Hebrew Testament: Isaiah 12:2-6
Epistle Lesson: Philippians 4:4-7
Gospel Lesson: Luke 3:7-18
SERMON: UNCONQUERABLE JOY
How do you preach a sermon on joy two days
after a deadly tornado like the one that hit Sunday night?
To get a perspective I decided to check and see if there was a Prespyterian church in the town we've all heard so much about: Mayfield Kentucky. You know, the town with the candle factory--the one we've all seen on the news-- the town that looks like it was bombed. So, I figured it would be easy enough to just go to the First Presbyterian Church of Mayfield, Kentucky based on my theory that we are always named the First Presbyterian Church of whatever town we're in. And I was right. There it was on Facebook: FPC Mayfield: alive and well.
They are the oldest church in the town. The first thing I saw was their bulletin for today, December 12, 2021. They were ready to go. They had their music planned. They were going to use the same lectionary passages that we are using. If we dropped in on their service we could have the same experience we're having right now.
Then I went to the next photo and saw a picture of a pile of bricks. A huge jumbled pile of red bricks with a clear blue sky in the background. The photo was taken only an hour before I sat in my easy chair in my living room. I knew immediately was I was looking at. It was what was left of their church building. A pile of bricks.
I've seen a lot of wreckage in my days.
I've walked through the aftermath of four or five tornadoes and three hurricanes. The biggest surprises of a tornado versus a hurricane is how tidy tornadoes are. Hurricanes bring the ocean onto the shore. They bring the ocean in and leave behind about three feet of mud and dead fish and a general mess. Hurricanes don't smell nice at all. But the aftermath of a tornado is just piles of refuse-- wood, bricks, lots of pink insulation....
and blue sky.
For some reason, the sky is always beautiful after a tornado.
I haven't figured that one out.
But that still doesn't make it a pleasant experience. There is no joy in Mayfield, Kentucky this morning. No matter what their church bulletin planned for their morning. Their congregation has no building. All they have is a pile of red bricks.
How do you preach on Joy after what happened on Friday night?
The death toll is going to be over 100, I'm sure.
It's going to take years to re-build a town like that. I understand an Amazon building was destroyed so a lot of people like me may possibly have some Christmas shipments interrupted.
I once heard it explained that a disaster is when everything is affected: the grocery story, the post office, the barber shop. Most of the people in the town are out of a job. So many are homeless. All are traumatized.
Where are we going to find Joy today?
We can look at our Epistle scripture for that today. The Apostle Paul wrote these words from prison and tells us to rejoice of all things. If that's not a lesson for us today, well, nothing is. The guy is writing from prison and telling us to rejoice.
Paul spent a lot of time in prison. This particular letter was probably written while he was imprisoned in Ephesus or in Rome. It could have been either city. He was imprisoned a lot and for many years. Yet the theme of the letter to the church in Philippi was on the subject of Joy. Here's what he said again:
"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
What kind of faith must this guy have had to write like that from prison?
A better question really is What kind of Jesus is this guy?..... that Paul is able to find Joy in the midst of prison. In the midst of the aftermath of a disastrous series of tornadoes? What kind of Jesus is this?
I started working on this sermon by pulling out a bok from my bookshelf that I bought years ago what it first came out. It was written by a couple of guys I both admire: the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. The book was edited by another writer Douglas Abrams who arranged a week-long meeting between the two men back in 2016. Knowling they were both getting up in years--one of them had already had a battle with prostate cancer that had recently recurred. The other man is pretty much on house arrest himself in India, very much like Paul was.
Yet both of these men are known for their joy in spite of their very different faith traditions. The Dalai Llama is a Buddhist monk and the Archbishop is Christian. At the end of the book they got to a specific issue and Douglas Abrams, reading from a letter from someone, asked Archbishop Tutu, "this person wants to know how she can find joy in her life while there are so many who are suffering."
This is a question we could ask ourselves today.
"Yes, Very good," the Archbishop said, looking down and reflecting on the question. "As an old man, I can say"
"Start where you are, and realize
that you are not meant on your own
to resolve all of these massive problems.
Do what you can.
It seems so obvious.
And you will be surprised, actually,
at how it can get to be catching."
The Archbishop went on in the next paragraph
to describe how many people the world over
genuinely care for each other,
what he had seen: the depth and number
of how many and how much people care.
I have seen this myself when I worked for
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance
after Hurricane Katrina.
Whenever we tried to thank volunteers for coming to help
they would thank us for providing an avenue
to allow them a way to help.
You have felt it yourself over the last 48 hours within yourself:
this urge to help others.
Think of the joy it would bring you to send money
or to even be able to go physically to help in person
the people you see on TV who are suffering.
There is a word for this.
Once a person understands the richness of their life
and how blessed they are
the natural reaction to being blessed
and this two-part formula is called Grace.
You cannot have one without the other.
Just as we cannot have the manger without the cross
we can't have blessings without gratitude.
I have always thought
that a certain amount of gratitude would spring forth
like bubbles of carbonation from soda--naturally--
but maybe some people need reminding.
the crowds asked John the Baptizer some very solid questions
and he gave them solid answers:
And the crowds asked him "What then should we do? In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, 'Teacher, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.'
So, if gratitude doesn't spring forth naturally from you,
you can always go to the bible for a solid answer.
Turn around in the road and go the other way.
If you find yourself down the road not going to church,
get back in church.
And Joy will find you.
Grace and Joy go hand in hand.
When you are doing something right
you can feel it in your stomach
You will feel the joy.
That's how you find joy.
When you are doing what God wants you to do,
you will feel Joy.
That is the joy that nothing can conquer
If it comes from God, nothing can stifle it.
God came to the world in the form of a human,
as a baby,
as a child,
an ordinary working man,
He led a human life.
God lived as one of us
and understands us as only a human being could
God had friends and loved them
and felt sadness when Lazarus died
Then God suffered the unfairness of a political trial
and a human death, a painful death
Yet God through Jesus Christ overcame death
and returned to life through resurrection.
And Christ promises this resurrection to us.
And all we have to do to receive this resurrection
is believe that it can happen.
If this is not cause for Joy, my friends,
I don't know what else can give us joy.
It is the simplest gift, the most basic gift, most loving gift
Ever given to humanity.
Thanks be to God.