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Psalm 126

Good morning, church. Please go with me back to the psalm we read together this morning, Psalm 126. This third week of advent, traditionally, we call to mind the joy of the Lord, and I chose those words carefully. We call joy to mind, because joy is not a thing to be found or purchased. Joy is ancient. Joy is a promise, already being fulfilled, awaiting fullness. Joy is a gift given to those who are in Christ, like a cross on a necklace, and you can carry it with you no matter where you go, even front lines and hospital rooms. It doesn’t go away, you don’t have to find it, but you do have to remember it, carry it, call it to mind.

We always want joy to be organic, just like friendship, but so often it’s not. You have to be intentional about it, and seek it out if you notice it absent for a time. At its best, ritual can be deeply meaningful to both. As strange as it seems, sometimes you have to set aside time to remember joy, just like you have to set aside time to catch up with a friend. More than any other aspect of advent and Christmas, joy seems to be what our culture as a whole has seized upon, even if they go about it the wrong way, they confuse joy and happiness. Even if people know very little of the Christmas story or the way people have celebrated through the long ages of the church, they know this is a season for joy. Around the world, people wish each other a merry, a happy Christmas, and joy and merriment overlap in some ways, though with important differences.

I was thinking all week about about ritual and tradition and the ways we seek joy each year both in the church and in the broader culture. This thought started with my family’s advent wreath, and a mistake I made. That’s one of our traditions (not me making mistakes, but the advent wreath): we light the candles, week by week, read the story of the first advent and talk about entering into hope, peace, joy, and love in Christ. My mistake was, I realized I had remembered to buy the four candles to go around the advent wreath, but I had forgotten to buy a candle to go in the middle, at which point I realized with horror, that center candle represents Christ, himself, so I had accidentally left Christ out of Christmas. I had become the person all the billboards and bumper stickers are warning against. That’s what got me thinking in the first place about ritual, tradition, and our culture.

I’m amazed every year at how many people take part in some form of Christmas. The joy of the Lord is so attractive, we all long so deeply for joy, that even many people who believe nothing of Christianity take part in many of the rituals of the church through the ages. Caroling in Jackson Square, a tree in Rockefeller Center. It may be worth a groan and some frustration at the cultural appropriation, people taking a Christian celebration and making it something else, corporate ads and pc greetings, but even so it’s also worth wonder and worship of him whom so many people are drawn toward each year. Even if we won’t articulate it and don’t recognize it, we all desperately long for Christ, and the joy found in him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of ritual in the raising of children, too, this season. My eight-year-old is beginning to think critically about the faith he’s been handed, and I want to be very careful, very intentional, in passing on to him this life in Christ which means so much to me at such a deep level. I’ve seen how fast he’s grown already and I know I have very little time left. So much of discipleship in our faith tradition surrounds Christian thought, ideas, doctrine, which is vitally important, but especially with children, ritual and lifestyle have far more power than words. If you do something over and over again, you’re teaching it to your children whether you intend to or not.

We have several other rituals in our home to help us call joy to mind. We went this year and actually cut down a tree from a local farm, and that was a blast; I think we’ll be doing that again. That ritual, bringing evergreens inside, began in Europe as a reminder of the life of Christ, like an evergreen, always present, always growing, even in the darkest winter. Decorating the tree has become a powerful moment of reflection, joy, and mourning for my family—we have ornaments with pictures of the children our family has fostered, and ornaments our son made at various years of his life. Several ornaments given by family members we lost recently; silver bells for every year of our marriage except last year, and every year after this. Christmas for most people, I think, is probably the happiest and the saddest time of the year, at the same time. Sometimes we tip more to one side than the other, but usually both are present, and both emotions become more powerful in the presence of the other. Joy encompasses both.

I have a playlist I edit every year of advent and Christmas music I actually enjoy. We listened to it for five hours straight yesterday and loved it. My wife loves nativities, and has several around the house. When we first got married, I started going through each nativity and placing the wise men across the apartment from the rest of the nativity for accuracy’s sake, because they weren’t there for the birth, but every week I would move them slightly closer until epiphany, when they would finally arrive. She’s doing it now.

