Every year as Christmas rolls around preachers begin to agonize over writing their Christmas sermon. After all, it’s not every Sunday you get a crowd like this. And we preachers actually tell ourselves that if we can preach a brilliant enough sermon, then all of you wandering seekers will realize how much you’ve missed church and will be filling up the seats in 2011.
But whenever my mind starts going down that path I remember the counsel one minister’s spouse used to utter to her preacher husband. “Forget the worrying. They’re not coming to hear you. They want to hear the story, hear some great music, sing ‘Silent Night’ and go home.”
The great 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said that he and his wife preferred to go to church where there was no sermon on Christmas Eve, and the worship service and the music were allowed to carry the message instead of the preacher. No preacher is up to it, he said.
Well, I’m sorry to inform you that this is not such a church. Even if your preacher isn’t up to the task, there’s nothing more important I can think to do in this service than to offer a few words about this profound and beautiful night.
My words for tonight are about joy. “Joy to the world,” we sang. In our gospel lesson tonight the angels in the night sky proclaim, “Behold I bring you good news of great joy … for to you is born this day … a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” The whole long story of scripture declares that God’s joy is at the heart of our lives.
On most Sundays churches in all their earnestness lean pretty heavily on the imperatives of faith—the oughts, shoulds and musts. But joy is what we are here for, a joy that often seems sadly elusive for so many of us so much of the time. We tend to live our days on the surface, fretting over one immediate issue or problem after another and easily forgetting the deeper, stronger bass notes of our lives—the goodness, the gifts, the blessedness. Joy isn’t something you can go out and get. Chances are you won’t find joy by wandering through a mall this time of year, or watching a TV Christmas show, or going to a Christmas movie. Chances are that even the gift you really wanted for Christmas won’t deliver that much joy.
Last year Garrison Keillor wrote a column about what happens when the joy of Christmas confronts the legendary grumpiness of New Yorkers. “Christmas is a joyful time, but one gets tired of enforced joyfulness, especially when it’s Walmart and Amazon doing the prompting, and you sort of enjoy a little anger to season the season.” And he describes stepping off the curb in Manhattan and walking in front of a big SUV and the driver went to the trouble of rolling down the window and shouting a profanity. When Keillor indicated that the traffic was so stuck the the driver couldn’t turn onto the street he wanted to, the driver becamse even more abusive. “I just said, ‘Merry Christmas,’” Keillor reported. “This irked him. He then let go with something unspeakable.” Merry Christmas!
You could actually say that the whole story of scripture is really about joy. “The desert shall rejoice and bloom,” the prophet Isaiah says to the people of Israel. “The Lord is king, let the earth rejoice,” the psalmist proclaims. “Be joyful in the Lord all you lands,” another says.
And maybe my favorite part of the entire scripture is Paul’s letter to the Philippians. There he sits in a Roman prison, not knowing whether he’ll ever get out, and what does he write to his friends but “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Do not worry about anything.” This man isn’t just trying to cheer himself up. He is on to something that we can easily miss, something that rises from the depths of his being, something that is grounded in a reality stronger than anything he might go through, including death itself.
And strangest of all, on the last night of his life, as Jesus sat with his disciples he had joy on his mind: “I have said these things to you that my joy may be in you and that our joy may be complete.”
I remember reading some years ago a book called Anatomy of an Illness by magazine editor Norman Cousins, who was suffering from an excruciating illness. The pain was relentless, and after months of trying everything else he took matters into his own hands and decided to treat himself with laughter. He found that the more he watched funny movies like the Marx Brothers the better he began to feel. Ten minutes of belly laughing could free him of pain for a couple of hours. His doctors came to conclude that laughter and joy stimulate the brain to produce chemicals than can reduce the pain.
Joy is not the same as happiness, which is a fleeting sense that things are great at this moment, or that you’re having fun. It’s actually possible to have fun with no real joy in your life, and it’s also possible to have joy when you aren’t particularly happy. Joy is in its essence a deep sense of peace and security and wholeness.
It can rise up spontaneously, as it did for the angels. I talked recently to a good friend whose daughter has just been declared cancer free after two long hard bouts of chemotherapy. You couldn’t miss the relief in his voice, the deep glad joy that comes when longed-for good news arrives.
But joy can also be a quiet sense of all-rightness and goodness in our world, a sense that even in our busiest times we’re being held in God’s hands.
The story we just heard from our gospel of that first Christmas begins with anything but joy. Joseph and Mary were being bandied about by the forces of the Roman Empire, ordered by their occupiers to travel 70 miles to be registered for the census. By the time they arrived in Bethlehem, the inn was full and they had to sleep in the cattle shed. And there Mary gave birth to her son and wrapped him in cloths to keep him warm. And the shepherds out in the fields heard the angels singing and their announcement of “great joy.”
That’s the way the Church has remembered that first holy night. This beautiful story captures the deepest Christian conviction that God took on flesh in that child and lived among us. That child grew to manhood, lived, loved, taught, died, and lived beyond death, and in those events we saw everything we need to know of who God is.
Who would have guessed that God would act in this way by becoming human? And yet we needed to know, touch, to see the great, mysterious, unfathomable God for ourselves. And so to the mystery of Godness Jesus came to give a face, and that face was the face of love. Now we can say we have encountered the Word made flesh, divinity in human life. We have seen the face of God.
There is no way, of course, to prove that joy is at the heart of life. But this we know. Those who believe the angels’ message and trust that joy is at the heart of everything, those who have come to trust Jesus’ promise that the joy of God can fill our lives, those who have managed to live that truth no matter what, have found immense wellsprings of calm and hope, even in the worst of times. Those who have trusted that this child has actually broken the code of this vast and frightening world have found their lives more full, joyful and alive.
One more word. To discover that joy is to know that it has to be shared. To have glimpsed the Christ Child, to have seen that, as the poet John Betjemen put it, “The maker of the stars and sea. Became a child on earth for me,” is to have been given a joy we have to share.
By far the most moving Christmas card I received this year was one that when I first saw it I thought it seemed strange and off-putting. On the cover was a photograph of a chaotic looking scene of broken buildings, mud, and people looking overwhelmed. I flipped over the card and saw that it was from devastated Haiti. What a dark card to send at Christmas, I thought, and started to put it down. But then, I happened to read the caption which said “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and my eye was caught by the image in the photo of a young Haitian woman, looking like a teenager, carefully holding a newborn infant. “Oh, I get it….,” I thought, “it’s Mary, and this is Christ being born yet again, this time in Haiti.”
Christ is born again and again, because Christ is alive in every one of us. God has sought us out in a poor child in an out of the way corner of the world, and still does. It’s Christ we see on the faces of people struggling in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Ivory Coast and Sudan, in inner city Washington and Anacostia, and on the faces of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists.
The joy of this night has to be shared. So on this holy night I want to leave you with the words of Howard Thurman, the great African American minister and poet. He called it “The Work of Christmas.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
[Thanks to the Rev. John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago for suggesting the demurrals at the beginning and for the Keillor story.]