In May 2015, a huge party was planned in the Chienge district of Zambia. Hundreds of people gathered for singing, laughing, dancing, and celebrating. Despite the punishing realities of poverty surrounding the residents of the district, the residents showed up to party. Why? Because the district was the first in the country to have a toilet and a place to wash hands in every home. An accessible bathroom for all of the locals meant safety and the end of disease caused by unsanitary bathrooming practices. Despite the hard realities of life: joy.
In 2018, Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were encamped in a settlement in Bangladesh; they had escaped persecution in their home country but found themselves in a different kind of terrible situation. The Hakimpara refugee camp was a city of tattered shacks and home to more than 30,000 refugees. But in that camp, 10 year old Fayes Khamal gathered bamboo shoots, discarded plastic and string, and made kites for the children of the camp. Making four or five kites a week, Khamal, a child himself, gave children a little piece of their childhood back. Despite the hard realities of life: joy.
During the darkest days of the pandemic, a Canadian man, Gurdeep Pandher of the Yukon, began creating videos of him dancing. Through YouTube and Instagram, Pandher’s videos were the joyful Bhangra dances of his native Punjab. His videos went viral- Bhangra is the most ebullient and joyful style of dancing you can imagine- but his message has consistently been the same. We can all do our part to help others, to share positivity, to offer hope. Soon he began to receive gifts, notes, messages from around the world. His unfettered joy, his willingness to put his art and his soul out in the world was quite literally saving lives. Despite the hard realities of life: joy.
Recently I was listening to some of my favorite authors talking about life in general, and one of them, Hank Green, said something like (and I’m paraphrasing), “Growing up, I always wished I lived in interesting historical times. The era I grew up in seemed pretty boring.” (It was the 80s and 90s, by the way). “I take it all back now,” he said. “Interesting historical times aren’t so good for actual living.”
Well friends, we’re living in interesting historical times, to say the least. For reasons huge and global and reasons intensely personal, I’m not sure there is anyone living right now who isn’t anxious, stressed, and sad- at least to some extent. It is impossible to ignore how hard so many things are right this minute. And we shouldn’t even try to ignore it- our faith and calling won’t allow us to. So, with all of the heavy, frightening realities all around us, you might think that I’m missing the mark here today by talking about joy and celebration. It would be understandable for you to think joy is not relevant to us right now. But here is what I propose to you today: Joy is a coping mechanism, a survival skill. Joy is where we derive the energy to face these harsh realities. Or as Gary Haugen, the founder of the International Justice Mission says, “joy is the oxygen for doing hard things.” Without breathing joy’s oxygen into our lungs, we will smother. And joy, of course, is from God. It is part of the fruit of the spirit. Joy is what the angels proclaim. Joy is the gift Jesus gives his disciples on the night of his arrest. Joy, perhaps, is the soil where faith, hope, and love can flourish.
As we enter this conversation about the life-giving power of joy, I want to pause for a little disclaimer: depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems are very real. While I wholeheartedly believe that joy is critical to our survival and flourishing, I don’t believe that you can “choose joy” and suddenly be free of mental illness. If you believe you may be suffering from depression or anxiety, I hope you will ask for help. My door and my phoneline are always open, and we can work together to get you the help you need.
The text we just read together is a very familiar one, of course. In fact, we read it just over two months ago as we heard the Christmas story. We normally read it and focus on the directive the angels give to the shepherds, but today I want to settle on one specific phrase. The angel tells the shepherds that they bring “good news of great joy for all the people.” Good news, great joy, all people. It’s astonishing, actually. Can you imagine any piece of good news that would cause the whole earth to respond in joy? For all the good news we may crave- only this one, the birth of Jesus, is truly great joy for all people.
