Sunday, December 17th, 2023

First Things, Second Things

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Amen. Let us pray. O Lord send forth your word into our ears that it may bear fruit in our lives, in Jesus’ name, Amen. As you no doubt just heard, today is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of joy, third Sunday in Advent, which is why we have our pink candle lit. The third Sunday gets its name, rejoice, because historically that’s the first word of the Introit for the third Sunday in Advent, in the one-year lectionary, but for us it’s been the theme and the first word of our gradual throughout the whole season of Advent. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Your king comes to you.” And so also joy, the idea of joy, is present in our readings today. Isaiah speaks of rejoicing greatly in the Lord and exalting in God, “For He has clothed us with the garments of salvation and covered us with the robe of righteousness.” Paul tells us to rejoice always, and to give thanks in all circumstances. But to lay all my cards on the table, to be completely honest with you, I struggle with this one, I struggle with joy, and I think a lot of us do, because it seems so elusive. It’s always just out of reach. It’s here for a moment and then swept away by the cares and the concerns of daily life. We don’t always feel particularly joyful so it’s hard to know what to do with Paul’s exhortation to “Rejoice always.” When you think about the time of year that we’re in, people have big wooden cutouts in their front yard spelling out the word joy. We hear Christmas music that has joy as the main theme. But far too often we get a picture in our heads, or at least I get a picture in my head of Buddy the elf, bouncing up and down when He hears that Santa is coming to Gimbals. “I know Him” and we think that’s joy, that’s what I ought to be feeling, and sure at times, especially during the Christmas season, there are moments of excitement, and moments of Christmas joy. But doesn’t the thought of rejoicing, always, seem a little farfetched. Sometimes in response to this we’re encouraged to just choose joy, but it’s not that easy to change our feelings. A sense of sadness or frustration or helplessness won’t go away just because I want it to. How are we supposed to choose joy? How are we supposed to rejoice always? Like I said, this has been a struggle for me through most of my adult life. I don’t like fake cheerfulness. I don’t like having to pretend I’m not sad at a funeral. I don’t think I should have to hide feelings of grief and frustration behind the mask of a smile. It’s been an ongoing struggle for me, but recently, it seems like God has been drawing my attention to something significant about Christian joy, something different that’s come up several times in the last few weeks for me, and so I’d like to draw your attention to the same thing. In his book, The Little Book on Joy, our synodical president Harrison uses the example of a mountain to illustrate our experience of joy. He talks about three different experiences that he had with Mount Kilimanjaro. One time he was on an airplane, just flying overhead 20,000 feet above the peak, when all of a sudden, the pilot came on the intercom and said “You all will probably want to look out your window.” And when he did he saw the snow-covered crater at the top of the mountain, bursting through the clouds, glistening majestically above the layer of cloud that blocked any hope of seeing the ground. And then he talks about a second experience, on the return trip to Africa, where he once again saw the mountain, this time all the way in the distance, it wasn’t part of the itinerary. He just happened to be in the region and he was overwhelmed by the breadth of it even from 50 miles away. Seeing the mountain in its entirety, left Him speechless. Then he talks about a third encounter. The end of that same trip, when he decided he and the rest of his group that they ought to go to the mountain, to see it up close, to hike in its foothills as much as they could. But when they got there, the clouds were once again circling the peak, but this time he wasn’t in an airplane, looking down at it. This time, this time, the clouds obscured the top, and instead of seeing the grandeur of the mountain, he was left to trek through the muddy foothills unable to see the top. One mountain, three experiences, and the point that he makes at the end of it is that the first two glimpses of the mountain were unexpected. He just happened to be flying overhead. He happen to see it on the horizon and it was only in his intentional effort to see the mountains up close that his view became obscured. And he goes on to illustrate these experiences as a way to think about joy in the Christian life. We experience it most fully when we’re not looking for it. When we set out to find it, it’ll be obscured by the clouds and rain of life’s hardships, leaving us struggling in the mud, wishing we could see the peak. It’s what CS Lewis calls first things and second things. He says that second things in life are meant to be enjoyed, but not sought after. Second things, like joy, contentment, for peace. If we set out looking for contentment, we’ll never find it. Instead, when we focus on the gifts the Lord has given us, or when we focus on the gifts of our life and trust in our Lord to continue to provide for us, well we find ourselves content. Or if we set out looking for peace, peace will always elude us, and so instead, when we remember that the Lord of all creation has redeemed us and called us by name, then nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, that since God is for us, nothing can be against us. When we remember these things, well then of sense of peace settles in eve in the midst of life’s most difficult times. So also, joy. If we set out looking for joy, we will return empty handed, but if we seek the first things, the second things will be added to us. It’s the concept that served as the basis for the title of Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy.  