Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Research has consistently shown that there are incredible benefits to having a hobby. Regularly doing something that we enjoy, are passionate about, and just find fun is really good for us. It is has also been my observation that people’s hobbies tend to be more detailed than non-hobbyist assume. There tends to be terms, tools, and a whole world that is familiar to the hobbyist that people not into what is just do not know about. I know this is true for me. As a couple our big hobby together is board games. Most people assume that just means Monopoly, but there is an entire world of thousands of hobbyist board games out there. While I have always enjoyed playing games, we really got into the hobby together in 2008. At that time we discovered a huge website dedicated to that hobby called boardgamegeek.com, which has an extensive database of all these hobby games. Through that website I discovered a game that I thought looked really neat about escaping a school overrun by zombies. We bought it, played it on Halloween, and had a lot of fun together. The next day on the website there was a post asking what games people played on Halloween, so I shared what we played. I also mentioned that this was the first game we bought we discovered it searching the database on the website. Someone instantly replied dismissing the game we had enjoyed as terrible.
I honestly should not have been surprised by that response. Similar interactions are repeated across the Internet and sadly in real life daily. It seems as soon as someone expresses their enjoyment of something then someone is there to tell them why they are wrong to enjoy it or why the thing they enjoy is terrible. I have to confess, I do not really understand why this is. Happiness is not a zero sum game. If someone enjoys something that I did not, I am not somehow less happy because of their enjoyment. Psychology puts forth one of the reasons why this happens so quickly has to do with feelings of superiority. When someone is able to declare that someone else is wrong in their enjoyment, it makes them feel superior and validates their self-image as an expert on whatever the topic is. Essentially their enjoyment comes stealing the enjoyment of other people. Likely, in your own personal experience you have also encountered someone who has attempted to steal your happiness. Unfortunately, our broken fallen world tends to treat happiness has a commodity that is in short supply. Yet this morning’s scripture points us to how we can be a beacon of unquenchable joy.
Happiness and joy are often used interchangeably, but I think most of us would agree there is a difference. Happiness is something that we often go to great lengths to capture and pursue but joy is more elusive. I think most parents of young children have inadvertently created an experiment that illustrates the difference. We can and we do try to manufacture happiness. We do this around Christmas. We put up decorations, we wrap gifts, we open daily advent calendars, or pose an elf on a shelf in different ways to build up anticipation. We do all of this to create a moment that delivers happiness, and it usually succeeds. There is usually a lot of happiness in the act of opening the gifts and seeing new toys. That moment ends, the mess is cleaned up, and the happiness of the event fades. However, the joy the young child gets from endlessly playing with the box (not the toy) endures. Joy seems to feel both simpler than happiness but harder to obtain and quantify.
For advent, our mid-week bible study has been working through a study called Almost Christmas. This study takes the Wesleyan idea between an almost Christian and an altogether Christian and applies it other things, including joy. One of the study authors, Matt Rawle, labels the moments of happiness we work hard to create as an almost joy. He then makes an astute observation about what ultimately separates happiness and joy. He wrote, “Joy cannot be manufactured, sought, or studied. In the same way that it is impossible to tickle yourself, joy is not something you can achieve. An altogether joy is a gift.”
That makes sense to me. Joy being a gift explains why it seems so simple but so hard to quantify. It is why the things that spark joy the most in our lives are the things that we just can’t go to a store and buy for ourselves. Joy is a deep-feeling sense of satisfaction that is gifted to us. An altogether joy then is one that is rooted in the best gift of all. From the study Matt Rawle defines an altogether joy “as a steadfast assurance God is with us.” This season is all about celebrating that God so loved the world that God sent his only son and because of that the best of all is God is with us. Jesus, our Emmanuel, will never leave us, forsake us, or abandon us. The love of God does not run out and it never gives up. All of this is offered to us as a gift without price, and that is a source of steadfast assurance. The gift of God’s love is the source of an altogether joy.
Yet, we live in a broken and fallen world that seeks to steal even that joy away. If we are not careful, we can let it. We can let the joy of knowing Jesus be leached out of us so that our faith turns from one based in a steadfast assurance that God is with us to one that is based in legalistic moralism. When this happens instead of being beacons of joy we become grinches who try to steal the joy of others by telling them that they are following Jesus the wrong way. Preventing that from happening is where this morning’s scripture comes in.
