“[The Lord] will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in His love.He will sing joyfully because of you …”(Zephaniah 3:17)In the name …
The rose candle of the Advent wreath stands out from the other three because it represents the promise of joy, and joy happens to stand out from much of the rest of life’s regimen.It’s often seen as the exception not the rule in our daily lives.I think some of the reason for this is the not-unhealthy desire for something better, but sometimes joy is the exception because we won’t let ourselves relish what we already have.I remember reading about a guy who won something like $250,000 playing MegaMillions, but he said if he had got just one more number he could have won tens of millions of dollars.$250,000 is nothing to sneeze at, but he had hoped for something better and that didn’t let him enjoy his windfall as fully as he should have.Sometimes the better inspires us to work harder, but sometimes the better prevents us from appreciating what we already have.
There’s an emerging community of Amish up in Unity, Maine.I think we are all familiar with the simple lifestyle of the Amish.In a newspaper article that ran recently about this group, there was mention of a wall-hanging that a reported noticed in one of the homes:“To be content with little is hard.To be content with much is impossible.”There’s a lot of truth in that statement.I can’t help but think about Tiger Woods and his present situation.He’s the wealthiest athlete on the planet.He’s married to a beautiful wife, and he has two healthy children at home.And yet the list continues to grow of alleged mistresses in almost every place there’s a golf course.Granted this is only alleged, but how many times have we read of people who seem to have everything, who seem to be happy, and yet they’re still not content.Joy isn’t limited to the better; sometimes it’s limited because we don’t appreciate what we have.
My nephew just got back to the States from Mosul, Iraq.Sharon and I are looking forward to meeting-up with him when we travel out to Boston this coming weekend.In Mosul walking down the street is dangerous.When he returned to his home base in Texas, he made mention that he was going out with some friends for pizza.If I go out for pizza, it’s because it’s something quick and easy.It’s definitely not special.But after a year in Mosul, going out for pizza with friends was phone-worthy for my nephew.It represented normalcy, and for that simple gift my nephew was appreciative.The better is a powerful force of innovation, and I respect that.But what I worry about is that the better can sometimes make us not appreciate the good that we already have, the ordinary joys of our lives that we might look right past.Maybe that’s part of the message of the rose candle of joy.Maybe the candle is exceptional not to signify so much that it’s uncommon, but to tell us to take more notice of God’s promise of ordinary joy.
Closer to home than my nephew’s Mosul experience and more in tune with this holiday season that we’re all in the midst of, I offer the example of the ordinary joy that is the people we care about.This month a federally-funded study on loneliness was published.It followed 4,000 people for a decade, and it did so because loneliness has physical and emotional consequences for our health.What the study found, and I was surprised by this, is that loneliness is contagious.People who feel lonely eventually move further and further away from other people.This is why I was surprised that it was contagious.But their loneliness can make others feel lonely too.People who are lonely tend to act negatively towards those with whom they still have contact.I think we all know people like this.People we feel obligated to try and include, but who are plain miserable.You may remember from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that Scrooge’s nephew goes out of his way to invite his cheerless uncle to Christmas dinner, and that Scrooge bites his head off.In the story, the nephew maintains his Christmas spirit and enjoys the company of his friends anyway.But the study of 4,000 real people has shown that the behaviour of someone who is already lonely and ornery transfers that attitude to others.It is contagious.Go out of your way to be nice and get beat-up in return and pretty soon you can stop reaching out to others.You may minimize your contacts with others because you don’t want to repeat what happened.Then you yourself may become the lonely person who then acts unkindly to the next person, and the disease of loneliness spreads.
For my nephew freshly out of Iraq, going for pizza with friends without the worry of violence was an ordinary joy that can hopefully open up our eyes to the real joy that surrounds us everyday but is so ordinary that we no longer count it as a blessing.Again, maybe the exceptional quality of the rose candle of joy isn’t about its rarity.Maybe the candle’s ability to stand-out is a call for us to take better notice of the joy that is already in our world. And maybe today’s reading from Zephaniah is also trying to alert us to gifts unseen.As we continue to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, the church asks us to consider the words of the prophet Zephaniah as we contemplate God’s promise of joy.Speaking what God has conveyed to him, the prophet says thatGod “will sing joyfully because of you.”There’s a revelation here for us.God’s joy is found in us, ordinary, old us.Our awareness of the presence of God brings Him joy.That’s why He came at Christmas:To be one of us so that He could be with us.Loneliness is contagious, but community, family, friends and even church can be the antidote.God finds His joy in us.If God counts us as part of His joy, then family, friends and even church can be part of ours if we but open up our eyes to the joy that surrounds us.And for this we pray in Jesus’ name.Amen.(+)