Friends, I hope that your faith in Jesus, that this good news, is a source of great joy for you. I hope that you have tapped into that joy, that peace, that hope when you have needed it. And I wonder: how does that joy show up in you? Do others see it in you? Richard Foster writes, “Of all people, we should be the most free, alive, and interesting. Celebration adds a note of gaiety, festivity, hilarity to our lives. After all, Jesus rejoiced so fully in life that he was accused of being a wine-bibber and a glutton. Many of us lead such sour lives that we cannot possibly be accused of such things.” If you find no joy in the good news, I wonder if you’ve actually heard it? God has come to us, God loves us. We are no longer prisoners to sin and death. Life is hard, and we can still rejoice in the Lord always.
The angel says this is great joy for all people. The message is not that it is joy for people who know Jesus or people who are really spiritual, or for people who go to church. It’s good news, great joy, for all people. You see, when someone has experienced God’s grace it results in great joy, and that joy overflows into all the world, making the world a better place. Because we have experienced the good news of Jesus, we become better neighbors, friends, family, and citizens. It’s good news for all people, because it transforms the world. Good news, great joy, all people.
Speaking of transformation- today is Transfiguration Sunday. The day in which we typically remember what happened when Jesus went up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John and for just a moment, they got a glimpse of Jesus’ holiness in a new way. It’s a story of God breaking into time and space for just a moment, revealing more to Peter, James, and John than they could have ever learned in a different way. Joy can give us a similar glimpse of God’s breaking into the world. For just a moment, there is something beautiful and hopeful in the middle of our complicated ordinary lives. Something sacred and strengthening.
In the same way that Jesus’s birth is heralded with promises of great joy, Jesus points towards great joy as he prepares for his death. Gathered in the Upper Room with the disciples on the night of his arrest, Jesus teaches what we call the Farewell Discourse. Jesus teaches about how he is the vine and we are the branches- we’re grafted together and we are to abide in his love. John 15:10-12 says this, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Did you catch that? Jesus taught his disciples, and therefore, us so we can have his joy in us- a joy that is complete, full, whole. Even as he approached torture and death, abandonment, and fear, Jesus has joy to pass along. Joy that he hopes will be in us, carrying us courageously into hard times.
Trust me- I hear how hard this is. I know how preposterously hard it is to be joyful in a world that feasts on tender hearts. I hear that it seems ridiculous to think that the antidote to the poisons of sin and violence might be celebration and joy. I know that you may feel wildly underprepared for this life you’ve been given to live. But you hear this, “joy makes us strong” (Richard Foster).
And again, this joy leads into a directive- love one another. Serve one another. Jesus’s love and joy leads him to the cross- the cross where “sorrow and love flow, mingled down.” Our love leads to our own holy work, loving God, serving others, seeking justice, offering mercy. Jesus’ whole life, ministry, death, and resurrection are marked by joy. Joy, Jesus’ quiet companion, takes him from manger to the cross, to an empty tomb, to ascension.
Joy is not happiness, you know. It doesn’t depend on circumstances (obviously- Jesus was joyful as he anticipated his own death), it doesn’t have to make sense, and it can exist alongside all of the very real, hard emotions you’re having. In his book, This Here Flesh, Cole Arthur Riley writes, “Joy doesn’t replace any emotion; it holds them all and keeps any one of them from swallowing us whole. Society has failed to understand this. When it tells us to find joy in suffering, it is telling us to let it go, to move on, to smile through it. But joy says, hold on to your sorrow. It can rest safely here.” Your heart is heavy, your mind is reeling. Be joyful anyway. Crank up the radio and sing along, dance in the kitchen, experience the simple joy of baking bread, the gift of the daffodils that poked their heads out this week. Your heart is big enough for it all- all the heartbreak, and all the joy. And when you can make space for it all, you will find that that grace has planted within you the strength to get to work, to be God’s kingdom come, to love one another, to ensure that there is good news, great joy, for all people.
There is cause for fear, there is cause for deep sadness. But, in the words of Timothy Dalrymple, “In the final analysis, joy is wiser than sorrow. In joy we bear gentle testimony to the secret that sin, suffering, and death do not have the last word. Joy knows we will outlive the mountains. Joy knows that death will die and life will live. Joy knows that suffering is for now but the love of God is for eternity. Joy is all but extinguished around us. It cannot be extinguished within us.” Amen.
*Citations for quotes are available upon request.