How can that be?

When Patrick and I, my son, went to Nicaragua three years ago (a completion of 5th grade in a Spanish-immersion program), to tryout his language skills, we went and visited (a group of 20 kids and adults), a school on an island in Lake Nicaragua (a group of islands).  And this little school building was literally the only building on this island.  A one-room school-house for about 80 children.  Fortunately, in Nicaragua it doesn't get too cold so you don't have to be inside.  The kids and their families were all waiting there for us on the island when we got there, and all their boats lined up that they had come in, etc.  And there was a big opening ceremony, and speeches made, and songs sung, and our kids brought with them gifts.  School kits of paper and colored pencils and plastic rulers.  When they handed out those gifts to the other children you would have thought they were Santa Claus.  The kids were so excited to receive these things and immediately began playing with their new gifts and drawing things and giggling.

And then those children returned the favor by teaching our children how to fish.  In true Tom Sawyer fashion with nothing but a stick and a string on the end of it and a hook.  They went out in teams with one Spanish child and one from our group with a contest to see who could catch the most fish.  And came back with bucket-loads of fish.  Just had a great time.  And of course there was a party with a piñata, and all the kids laughing and giggling.

As we left in the twilight of the evening and got back onto our big boat and waving goodbye and shouting to one another, we could see the homes on all the other little islands around.  Huts, really.  No electricity, no telephones, none of the modern conveniences.  Very simple lifestyle.  It was easy to imagine that the uniforms those kids were wearing to school were probably the nicest clothes that they had.  As we left, I wondered:  which group really was the richer of the two?

There are two people in our midst that characterize the spirit of this Psalm, one who is a youth and one who is . . . .well, older.

John Campbell, Monte's grandson and Glen's son, broke his arm in a football game -- a Pop Warner championship series.  Very severe break, had to have a metal plate, surgery, and all of this.  His folks were concerned that he wouldn't be able to play basketball (his favorite sport).  You know what John told his father?  He said it was the "best thing that ever happened to him".  It was his right arm, and he's right-handed.  "But Dad, now I'll have to learn how to dribble and shoot with my left hand.  I will be a better basketball player because of it".  What a spirit.

Lee Wahlstrom didn't break his arm, he broke his shoulder, and that's why he's in a sling right here.  Just right outside, out front, after volunteering as he always does on Wednesday's, went out and tripped and fell.  And Lee, being a former paramedic, knew enough not to try and get up, and laid there in the rain and the cold on the pavement.  Even though the new fire station is about a block away, it was at least 15 minutes (seemed like an eternity) we were out there waiting for help to arrive trying to keep Lee warm on that cold pavement.  And you know what he was doing the whole time?  He was telling jokes.  He was keeping us in a good spirit.  When the paramedics finally did arrive and asked if he'd lost consciousness, I said "heck no, he hasn't even lost his sense of humor!".  What a spirit.

Christian author Fred Beakner says that happiness is a result of human achievement.  A happy home, a happy marriage, a good job that makes you happy, those are things we do.  Joy, on the other hand, comes as a result of a divine gift.  He writes:  "the miracle sometimes of being just who we are, with the blue sky and green grass, the faces of our friends, and the waves of the ocean being just what they are.  The joy of release of being suddenly well when before we were sick, of being forgiven when before we were ashamed and afraid, of finding ourselves loved when we were lost and alone.  Joy comes as a gift, and often as a surprise."

So hear the good news.  The source of our Joy:  what God has done before, God will do again, says the Psalmist.  The joy of the Psalmist means even in times of tragedy and sorrow, therefore, we can be joyful.  For if God restored the fortunes of Zion once, God will do so again.  If God healed the blind and the lame once, God will do so again.  If God fed the hungry and the poor once, God will do so again.  If God overcame death and the cross once, God will do so again, and again, and again.

Why?  Because that is the nature of our God.  It is the promise not of some far-off future act of God but of that on-going presence of God in our world here and now that is the source of our joy.  It calls us to imagine a different world, a world where God reigns and restores the fortunes of all who sow in tears.  Like those who dare to dream of a time when people would be judged by the strength of their character and not the color of their skin.  Imagine a future, God's future.  Free of all prejudice and discrimination.  Like those who dare to dream of a land with freedom of religion and speech.  Imagine a place, God's place.  Of respect for all faiths, and freedom from all terror and hate.  Like those who dare to dream of a country ruled by law and elected leaders, not armies and Kings.  Imagine a world, God's world, ruled by justice and peace.  Like those who proclaim that the poor are blessed, and those who ate manna in the wilderness.  Imagine a people, God's people, who will not allow a person to go hungry or a child to grow up in poverty.  

Imagine what a day that will be when God restores our fortunes.  What a day that will be when we not only believe the promise of God but we act on the promise of God.  Then we will be like those who dream.  Our mouths will be filled with laughter.  Our tongues with shouts of joy.  And it will be said:  the Lord has done great things for us.

Rejoice, people of God, this is our destiny.  Heaven on earth.  Live with joy, for our Lord is coming.  


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