One of our traditions started with my wife buying what can only be described as a Christmas chicken. I thought it was so gaudy and ridiculous I hid it in our closet before having some friends over because I was embarrassed to have it out, but she found it and set it back out, which started a game we still play now over a decade later, one which AJ is now in on. We all hide it in various places throughout the house for other people to find, the more surprising or inappropriate the better. It’s currently hid in AJ’s underwear drawer, and I am concerned on many levels that he has not yet found it.

The psalm today has also become a kind of tradition for me, because this psalm was the text for my first joy advent sermon for this church three years ago. If you remember, I started at the church four years ago this week, on the Friday, but I didn’t start preaching til January. I was strongly tempted to preach that same sermon again this year, and see if anyone noticed, but what I discovered going back and reading that sermon from three years ago, is that praying this psalm again, year after year is powerful. Reading it again this year, it held a whole new meaning for me.

What I mean is, the psalm hasn’t changed, and joy in Christ hasn’t changed, but I’ve changed considerably, and so has the world. And so, as Bonhoeffer sums up the task of preaching, “the word of God to me today” has changed, and especially for this psalm, it’s meant to. I’ll explain what I mean, but let’s read it again together. Psalm 126. [] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

Psalm 126 is what’s called a psalm of ascents. The city of Jerusalem, and the temple of God were built on top of a mountain, the mountain of Zion, and every time there was a festival in Israel, especially at passover and the new year, all of the faithful people of God would climb mount Zion singing several “songs of ascents,” ascent meaning to go up the mountain to the temple. This psalm we are reading today is one of those songs of ascents, so the faithful people of God have sung this psalm year after year for centuries, just as we are reading it now. Year after year, songs of joy and grief together go up to the Lord from his people.

Preaching this psalm again in the same week of the year has me experiencing something of what we’re meant to understand about the experience of the joy of the Lord as we cry out for it in this psalm. The two years I’ve preached this psalm, in 2020 and this year, have probably been the two most difficult years of my life thus far, yet in between was one of the happiest. In 2020, I was responding to the pandemic and to the three major hurricanes which tore through our state and threw my work life into chaos, on top of the general chaos and stress of that year. I lost friends and family members.

Last year on this exact week, I was bursting with happiness that I couldn’t share with you even as I was preaching on joy, because we found out on this particular week last year that we were going to have a baby, which I had hoped for years, and we decided from the very first week we knew about her, that her name would be Elizabeth Joy. We never had a boy’s name. I remember driving to work, and passing decoration after decoration as people put up the word joy in lights, and I took a picture of each one that morning and sent it to my wife. This year was so hard because we found out a few months later about some severe medical needs with the baby which meant we spent a quarter of this year in the hospital, and half of it talking with doctors about dark possibilities, odds, and diagnoses. It was really unclear for most of the year if everyone was going to survive.

But everyone did survive, and she’s here in this room now, and she is a joy. So again, the word of God has not changed since three years ago, and neither has the Joy found in him, but I have changed, and the world has changed.

The people of God would sing this psalm every year. Some years would have been years of peace, harvest and plenty, and at passover, up the mountain to worship in the temple the people of God would come with rejoicing, looking forward to the feast, singing “the Lord has done great things for us,” and one day he will restore our fortunes like streams in the desert. Some years were years of war and loss, burned crops and poisoned wells, and at passover, up the mountain to worship in the temple the people of God would come singing, “the Lord has done great things for us, we are glad” and one day he will restore our fortunes like streams in the desert. Every year. I imagine Nehemiah and Daniel in exile in Babylon looking out of their windows toward Jerusalem singing, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”

This psalm is meant to be a ritual repeated every year, and it would have come near the Jewish new year, just as we approach our own new year now. Like decorating our tree this year, and remembering our own loss, and the goodness of what God is doing in our lives now, they would gather each year and sing this psalm about mourning and joy.

Some of you may remember a while back a sermon talking about the wheel of fortune—not the gameshow, which is delightful, but the early medieval theological concept. It’s one which has been very helpful to my thought, to help me get outside of the deterministic obsession of our mechanized age. Basically this idea has helped introduce some randomness into my theology. The idea is that fortunes rise and fall in spite of our actions. Our actions contribute, like a vector force, but fortunes are always turning, in spite of our actions. Karma is a false teaching. Bad things do happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Rain falls on the just and unjust alike.

