The Candle of Joy

The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”  Zephaniah 3: 14-20

Today is the third Sunday of Advent and we began our service by lighting the third candle, the candle of Joy.

Here’s a question for you:  What does joy look like? How would you describe it?  How might you paint a picture of it?  If you had to come up with a universal symbol, a kind of catch-all image for this universal experience and feeling that we call joy, what would it be?

Is it a mother or a father holding their newborn child?  I will never ever forget the first time that I held our brand new baby boy, Brian and the joy I felt.  I then re-experienced that same joy two years later with the birth of our baby girl, Becky.  Those were times of pure joy for me.

Maybe it’s the huge grin of a groom when he catches the glimpse of his bride walking down the aisle on their wedding day?  What a joyous moment!

What about the shouts of fans when your team finally wins it all?  As a lifelong White Sox fan, when we won the World Series in 2005, that was a joyous time for me; or the Blackhawk’s winning the Stanley Cup again this past year, that too was such a joyous occasion indeed; in the last minutes of the final game, they were down two goals which they scored within 17 seconds to win that final game.  Unbelievable!

Joy is an interesting emotion.  It’s tough to explain and difficult to define, yet, when we experience it, it’s unmistakable, the feeling is unforgettable, and dare I say that we have all experienced it, we have all felt it?  So what have been your times of great joy?

How would you describe joy?   Is there such a thing as a symbol of joy?  Some people would argue that coming up with an all-encompassing image or symbol of joy is a lot easier than you’d think.  In fact, some would say we already have one. It’s called the dollar sign, $$, and if you think about it they may be onto something.  After all, who hasn’t thought of buying that winning lottery ticket and being set for life; wouldn’t that bring about some big-time joy?

From the excitement of your first paycheck to the feeling of finding some cash hidden in your coat pocket, it’s hard to argue against the emotional influence of money.  Right or wrong, in our society, the almighty dollar might just be the best sign for joy.

Many people consider the Christmas holiday season to be the most joyful time of the year.  According to the old Andy Williams song, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” it’s the “hap-happiest season of all.”

Here’s the problem.  The Bible paints a different picture of joy.  It’s a picture disconnected from symbols of status and success; it’s unconnected from the idea of piling up possessions and stuff.  That’s not to say those things are altogether bad.  Giving gifts and receiving gifts is enjoyable, and money is a means for temporary peace, stability, and fulfillment.  That’s all fine, but it’s not joy, at least not biblical joy.

Zephaniah is one of those under-read and under-appreciated Old Testament prophets.  Zephaniah is brutally honest with the children of Israel that they need to turn away from the earthly “gods” they’ve been going after and to say goodbye to the other signs of success they’ve been striving for.  If they fail to do so, Zephaniah says, one day all the temporary joys they’ve been chasing will fade away, and it will be time for a nasty but necessary day of judgment.  But in his God-given message, Zephaniah offers an incredible picture, a beautiful glimpse of real, biblical, God-style joy.

He speaks of a day when God no longer has to deal harshly with his people.  He speaks of a day when the judgment for pursuing false joys is no longer held against those who have been made right with God through the grace of God.  He writes of a day when a new King of the people will have entered into their very midst and through his righteous rule will have taken away all their fears.

Zephaniah speaks of a day when people’s greatest shame will be transformed into shouts of praise because every sin they ever committed against God, every issue in their past that they once thought separated them from God, will have been dealt with and remembered no more by God.

There will be a day, there will be a time, Zephaniah says, when men and women will “sing aloud” and “be glad and rejoice” with all their hearts. This true, authentic joy comes about not as a result of piling up enough money or achieving certain levels of success.  No, this lasting joy will flow from the fact that God has found his joy in us, in you!

Real joy, biblical joy, comes from knowing without fail that:

The Lord your God is with you and that “he is mighty to save.”

It comes from knowing that God himself delights in you and that he will rejoice over you — yes, little old you and me, and He will do so with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

You see, the real reason joy is so essential to the celebration of Jesus’ birth is because in his arrival, in the entrance of that baby born in a manger in Bethlehem, God tells us that those Zephaniah-style “joy days” have come!

In Jesus’ arrival, the King has come into our midst, and our sins are now forgiven.  Your greatest shame, no matter what it is, can now become a cause for praise!  Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus his Son, God, has forgiven and forgotten it all.

The truth is that so much of what we like to label as “life’s joys” are really just temporary pleasures, stuff that will come and go and make us feel good only for a moment.

In his book, The Story of Joy, Adam Potkay argues that most of us really live rather joyless lives.  The reason is simple.  Rather than focusing on the true joy found in Jesus, a joy that is shared with friends and family in a worshiping community of faith, we sell out for simple pleasures that are often solitary and momentary.

But at Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of real joy.

Sure, you can ascribe joy to money or say it has something to do with success or even that it can come from things, such as hugging your kids or grandkids, getting an A on a final exam or receiving that acceptance letter from a college at the top of your list; or getting that new job.  Those are great things, but they’re just pleasures along the way.

Proclaiming Jesus’ birth to the shepherds standing out in the field, the angel makes it clear that there’s just one symbol, one sure sign of joy.  Listen to what the angel said:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the city of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

The beautiful thing is that, unlike everything else in this world, when your joy comes from the birth of Jesus in your life, it’s a joy that can never be taken from you.  Jesus describes the benefits of following him this way:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly!”  (John 10:10, NIV).

Apart from Jesus, all the joys of life will someday be stolen, destroyed, or simply die off.  The money will run out, the kids grow up, the cancer comes back.  But when we’re connected to Christ, the life he gives us lasts forever.  The peace he gives us surpasses all understanding, and the gifts that he offers, such as an ever-flowing fountain of forgiveness and grace, will never, ever get old and will never require a gift receipt.

Now, this isn’t to say that money and possessions or that parties and giving your kids and grandkids presents is a bad thing.  It’s not.  In fact, it’s a beautiful thing.  But to celebrate Christmas right, we must remember that those things are just temporary things.  We remember that the spending and the giving at this time of year aren’t themselves a means to our joy or a sign of our joy.  No, instead they’re the things we get to do with hearts full of lasting joy because of the forgiving and saving work of Jesus.

As Christians, what makes us different isn’t so much what we do, as if Christianity is simply about morality.  It’s who we do it for and where we find our true and ultimate joy.

A Christian community is one filled with men and women who work hard, parents who care for and nurture their children, people who come together to worship and to acknowledge God’s presence in their lives.  A Christian community prays together, enjoys times of fellowship with each other, but we do not do these things to bring glory to ourselves or to create our own joy.  No, we love, we work, we pray, we eat, we sing, and we play together for the glory of God, in response to our shared joy in Jesus, who came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Some may see “joy” in money.  Others might find “joy” in fame or pursue it by piling up all kinds of possessions, but this Christmas, may we be a people who sing because the real sign has arrived?  May we be a people who give others what they want because God has given us all that we will ever need?

This Christmas, let us join together and sing with Zephaniah, because our real joy, Jesus, has arrived, and may we know that the joy that comes from God is not to be carried away in blissful happiness, but to be strengthened and deepened in our love for one another and for all of God’s creation.

In the depth and strength of God’s presence among us, we are guided on our journey towards the manger by the light from the advent candles.  The first candle is the candle of hope; the second candle is the candle of peace, and today, for the first time, we lite the candle of joy.

Let us walk in the light of the Lord.  Amen.