Good morning, church. Please go with me to Psalm 126.
We’re in a season of the church calendar right now called advent, which is a time where we remember the waiting of the people of God for the incarnation of God with us, Immanuel, the birth of Jesus Christ. We remember, and we spend time intentionally waiting for his coming again to bring hope, peace, joy, and love in full. The kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. We wait and we watch for heaven breaking through.
I’ve talked about hope in Christianity, not as some vague idea that next year may be better than this year—even this year, if you find yourself longing for a world in which there is no sickness, no more loss, and you’re reunited with everyone you’ve missed—you’re not longing for a new year; you’re longing for a new world. The renewed heaven and earth Christ will bring with his return. And with that new world comes peace—a peace of everything as it should be: the peace of Christ, which is completely different from the peace of this world. The peace of Christ is able to restore you, put you back to rights, and overflow in you to restore our families and communities, to make them whole. This peace is already here, and we are able now, in this life, to participate in the work and nature of God; but that work will not be finished, and his peace will not be made complete until the end. We wait, and we long, like watchmen for the morning, for the coming of peace on earth.
This third week of advent, specifically, we take time to remember the joy of the advent of Christ on earth and we watch for the coming joy of the kingdom of God. What’s more, now, in this life, we are invited to taste and participate in the joy of our father, even while we wait for joy to come in full. Joy is especially important this year. If ever we needed the joy of the Lord, we need it now in this dark time of the year, and in this dark year.
C. S. 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.”
Read with me, Psalm 126. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God who delights in us; Holy Spirit who causes the joy of the Father to come alive in us; Christ, who will return to the rejoicing of his people; please show us the truth in your word today, because your truth will set us free. Amen.
When I was a kid, my dad had me convinced that he was able to snap and change traffic lights. He would watch the green light on the other side of the intersection, and whenever he saw the light changing, he would snap and point at the light as it turned green. I’m not sure how long I was convinced he had control over them, but it was probably an embarrassingly long time. If we pulled up at a long light, he would stall by asking me to try to change the light, and I would snap over and over again, and try different things to make it change, but he would wait and snap as it changed.
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 to do with waiting patiently and nothing to do with snapping. I think I tried for so long because sometimes it would work, I would snap and the lights would change.
And again, this is my roundabout way of saying, we’ve placed joy in the wrong category of things. We tend to place joy in the category of pleasure. So when we seek joy, we go looking in places where pleasure can be found, and that search will yield mixed results. We look for joy in romantic 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. And 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.
After hurricane Zeta this year, we lost power for five days, and the whole family was a bit on edge waiting for the lights to come back on—I was doing disaster relief, Annie was holding us together, and AJ absorbed our stress as children do. AJ’s room was dark when we sent him upstairs to bed, and he’s terrified of the dark, so we let him take a flashlight with him to bed. He held it all night. I would wake him up in the morning, and he would still have it in his hand, fast asleep, almost as though with our lights out he needed to remind himself of light and to hold it close. Joy is like that. You’ll find it in the places where everything is dark, and we need a light to hold in our hands or else we won’t be able to rest.
You probably noticed in the psalm we just read—it is a psalm dealing with joy and grief; shouts of joy and weeping. The psalmist remembers times of great joy among the people of Israel, but he’s writing from a place of grief. He writes of his assurance that joy will come to the people again—and it won’t be long. Just a season. If you are weeping when you plant your crops, by the time the harvest comes—just a little while—you’ll gather in joy again. This hardship you’re facing, it’s only for a little while, and then, in the day of Christ, there will be joy again. Watch and wait for joy.
Now something vital in understanding both this psalm and joy in general is that psalm 126 is a psalm of ascents; and I’ll explain. 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 after year, songs of joy and grief together go up to the Lord from his people.
Thinking about this psalm as a psalm of ascents has been deeply meaningful for me, and I hope I can communicate the depth of this: the people of God would sing this psalm every year. Some years would have been years of peace, and harvest, and plenty, 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,” and one day he will restore our fortunes like streams in the desert. And 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 singing “the Lord has done great things for us,” and one day he will restore our fortunes like streams in the desert. Every year. I imagine Nehemiah in exile looking out of his window toward Jerusalem and singing, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”
In glad times, and in grief, this psalm asks people to praise God for everything he has done in our world, and remember the restoration yet-to-come. In dark times, this psalm asks people to cling to the hope of joy to come.
Yes, this year was a more difficult year, but if you look at v.4 in our psalm, the psalmist says the restoration of God, this restoration that would cause God’s people to reap in shouts of joy, is like streams in the Negeb. The Negeb was a desert area in the south of Judah, so the psalmist is saying that joy is like a stream of water in the desert, which if you’re familiar with the Old Testament might remind you of the Exodus, where God sustained his people as they wandered in the desert with miraculous water from a mountain. Our psalmist is saying, joy is like wandering through a desert, and God causes water to flow in streams for all of his people to drink and be restored again.
Even in difficult times—perhaps especially in difficult times, the joy of God is able to sustain us until we cross the Jordan.
