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Looking for Joy

Sermon - 12/14/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Thessalonians 5:14-24

As we reflect on the joy that we have in the Lord, traditionally on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the text traditionally focuses on that joy in some way.  And this morning's text, from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, is a classic example of that, where we read:

14And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

 

For most of us, I think, this is a season to be merry.  A season of joy.  But we all know that for some, the holidays can be a very difficult time, and especially this year.  With each new day bringing more dismal news of business failures, layoffs, foreclosures, long lines at the soup kitchens and unemployment offices, the Christmas spirit may be in short supply.

There was even a report in the news this week that Santa himself is having a hard time finding work.  That the Malls are cutting back on expenses, and so Santa has been laid off.  What is this world coming to when you can't find Santa Claus in the Mall?!

So where do we find joy in times like this?

Judging from all the songs we sing and we hear in this season, joy is found in the past.  Christmas is a time for wallowing in nostalgia, unlike any other time of the year.  I mean, when was the last time you roasted chestnuts over an open fire?  Or went dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh?  We sing those songs as if it's something we do every winter.

Or, if we take our clue from the ads, for which a small forest gave its life ever Sunday, joy can be found in a 50-inch plasma T.V.  Or a diamond necklace.  Or a cordless power tool set (we hope J).  Yet, will any of those things comfort you when you are sick?  Hold your hand when you are scared?  Cheer you up when you are depressed?

We all know that true joy cannot be found in such materialistic things.  True joy comes in a pair of tickets on the 50-yard line at the Holiday Bowl J.  We can wish.  Assuming, of course, that the Ducks win.

All of these things can bring us pleasure, no matter how fleeting, but I'm talking about that real joy that comes from deep within us.  The joy that a bad game, a bad day at the office, even being laid off or a serious illness, cannot take away from us.

So where do we find that kind of joy, that can carry us through even the greatest hardship?  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.  Why?  Because God's rod and staff comfort us.  Are there with us.

That kind of joy that allows us to rejoice in all circumstances.  Note the text does not say "because" of all circumstances.  But often in spite of those external circumstances.

You know the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?  You take a little girl into a room filled with horse manure.  A pessimist will say "Oh, great, I suppose you want me to clean that up?".  Where the optimist will run around and say "Whoopee!  Whoopee!  There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!".

For all those looking for the pony, and those worried about who is going to clean up the mess we have made of this world, hear the good news of Advent:  we are called to rejoice not because of all the wonderful things that have happened in the past, all the wonderful things we have received in this life or expect to receive this Christmas, but Advent is not about what was or even what is, Advent is about what is to be.  The coming of God into our world that will bring complete transformation to the world.

As described in that text in Isaiah, of a day that will reverse the fortunes of the oppressed and the brokenhearted.  A day that will turn mourning into gladness.  A day where we will see our ancient ruins rebuilt and our ancient cities repaired.

Christmas is about the first coming of God in Christ that began this process of transformation.  Paul is talking here about the second coming that completes it.  Now, whether you understand that second coming literally or metaphorically (as I have said many times before), the point is that we live in the in-between times.  Between the first and second coming.  And because of Jesus, because of that first coming, we know what we are called to be and to do in order to realize that vision of the reign of God to come.  But because of the promise of that second coming, which last Sunday you may recall that I argued for as the fulfillment of the promise of the angels of 'peace on earth and goodwill to all', we know that God is not finished with us yet.  That God is still at work, creating and transforming this world.  To bring about the new heaven and new earth where God will dwell among us.  Death itself will be no more.

Of course the great paradox of the gospels is precisely that the transformation began with the death of the One who came to inaugurate it.  Just as the birth of Christ to an unknown common teenage girl from Nazareth was totally unexpected, so too the death and resurrection of the Messiah.  Which is why I've always found the symbol of the empty cross and the empty tomb so powerful.  It points to the transformation possible in God.  That those who take like are not in control of this world.  Those who torture and kill will not prevail.  Those who terrorize and destroy will ultimately fail.  Why?  Because we know the way of Jesus.  We know the way of God that will prevail.  And because we know that way, and trust in that way, we know the joy, in spite of everything else that may be.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his famous Christmas poem at a time when most people in our nation despaired.  A nation torn apart by Civil War, much of it lying in ruins, the President assassinated.  And Longfellow writes:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!’ 

Till, ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
 

Because God is not dead and is still at work, we can rejoice.  The world is revolving, from night to day, even now.

I was asked to give the keynote address for the community celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this week.  That meant I had to bone-up on just what that declaration said, and what has transpired because of it since its adoption on December 10th 1948.  And I tell ya, I was quite impressed what I learned in the process.

I learned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been translated into over 360 languages -- more than even the Bible.  It has served as an inspiration in many countries for their own liberation movements and democratic reforms.  The best example of which being South Africa -- they used the Universal Declaration as a basis for its new constitution, written under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.  It has spawned a whole series of international treaties and agreements on political and civil rights, economic, social and cultural rights, discrimination against women, the abolition of torture and racial discrimination, the rights of children, and the rights of migrants.

