University Congregational Church
Dec. 13, 2015
“A Candle of Joy”
Isaiah 35: 1-10
When we take children to the shrine of the Golden Arches, they always seem to lust for the meal that comes in a box with a cheap little prize, a combination christened – in a moment of marketing genius – the “Happy Meal”. You’re not just buying fries, McNuggets, and a dinosaur stamp; you’re buying happiness. Their advertisements have convinced scores of children they have a little McDonald’s shaped vacuum in their souls: “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in a happy meal.”
I’ve tried to buy off kids before. I’ll give you extra money and you can buy a toy from a machine… or, let’s just get the hamburger and fries and we’ll save money for something you want more…
But their lamentations are extraordinarily embarrassing and can be heard down the street. And people from all around look to see who the tight-fisted, penny-pinching cheapskate is who would deny a child the meal of great joy.
The problem with a Happy Meal is that the happy wears off, and they need a new fix. No child I’ve ever heard of says, “Remember that Happy Meal I had last month? What deep and lasting happiness I got from that!”
No, Happy Meals only bring happiness to McDonalds. You ever wonder why Ronald McDonald wears that grin. Twenty billion Happy Meals, that’s why.
But it’s a problem that grows as we get older. We don’t seem to get smarter. We continue to believe that happy things will make us happy. Only problem ~ our happy things get more and more expensive as we get older.
~ paraphrased from John Ortberg in “Dangers, Toils & Snares”
It seems a little cliché to say that money can’t buy happiness. And yet, I can’t tell you how many people I listen to as they process confusion about why they are not happy with their lives as they recount the things they thought would bring joy but ended up empty and wanting. Many of us invest in things that don’t buy happiness.
But what about people? Relationships? Events? Education? Jobs? Children? Good health? These are good things, desirable things, and critically important things. And yet, they don’t necessarily provide happiness or joy. So, from where or what does joy come?
Joni Eareackson Tada, the woman who is a quadriplegic and paints beautifully with a brush held in her teeth, tells about lasting joy…
“Honesty is always the best policy, but especially when you’re surrounded by a crowd of women in a restroom during a break at a Christian women’s conference. One woman, putting on lipstick, said, ‘Oh Joni, you always look so together, so happy in your wheelchair. I wish I had your joy!’ Several women around her nodded. ‘How do you do it?’ she asked as she capped her lipstick.
‘I don’t do it,’ I said. ‘In fact, may I tell you honestly how I woke up this morning?’
‘This is an average day,’ I breathed deeply. ‘After my husband, Ken, leaves for work at 6:00 a.m., I’m alone until I hear the front door open at 7:00 a.m. That’s when a friend arrives to get me up. While I listen to her make coffee, I pray, ‘Oh, Lord, my friend will soon give me a bath, get me dressed, sit me up in my chair, brush my hair and teeth, and send me out the door. I don’t have the strength to face this routine one more time. I have no resources. I don’t have a smile to take into the day.’
‘So, what happens when your friend comes through the bedroom door?’ one of them asked.
‘I turn my head toward her and give her a smile sent straight from heaven. It’s not my smile. It’s God’s. And so,’ I said, gesturing to my paralyzed legs, ‘whatever joy you see today was hard won this morning.’”
~ Joni Eareckson Tada in “Joy Hard Won”
Joy does not come from things. It doesn’t even come from good relationships, great health, or a wonderful job. Those are all important and worth having. But joy comes from something much deeper and is not dependent upon what we experience or what we have. Coming to church on Sunday doesn’t even guarantee joy. There is only one way to ensure joy. C.S. Lewis wrote, “God is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
The Hebrew people of the Old Testament learned this lesson several times. Our scripture lesson for today is a prophecy by Isaiah about a time when joy would be everlasting and plentiful. And yet, Isaiah was a prophet when Israel’s future looked very bleak. If you want to hear bleak, consider the chapter right before this one. It is a proclamation of destruction. The metaphors in that chapter are images of sacrifice and slaughter that leave the land blood-soaked. It is a vivid description of doom and gloom – “The slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood.” Yuck.
Isaiah 35 abruptly brings a very different message and a joyous word. It is a wonder-filled poem about how the land and the people will be transformed. First, the wilderness, dry land and desert become fertile. Then, unbelievable things begin to happen. Blind eyes are opened, unhearing ears are unstopped, the lame leap up, and the wilderness breaks forth in water and the desert in springs. The people are joyful and glad. All sorrow and sighing goes away. Compare the words of this exuberant poem with the ones before it.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Isaiah 35: 1-10 excerpts
The stories are endless about all of us who are waiting to feel some kind of joy in our lives. There are successful business people sitting at mahogany desks hoping that there is something more to life than what they feel inside day after day.
There are thousands of couples who find themselves trapped in dead-end marriages and hoping that perhaps tomorrow or next year their spouse will change and life will be bearable again.
There are even people who look to the church for joy. And they wonder why, when they attend regularly, give money, and participate, that they don’t automatically walk away with some happiness in their lives. Some even blame the minister or the church or God.
Such stories could be multiplied endlessly. And some of us are living those stories. But the good news of our text is that we don’t have to wait for joy to come and hit us on the head. Joy doesn’t work that way.
When people learn that I am a minister, they often pose a theological problem. I think the #1 comment I hear from people – in our outside the church – is that they aren’t certain they believe in God. When I ask what the concept of God they are considering, they often describe a god that is everywhere and in heaven and yet, really nowhere. I have learned to reply with a question: what if god is actually inside of us; not external but internal? What if there is no god unless we nurture and develop a sense of god within our own spirit?
Joy is available right here. Right now. Joy comes from the Spirit of God living inside of us. It is not dependent on the circumstances of our lives. Joy is part of the package with faith. It’s ours to claim. It’s ours to incorporate into our lives.
Are you living your days, one after the other, wishing there was more to life? Are you forging ahead hoping that when this-or-that happens, you will be happy? Don’t wait! Joy is yours already. And Christmas is just the right time to remember it! You can’t find joy in a Happy Meal or even in an Almond Joy.
But you can find it in a prayer, a bite of communion bread, or even in a wheelchair.