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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, December 17, 2006
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to Brooke Wilkinson on her baptismal day, to Katie and JJ as they join the church, and to Jack and Fanny Seville as they return to their heartland and homeland and always to the glory of God!
Joy: Comfort Station Straight Ahead
Part III of VI in the Sermon Series: Road Signs on Bethlehem's Highway
Isaiah 12: 2-6, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Phillipians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

One single theme dominates our texts for today: JOY over what the Lord has done and will do. The joy we encounter in the scriptures grows out of a context that is fully aware of the harsh realities of the world around us. This joy is anchored in God's love and God's amazing presence in the human condition. When we come to know this joy in the face of hardship and challenge, our joy is unending! This joy is intense. It is moving. It comes from God!

Zephaniah 3:14-20 is perhaps the most astounding of our joy-filled texts. The prophet Zephaniah was driven to near-despair over the sorry conditions of Judah's life in the years following the reign of the evil King Manasseh. Zephaniah saw nothing but destruction for all creation (Zeph.1: 2-9). He foretold a bitter day of judgement coming. That day would be filled with distress, anguish, ruin, darkness, devastation and

But, what is the source of your joy?

Reflecting on this question, Howard Thurman shares a number of keen insights of the source of joy.

Dr. Thurman observes that some of us are dependent upon the mood of others for our happiness. Such people seem bound in mood one to another like Siamese twins. If one person is happy, the other is happy. If one is sad, the other has no insulation against sadness. Still others' joy is dependent upon circumstances. When things do not go well, a deep gloom settles upon them and all who touch their lives are caught up in the fog of their despair. Still others experience joy as disposition or temperament. They can't be sad because their glands don't let them go there. Their joy is not a matter of congratulations or praise - it is a gift of life, a talent, a gratuitous offering placed in their organism. Still others must win joy against high odds - squeezing it out of the arid ground of their living, or wrestling it from the stubborn sadness of their life circumstances. It is a determined joy, sharpened by the zest of triumph.

There are others who find their joy deep in the heart of their religious experience. Their joy is not related to, dependent on, or derived from any circumstances or conditions of their lives. It is a joy which depends on no one and thrives independent of all winds of change. Their joy has a strange and beautiful quality which comes from the deep springs of their souls. It grows out of a discovery of the soul - where God has made his presence known, where there are no words, no outward song, only the movement of God's divine spirit. This a joy the world cannot give. This joy is protected against all the emissaries of sadness of the mind and weariness of the soul. This is a joy that walks through the valley of the shadow of death and has no fear (drawn from Howard Thurman's essay "Your Joy," in The Moods of Christmas, Friends United Press, Richmond, Indiana, 1985, p. 94).

Joy can come silently and when it does, it opens closed doors and darkened hearts. Sometimes joy is compounded by many elements. It comes through a touch of sadness turned to a smile or a harsh word held tenderly until its hold of arrogance is loosened and it dies there and a smile replaces the tears. Sometimes joy comes in a distilled moment of memory lived beyond the sweep of the daily rounds of life - the gentle eyes of the beloved, the laughter of a child, the stillness of God's still small voice in times of challenge and hardship. Sometimes joy is earned - an impossible job conquered, the body exhausted, the soul and spirit wasted by complete and utter exertion in a job well done. Sometimes joy is known through new insights, clearer vision, and the heart taken to wing like an eagle in flight.

Joy can be known as a gift - given and received. Some give joy as their gift to this world. Such persons enter a room or a life and they give life itself. They shine God's love and the joy that follows them changes all those in their path. Wherever they go, they give birth to joy in others - they are heavenly troubadours, earthbound, who spread their presence and their music all around and who sing their songs without words and without sounds. To be touched by them is to be blessed by God. (Drawn from Thurman's "Joy is of Many Kinds," Moods of Christmas, p. 92).

Joy is that interior spiritual experience which should not draw attention to itself. In the Signs of Jonas, Thomas Merton writes this of the joy of unimportance. This is a concept which Merton was developing in relation to Buddhism when he tragically died on Christmas Day in 1968. Listen to his insights:

I think the reason why we have so little joy is that we take ourselves too seriously. Joy can only be real if it is based on truth, and since the fall of Adam, all humanity's life is shot through with falsehood and illusion. That is why Saint Bernard is right in leading us back to joy by the love of truth. His starting point is the truth of our own insignificance in comparison with God. To penetrate the truth of how utterly unimportant we are is the only thing that can set us free to enjoy true happiness. (As quoted in Through the Year with Thomas Merton, "December 4," Image Books, Garden City, NJ, 1985, pp. 210-211).

For me the foundation of joy comes in Jesus Christ. Whatever happens to me, I know I am blessed by God's compassion and that compassion is most fully made manifest in the stable in Bethlehem. Jesus was the embodiment of Joy. He was accused of having too much fun - and those with whom he had fun were often the most unlikely of all characters - prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, orphans, women, widows, fishermen, and the outcast. He enjoyed his relationship with God and with people because he was constantly aware of his Source of power. I encourage you this Advent and Christmas to become more fully aware of your Source of love and delight. When you do, you will dance with joy! You will yield your spirit to God's spirit. Like Zephaniah, Isaiah and Luke, you will come to know that your true source of JOY comes from what the Lord has done and will do. Amen.

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church