This morning’s scripture does not feel particularly advent or Christmas like. There are no messianic prophecies or angelic proclamations. Yet, it is included in the readings for the third Sunday of Advent. The team that put together the cycle of weekly scriptures were wise to include this morning’s scripture on the Sunday that we light an advent candle to signify joy. This morning’s scripture gives us very practical advice on how to maintain a steadfast assurance that God is with us, so that not only can the world not steal our joy but we radiate it.
There are two key pieces of advice in this morning’s scripture that lead to us radiating joy. The first piece of advice is a three-parter found in verse 16: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances. Rejoicing is giving words to our reason for joy. Prayer connects us to God, the source of our joy, and giving thanks reminds us of all the reasons we have to be joyful. Friends, we have a great many reasons to be thankful and a great number of reasons to be joyful. Each and every one of use can complain if we want to, but if we are being honest for every complaint we have there are at least ten thing we can be thankful about. Our greatest source of thanksgiving and joy though is Jesus. As we sung this morning, “Joy to the world, The Lord is come!” But then verse three of the classic carol states why this is such a source of joy: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground, he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Because of Jesus the curse of sin and death has been broken. This is our reason for joy. Knowing that our sins are erased, that our transgressions are not held against us, and the guilty verdict has been thrown out should fill us with a steadfast assurance that God is with us, that God is for us.
This is why joy, why altogether joy, goes so much further than happiness. Because we can feel joy even in sadness, even during hard times, and even during darkness we can experience joy. Being filled with joy does not mean we have to always be the epitome of happy. It does mean that no matter what we go through we have an unflappable assurance that we are still loved, that we are still valued, and we are still forgiven. It means we are anchored secure by the steadfast truth that no matter what storm life throws our eternity is assured. This truth should feel us with a joy down in our hearts; down in our hearts to stay.
The second key piece of advice comes in verse 19: “Do not quench the Spirit.” This seems like a no-brainer, why on earth would we want to get in the way of the workings of the Holy Spirit. Yet, it happens far too often. The most deadly words that can be said in a church are “We’ve never done it that way before”, because those words quench the spirit. The Holy Spirit works in us and through us to make us more Christ like and to make this world a more loving place. By necessity the work of the Holy Spirit brings about transformation and change. Yet churches as institutions have a reputation for being notoriously resistant to change. It really should not be this way. Yes, we should be wise. As the scripture says, we should test everything and hold onto the good. Too often though in religious communities when someone has a new idea, they immediately meet resistance and told that is not how we do things around here. This attitude more often than not quenches the spirit.
Churches should be places that enable people’s dreams not quench them. When our collective attitude is one where we seek to enable dreams, then we find our joy increases. This happens for two reasons. First, if someone has a dream they are likely passionate about it. I do not know if you have ever done something with someone who is passionate about it, but it makes a world of difference. Once when I was serving in youth ministry, there was a teenager who loved dirt track auto-racing. He talked about it a lot. I would listen, but my engagement was not that high. However, I then went to a dirt track with him. It was a fun night, not because the races were particularly memorable but because I got to be part with someone enjoying something they were so passionate about. There is deep-seated contentment, there is joy in that. When we encourage people’s dreams instead of stifle them we get to be part of that.
Second, if someone in a faith community has a new idea that might potentially change something then that idea has likely come about from the person seeking to better follow Jesus. When we encourage these dreams, we work with the Holy Spirit, and we see in action the way that God changes lives. It is hard to have our joy stolen from us or ground down, when we are encouraging the joy, the altogether joy of others. I am personally happy, that this church has a fairly good track record of saying yes instead of no, of enabling dreams instead of quenching the Spirit. As we continue to look for new ways to share God’s love and make disciples it is my hope that we all are willing to try new things and stay open to change.
I am fully aware that for many people this is a time of the year that tends to sap our joy away, and I am even more aware that this year in general has been especially trying. Yet, may we remember our reason for joy. May we not just pursue temporary happiness but may we have a deep-seated contentment that comes from the steadfast assurance that God is with us. This season leading up to Christmas, this season of Advent, with all of its hustle, bustle and busyness is a reminder of why we have joy in the first place. It is a reminder that best of all, God is with us. Always.