Finding Joy in Darkness sermon from Sunday

“Joy: Power of Proximity”   Philippians 1:1-13
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, December 16, 2012    Third Sunday of Advent


Seventy-Five years.  That’s how long Clarence and Mary Joyce have been married.  In this day and time, it is hard to imagine any couple staying together even half that time  The Joyce’s say that there is one thing that has worked for them throughout the years, “Just keep saying, `Yes Dear,’ ” Clarence Joyce said. “What do you mean?” his wife quipped back. “I was the one who was always saying `Yes Dear.’[i]  What reporters and all of us want to know first is what it takes to make it that long.  What are the secrets to defying the marital odds, to weathering the unpredictable storms of life, to putting up with each other’s idiosyncrasies, and to picking up the other’s underwear off the floor or putting the cap back on the toothpaste for 75 years?  Interviews with couples like the Joyce’s tend to reveal what seems obvious yet at times impossible, to ingredients like faithfulness, true love, and selflessness.  One interview I read was of a sweet, elderly man who looked over at his wife, with a look of seasoned affection, and says how much joy they get from being in the same room even if they aren’t talking.  They just enjoy knowing the other is near.  So, there it is, no real secret at all, just finding joy knowing the one you love and who loves you being near.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we have the opportunity to think about what brings joy in our lives.  We have even lit a bright pink candle to signify joy, the kind that stands out against the drab of the winter, one that exists even when surrounded by darkness.  Through this letter of Paul to the church at Philippi, we are provided with a glimpse into the life of someone who shines as an example of how to go the distance in the ups and downs of life.  What we find is the same thing couples like the Joyce’s have known:  the power of proximity.  This is where joy, as well as the other words we’ve used this Advent (hope and peace) originate.

Paul found this power of proximity in a very unlikely place, as he was sitting in a jail cell, physically restrained by chains, spiritually free by Christ.  To know how miserable this time was, we must know the typical treatment of a prisoner in a Roman jail.  It is from this terrible place that Paul writes encouraging words to others, Rejoice!  Again I say, Rejoice . . . Was Paul out of his head at this point?  Was he going crazy from living like a caged animal? Or had he discovered the secret of an unbeatable joy?  Paul’s frequent use (14 different times) of “rejoice” (or “joy”) informs us that Paul had truly discovered the existence of joy, accessible in even the most terrible of circumstances. His discovery centered around a frequent phrase and a core belief of Paul–that Jesus would soon return, as in his words in this letter to Philippi, . . . The Lord is near. Paul firmly believed that the Lord was not only in his past, or somewhere out there in the future.  He knew the Lord was in his present.  The Lord was closer to him than the Roman guard standing over him.

Have you heard of Bethany Hamilton, the young surfer girl who lost an arm to a shark? The real story was not the shark bite, but how she responded after the bite.  Dave Slagle noted in a story how, “Soon after the attack she began to raise money to restore a man’s eyesight. While visiting New York City, she gave her ski coat to homeless girl. When asked about the gift, she said she had more than she needed in life,” and quoting from a USA Today article about her,

As always, Hamilton remains undaunted. She has told her father that if having only one arm proved detrimental to reaching the top in competitive surfing, then she’d see about playing soccer.  Her pastor, Steve Thompson, said, “She’s looking forward to the future. She’s asking herself, ‘How can I show the world I still have a life, that I enjoy my life, and that my life is filled with joy?’ She has an underlying trust that God is taking care of her.” [ii]

Hearing her story, on top of Paul’s, is inspiring, but also challenging.  Our thoughts go to our lives and unique circumstances and how much worse our situation is.  Actually, do they really?  Are your problems really greater than losing an arm to a shark or being beaten and imprisoned in a Roman jail?  Maybe.  But, even still, the power of proximity is the same for you as it was for them.  The access you have to unlimited and abiding joy exists for you as well.  It’s there, if you allow yourself to see it.  Some people see it and are lifted up by its extreme power.  Other people may allow themselves to get so overwhelmed by their circumstances that they can no longer believe joy could ever be theirs again.

My favorite author, Frederick Buechner, wrote about the choice we have in the circumstances of life in his memoir, Longing for Home,

In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running strongest. When good things happen, we rise to heaven; when bad things happen, we descend to hell. … I know this to be true of no one as well as I know it to be true of myself. I know how just the weather can affect my whole state of mind for good or ill, how just getting stuck in a traffic jam can ruin an afternoon that in every other way is so beautiful that it dazzles the heart. We are in constant danger of being not actors in the drama of our own lives but reactors.[iii]

In the trying circumstances of our lives, you and I can either act or react.  I believe that is what Paul wanted everyone to know–Rejoice!  Rejoice!  It is a decision you can make.  It is a vital element in your life that no one can ever take from you, no matter what they or anything does to you.  You have a choice.  You can choose bitterness and anger, going down the road to nowhere they lead, only to find that both of them cause you more suffering than the circumstances.  You can, if you so choose, to feast on the appetite of negativity, but you eventually discover that you are merely devouring yourself.  You can lash out against others and blame them for where you are, but doing so is still just a reaction.  You may be moving along, but you are headed in the wrong direction.

You don’t have to go down that road, though. You can choose joy, following its path that overcomes your circumstances, even as you are still in them.  You won’t be alone in your walk down this route, as it is a path taken and highlighted by Jesus.  In fact, there are some ruts in this road, laid there by the feet of Jesus, but imprinted as well by those who have followed the joy path–Peter, Stephen, . . . , Joan of Arc, John Huss, Martin Luther, . . . Anne Frank, Dietrich Boenhoffer, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mother Theresa, and countless others.  And you. Yes, you can be on this list, not because of your suffering, but because you chose to rejoice rather than retreat.  When we make this choice, take this path, we, too, are able to conclude with Paul, The Lord is near.

The Starry Night painting by Vincent Van Gogh is a familiar one, often used this time of year when we can see more of the night.  The colors are remarkable, with the blues and the yellow.  There has always been conversation about what these colors mean, but the best explanation I have heard is that Van Gogh began to use yellow on the canvass as he began to find some joy in the midst of his mental illness.  You can see the progression of joy in the midst of darkness.  Maybe he, too, discovered the joy that comes from knowing the Lord is near.

As you continue in this season, may the dark canvass of your life increasingly be filled with the bright joy of Christ.

2 Jill Lieber, “Teen Surfer Riding Wave of Amazing Grace” USA Today (3-19-04); submitted by David Slagle, Wilmore, Kentucky

3 Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections, p. 109; submitted on Preaching Today by David Schleusener, Cary, North Carolina

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