If you set out looking for it, you’ll never find it. It only comes as a surprise. And Pastor Wolfmueller recently described it as the boomerang effect. A boomerang does not fly straight. If you aim the boomerang at the thing you’re trying to hit, you will inevitably miss. So also, if we aim our life at joy or at contentment, we’ll miss. For none of those things are meant to be an end unto themselves. Over the last several weeks, these things have just been popping up before me and so I’m forced to wonder if maybe my struggle with joy is that I have been treating it as if it was the first thing, as if it was a destination, and unto itself instead, of a byproduct of the journey. Perhaps I have been treating joy like it was an expectation God has placed upon me, rather than a gift that God has given to me, something I must achieve, something I must measure, so that I can make sure I’m doing this whole Christian life thing the right way. I heard another pastor describe it like this: he says joy and happiness, they’re not the same thing. Happiness depends on happenings. I’m happy when my team wins. I’m happy when my family’s on vacation together. I’m happy when it’s sunny on a Friday afternoon and I can take a half day and head over to tin can alley for a long lunch. The happiness goes away when the happening is changed, when it’s raining or cloudy on a Friday afternoon, when I’m feeling under the weather, when my car needs a costly repair. Happiness depends on happenings, but not so joy. Joy is different. Joy is a fruit of the spirit, along with love and peace, patience, kindness, and the rest. Or Psalm 16, the Psalm that we studied or thought about last Wednesday in our morning prayer says this: “In your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” And as we just talked about with the children, the news of joy that the angels brought that first Christmas was that Jesus had come, that Christ was born. The joy in the scriptures is not something that’s commanded from us, it’s promised to us. And we don’t get it by looking for it or choosing it, we get it as the byproduct of being in the presence of our Lord, by being in the presence of our Savior, by being made alive by His Spirit. No one gets joy by chasing joy, but because you have Jesus, joy is already yours, even when you don’t feel it, even when you feel sad or anxious, frustrated by life, disappointed and worried, joy is yours. Maybe think about those optical illusions, those old 3D pictures that were so popular in the 90s. I’m going to be honest. It’s not just the 90s. I saw one the other day and texted it to my kids. It looked like a bunch of squares at first glance, but if you unfocus your eyes just a little bit, if you sort of look through and past the picture, then all of a sudden, a dozen circles came into focus. You saw the thing by not looking for the thing, by not looking at the thing. Maybe that’s how we should think about joy. Maybe the answer is just stop trying to feel joyful, to stop looking for joy. Instead to look for something else. That was Paul’s encouragement to the Galatians. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Joy is already yours, because joy comes with the spirit and you have the spirit, the spirit of God lives in you, so instead of chasing after joy, chase first the Kingdom of God and all these other things will be added to you. And to put it a bit more practically, instead of looking for joy, look for Jesus. Go where He has promised to be. Find Him in his Word. Come to His church to have your sin forgiven. Come to His altar to be fed the food of immortality, to be strengthen in faith toward Him and love toward others, and then leave this place to live what Paul calls the life of faith working through love. Live, love in the vocations that God has given you. If I try to count, I wonder how many of the times that I’ve consciously remembered experiencing joy were found in my God-given vocations. An experience as a husband, or a dad, or a son, or a brother, or a coach, or a teacher, or a pastor. My guess is that it’s all of them. All the experiences of joy that I’ve had in my life were found in my vocations. God gives us the gift of joy, and then we experience that joy in loving and serving the people that God has placed into our lives. It is just as simple as that. So rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, because this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ, not God’s will, in the sense that He demands it from you, but God’s will in that He wants to give it to you. This is His desire for you, that your life would be a life of joy, and prayer, and thankfulness. And so, it is. He’s already giving you His Spirit so He has already given you these things. So as Paul says, don’t quench the spirit, let Him do his work in delivering God’s gifts to you. Don’t seek joy, seek the Lord where He may be found in his Word, here at his altar. Live your life of faith toward God and love toward others, love and serve in your vocations, not to make yourself right with God, but because you already are. Seek first the Kingdom of God and then joy, and peace, and patience and all the rest will be added to you. That is God’s promise for you. So may the peace of God sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit, and soul, and body be kept blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful. He will give you joy. He will surely do it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.