Every nation of the world has ratified at least one of these treaties, and 80% have ratified 4 or more.  And once they have been ratified, they become legally binding upon that nation.  And thus it forms the basis of international human rights law.

I also discovered that the basic foundation for this Universal Declaration was laid out by our President -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  In his State of the Union address in 1941, before we entered into World War II.  He described four foundational freedoms, a vision that he laid out for a more peaceful, freer world, even as we prepared for war.  And here's what he said in January 1941:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.  The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world.  The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world.  The third is freedom from want--which, translated into universal terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.  The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world. 

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.

 

Seven years later, it fell to his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the committee who wrote the Declaration of Human Rights, then adopted by the United Nations without dissent.

Those 4 freedoms are cited at the beginning of that declaration as its foundation:  the freedom of speech and belief, the freedom from fear and want. 

Now, we certainly have a long way to go to fulfill that vision even in our own country.  But my point is, consider how far we have come.  Especially since 1941, and even since 1948.  Martin Luther King said it well when he said:  "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice".

We may be progressing slowly, but ever so slowly we are moving towards the promise of God of peace on earth and goodwill to all.  There will be recessions, there will be more wars and other setbacks, but if you look at the long arc of human history (especially over the last 2,000 years) of that steady progression towards democracy, equality, justice, and freedom, there is much reason for hope.

At that human rights event on Wednesday night at Caesar Chavez Elementary School (which, by the way, I love the symbolism of that, particularly given that there was quite a struggle in our community to name the school Caesar Chavez, and how powerful a symbol that is that here we were in this place where we're planting the seeds of equality for future generations in that school) one of our members came up to me, beaming from ear-to-ear, all excited, and she said "Have you read Newsweek?".  The cover of Newsweek about gay marriage, because of what it meant for her gay son and the possibilities of the changing attitudes in our society and the hope she had for her own child.

We saw a video of a Native American tribe in northern California, of their first coming-of-age ceremony held since the 1920s, when they gathered as a tribal community for this young teenager coming of age.  And the entire thing held over 4 days, filmed by a Eugene filmmaker, of this tribe as it was being reborn, reclaiming its cultural heritage and its tradition of protecting the river coming off of Mt. Shasta where its tribal grounds are.

And then the next night, the Interfaith Service, here, we had a group of Jewish children singing a lively Hanukah song.  Now think for a moment about that, the symbolism of that.  It was not too long ago in our world when most Jewish children would be in fear of churches, or at least were taught that they were unwelcome in a church, and here we had this group of Jewish children singing of their faith, here in a Christian church.  What a powerful symbol of a new world.

My daughter, God willing on her way home from college, is headed to Argentine at the end of February, for a semester of study abroad.  When I was her age, 19, I went to work for the general office of our Christian church youth ministry office, in the building known as the "mission's building".  Literally was the place where missionaries had been trained for a century.  Missionaries would come through, and I'd get a chance to meet them, hear their stories as they were on furlough, etc.  And one of the first missionaries I met was from Argentina, who came to the United States specifically to appeal to church leaders to gain their support in his effort to gain the freedom of his daughter, who had been imprisoned by the Argentine government because they wanted her to reveal the whereabouts of her boyfriend who was involved in some radical activity -- seeking democracy in Argentina. 

And she had been held for a year secretly -- they had no contact with her, didn't even know if she was alive.  Fortunately, because of the efforts of church people putting pressure on our government, in turn putting pressure on the Argentine government, she was then released.  Was one of the fortunate ones. During that period, more than 10,000 people 'disappeared' in their secret, dirty war.

Think about the change in that country that has occurred since I was 19. . . about a decade ago J.  And now my daughter going there.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel was the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his work in his country, in Argentina.  He was held for 15 months, tortured by the government, because of his social justice work.  A devout Roman Catholic, Esquivel says:
Because of our faith in Christ and humankind, we must apply our human efforts to the construction of a more just and humane world.  

[And then, like FDR, he concludes:]

And I want to declare emphatically, such a world is possible.

 

It is indeed.  Because God is still at work, leading us toward such a world, transforming countries like Argentina and South Africa, and even our own.

When every human rights advocate imprisoned for his or her speech and actions is set free, when children no longer have to be afraid because of the faith of their families, when parents no longer have to fear for the safety of their children because of their sexual orientation, when every homeless person seeking shelter finds it, when every person is judged by the strength of their character and not the color of their skin, when we see the right to healthcare the same as we see the right to education, when we see every person not only as created equal but we see that we are treated equal, when we have not only freedom of speech and belief but freedom from fear and want, then we will know that we are that much closer to the reign of God and the return of Christ, and peace on earth and goodwill for all.

That is the joy of Advent.  Not a romanticized past depicted in rusty, starry scenes of mangers on greeting cards, but the new day of God, and the complete transformation of the world.

Rejoice, people of God.  Because the One who calls us is faithful.  Together, with God, we will see it happen.

May it be.

 


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