Picture it like this: imagine yourself riding something like a ferris wheel. As the wheel turns, you can find yourself lifted up or brought low, either in spite of or because of your actions. Sometimes our fortunes are looking up, and things are good, and other times they’re falling. Sometimes the nation we live in is unquiet. Sometimes we experience loss, or spend half a year in the hospital. Sometimes we can feel crushed beneath the weight of everything gone wrong and wonder why we’re there.

The medievals taught, fortunes change, but what matters in your life is not whether you have good or bad fortune. What matters is your character. The author I was reading points out, a man of poor character will neither be satisfied at the height of fortune’s turn nor at the bottom. And a man of godly character will in joy seek the Lord in either estate. Christ-like character brings a man toward the center of the wheel, until whether you are at the top or the bottom of the wheel, there’s really not much change in you. You become temperate, constant, able to meet whatever challenge may come.

So often in our lives, we confuse joy with fortune, or at least we look to fortune to bring us joy. But the events of your life, your romantic relationships, your job, your wealth. None of that can give you joy. Joy is a gift from the Lord. Joy is like a fire on a cold, dark night. The goal in life is not to try to raise the sun or melt the snow. The point is to huddle closer to the light and heat you’ve been given, and when the sun does rise again, to glory in it, grateful to the Lord for his good gifts.

There’s a line from Surprised by Joy I quote often in pieces, but it’s worth reading it in full here: Lewis writes, “[Joy] is that [quality] of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.… Joy…must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that…[joy] might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then joy is never in our power, and pleasure often is.”

Joy belongs in advent because joy is knowing that all sad things must one day end, and joy is knowing today is not that day. It teaches us to long for the Lord’s return. Happiness is watching my daughter giggle. Joy is there through it all, though, in all the hospital rooms and specialist visits. Come what may. Joy is knowing that this, too, shall pass, whatever it is, and by the end God will weave it into a story of redemption. Which is why this psalm is meant to be repeated year after year. In good years, restore our fortunes, oh God. In bad years, we’ll reap with shouts of joy.

Every year there was the celebration of the passover in this culture, and every year the people of God would go up singing. I would encourage you this year, even if the mourning outweighs your happiness ten to one, celebrate. Enter into the rituals. This year, light the candles. Take communion. Go carol in the square. Come to the Christmas Eve service here next week. Hide the Christmas chicken, whatever it is you do, call to mind the joy of the Lord.

I told this story before, but I’ve been playing a trick on my eight-year-old recently my dad played on me when I was a kid. He used to tell me he had control over stop lights, and as proof, he would snap his fingers to turn the light green, then at the next light he would tell me to try it. I would snap, snap, snap, trying to make the light change. I would will it to change with every fiber of my being. Then my dad would snap and it would turn green. He was watching the lights on the side and waiting, but I didn’t know that until much later.

Our culture has largely misunderstood joy, and our misunderstanding is largely a categorical error, kind of like my thinking with the stoplights. I was convinced that if I snapped in the right way or loudly enough, I could change the lights, but really the light changing had nothing to do with snapping. I tried for years, though, to conjure the lights. I think I tried for so long because sometimes it would seem to work, I would snap at the right moment and the lights would change.

We do the same thing with joy when we place it in the same category as pleasure. We go looking in places where pleasure can be found, and that search yields mixed results. We look for joy in relationships, for instance, and we get mixed results; some relationships give you a glimpse of joy and others bring you pain. Or we look for joy in food and drink, and again: mixed results—sharing a meal with friends, for instance, is a great joy, but overeating and drinking looking for joy, you’ll find only pain. We snap, snap, snap, seeking out pleasure after pleasure looking for joy, but most of the time we just wind up a bit hung over, exhausted, and still feeling like we somehow missed it, and we long for something more.

My point is, we’re searching for joy in the wrong places. Joy is not in the same category as pleasure. Joy is less about what you’re doing to try to seek it out, and it’s more about waiting for Christ and his kingdom. My experience leads me to agree with Lewis in what I read earlier—oftentimes I can see joy more clearly in hard times than in times of pleasure.

I would invite you this morning into the joy of the Lord, into belief in his promise to redeem and restore the earth and his people. We need joy that isn’t dependent upon the season or circumstances, joy that can look into the face of hardship and even our own mistakes and see, not just brokenness, but everything God is doing to make it right. I would invite you into the joy of the Lord today.

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