This year, 2020, for most of us was a year filled with grief. It’s more difficult this year to say the phrase, “The Lord has done great things for us,” but that means it’s all the more necessary and meaningful to say it this year. If it’s dark, and all the lights seem to have gone out, there is still light enough in christ to shine on our days, and give us joy and rest. Joy in Christ is able to remain close to grief and not be overwhelmed by it. Like a stream in the desert, like a flashlight when the lights go out, joy provides life for the people of God even in dry, desert places.
Joy in Christianity is knowing now that God is restoring the world back to rights, knowing what that looks like, and what that will be, and yet not living in that world; it’s a kind of deep longing that springs up whenever you get a glimpse, a taste of the world yet-to-come. It feels a little bit like loss and grief, just because we’re longing for something that we won’t get to see in this life; but having experienced both pleasure and this longing of joy, I would choose joy every time.
We were eating dinner as a family last Thursday—Thursday is the day I typically write my sermons. We were talking about our days to start the dinner, so I said briefly what I had written my sermon about—the peace of the world against the peace of Christ. AJ sighed and shook his head. I said, “What, buddy, you don’t think I should preach that?” And he answered, “If I were preaching sermons, I would just stand up and tell everyone about all of the movies I like, because they probably like them, too.”
So, one of my favorite movies to come out recently for kids is called Inside Out. I like it mainly because it hits on this idea of joy being closer to grief in this life than it is to pleasure or happiness. The movie imagines the inner workings of the mind of a preteen girl, and her different emotions are represented by different characters. There is one for joy, one for anger, one for disgust, and one for sadness and grief.
As the movie starts, joy is running the show, and sadness is unwanted. And as the girl encounters some difficulty in her life, joy tries to set it aside, push forward, and keep sadness away, but in trying to keep sadness out of the picture, everything collapses. In the end they learn that to keep grief and sadness put away, unwanted, is to sacrifice true joy, deep joy. That kind of joy is close to grief, but not overwhelmed by it.
Christians sometimes make the mistake of thinking that joy in Christianity means we have to stay positive and think positive. This leads to a kind of Christianity that always smiles, even when the smile is dishonest, one that always puts a positive spin on any hardship even when you feel like you’re drowning in it. A kind of Christianity that looks down on depression and sadness, that disdains people in difficult circumstances and says they are less blessed, that always looks for good reasons why God allowed something to happen to you, that thinks if you have faith good things will come to you.
But no, joy in Christianity is like streams in the desert. The reason bad things happen to you is that our world is mired by sin, and thus is a desert place. Our joy here is not found in optimism, but in Christ himself. In this life, both good and bad will come to you, and I can’t tell you what awaits you. The joy of Christ means waiting and hoping for his return knowing that nothing in this world, none of the grief, is able to overwhelm the rejoicing that’s to come. Here, in this church, we’ve committed to wait and watch with you, to weep and rejoice with you, until the Lord’s return.
Joy in Christianity looks less like smiling over and trying to move past all of your sin and mistakes, everything bad that’s happened to you. Joy in Christianity looks more like refusing to allow sin and brokenness to be the end of the story. The night sometimes is very dark, but joy comes in the morning.
I want to close, briefly, with a word on the quietness of joy. I love the image here in our psalm of sowing and reaping. The joy of Christ is a kind of thing that grows slowly and quietly in the life of a believer.
Christmas in our culture is often loud and fast. The commercials and ads shout at you, and the malls and stores, even this year, are teeming and bustling with people hurrying this way and that to try to prepare food and gifts. People are usually piling into cars and driving across the country to see family, sometimes going from house to house to try to see all of the family at once, and by the end of the season you feel like you need a vacation from your holiday and you’re craving the normal rhythms. Then in New Orleans we move right from Christmas to Mardi Gras, with the parades starting on epiphany. Dirty Coast sells a Christmas ornament that says “happy almost Mardi Gras.”
I would encourage you, this year, and each year, to watch and wait for the joy of Christ to come, because the joy of Christ isn’t wrapped in bright paper or bought from a store. Rather, it’s planted deep within us, and it grows quietly. It feels like a longing. And if you don’t know anything of Christ, that longing just feels like a hole, a restlessness of the soul. In Christ, that longing becomes more defined, attached to Jesus Christ, and you’re able to long and to wait for him to return.
The joy of Christ is quiet, as quiet as a candle lit at a dark time, and a carol sung in church, a word of peace and encouragement given, a whispered prayer, a good deed done in quiet anonymity. As quiet as time spent with a friend who would have otherwise been alone, as a text sent to family and friends. As quiet as a seed in the ground growing to produce sheaves to sustain us.
My invitation today is to quiet joy in Christ, a joy which feels like a longing for the kingdom come, and assurance that Christ will, at long last, return.
My prayer for you in this year which has been so dark and so lonesome that it feels like the lights have gone out and we don’t know when they’ll go back on again, I hope that you can hold, to the joy of Christ, like a child in the dark, and that his joy will give you peace.