Jeremiah 15: 15-20; Luke 1: 47-66
Words that have comforted many people over the ages are found in the famous version of “Footprints in the Sand.” If you don’t know the story, it starts “One night a man had a dream.” Then it continues to say that the man dreams that he could look back over his life. As he did so, he saw two sets of footprints: one was his and one was the Lord’s. But, as he looked at the difficult times in his life, he noticed that at those times, only one set of footprints appeared in the sand. Wondering whether the Lord had abandoned him in his most difficult times of life, he asked his Lord about it. The Lord replied: “My precious, precious child, I love you and will always love you. I will never leave you. During the times when you could hardly go on with your life, it was then that I carried you. The one set of footprints in the sand were mine.”
There is a different “footprints in the sand” story that I’ve just recently read. It is written in the second person, saying in the beginning of your relationship with your Lord, two sets of footprints moved all around haphazardly; they zigzagged and went in several direction. You might think that was because you were a new Christian and were excited about your faith. But soon your footprints not only followed the Lord’s, they began to actually step where Jesus stepped. It seemed your feet followed his perfectly, and then his footprints and your footprints got all jumbled again. “What is this?” you asked the Lord. “I assumed my first jumbled steps were because I was a young and exuberant Christian but these second set of jumbled footprints are a puzzle. I love you Lord and keep seeking to follow you.” To which a tear came to the eyes of Jesus: “My precious child; at the beginning of the world, at the occasion of your birth, when you decided to follow me, and when you showed me that you could do it so well, the footprints didn’t indicate confusion. At the beginning of the world, I danced for joy. At your birth I rejoiced over you. And as you chose to follow me and did it so well, we both danced with joy! The jumbled footprints were when we danced!
I can think of people for whom joy is like a happy shirt that they wear: joy, which is generally defined as “great pleasure and happiness,” just pours out of their eyes and is evident from their expression nearly every day. In my life, joy seems to have a shorter life than for those always joyful people! Joy seems to come and go for me. I wonder how it is for you. It bothers me that always joyful people can irritate me. Why shouldn’t they—perhaps you—be joyful always? Joy has seemed fleeting to me: as I look back over my life I can clearly see times of joy, but I can just as clearly remember times of joylessness. What does that mean? Does it mean I fall away from God? Does it just mean that life’s daily opportunities are not always joy-producing? Or am I putting to many expectations on events to make me joyful? Do constantly joyful people have an easier life, or do they just handle life differently? I fear the latter. This year I have made some changes in the way I react to life’s events. I have chosen joy, the road less traveled by many. And this year, it has made all the difference. I’ve discovered that joy can be produced by an event, but that kind of joy is like the flame of a match that lights quickly then the light fades. A child gets a new toy and he or she may be intensely excited for a morning, a day or perhaps a week. But then the excitement dies down. A couple can find joy on their wedding day and night, but it is up to them if it continues. Perhaps you have felt as I did growing up: encouraging words from others could lift me to a joyful state, while cutting comments, however constructively offered, could make joy evaporate. Advent and Christmas have given me some exceedingly joyful memories, which, if I revisit them, still have a glow of joy: getting in the car to look at Christmas lights, hearing “Twas the Night Before Christmas” read to us; piling into the car on cold Christmas eves and attending the Candlelight service, and filling with excitement when Christmas morning finally arrived. Today let’s look at the idea of joy found in the Bible, and perhaps decide to help create joy, not just hope for it.
This week, as last, I have chosen unconventional Advent passages: the first one is Jeremiah 15: 15-20. Ironically I know that this is a lament in which the word “joy” is placed. It seems to me that even faith-filled Jews and Christians—for whom Jeremiah is a Scriptural prophet—seem to live with a mixture of joy and sorrow, of sickness and in health, of richness and poorness in their lives (to paraphrase the familiar matrimonial words.) Those words describe the times when the Lord has also agreed to walk with us—and even dance with us. It is his covenant with us. I imagine that the world of Jeremiah’s day, as in our day, had parents trying to feed their families, men grumbling over taxes, and women struggling with injustice. Sometimes, and on certain days, it seems that “Murphy’s Law” is very much in play: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Jeremiah, Hannah, and Elizabeth each asked the Lord to visit them. In the case of Jeremiah, he wanted a protector against persecutors. Today a boy or girl reading that might pray to God to save him or her from bullies or tormentors. In spite of who else you tell about your torment (and telling authorities is important in most cases to get results) pulling God into the conversations about safety, sadness, or satisfaction is vitally important. It is no good to cut God out of your anguish or out of your joy! Emotions are God-given in part to be shared. Looking back at Jeremiah, he then recalls the actions that God took at his call to ministry recorded in chapter one verse nine: How God put his words into Jeremiah’s mouth. God then said to Jeremiah “I am watching over my word to perform it.” In other words, God was proud of him that day, and he was expecting Jeremiah to do follow heavenly instructions. Can you possibly sense that God is proud of you, that Jesus danced at your birth, and that he is expecting you to share his love in the world this Christmas? One way Jeremiah found joy was by goes back in his memory to a most amazing day in his life. As he thought back, he said to God in prayer: “Your words became to me a joy, and the delight of my heart, because I was called by your name, O Lord.” (Verse 16) But with Jeremiah, the moment his memory burst, he was back into reality: he was not fulfilled; he was joyless, he snapped at others, and he felt trapped. There are people here today for whom that is true: the joy and humbleness of your early Christian life, or the excitement you once had in your job, or the initial honor of being accepted into a difficult academic program might have produced feelings of joy and honor in you at first; but now, now that time has passed, human apathy and rudeness, or a general feeling of malaise can make the bloom fall off of that rose fast. It is imperative that we, like Jeremiah, revisit our calls, our hiring, our acceptance, or our honor appointments. It is imperative that we visit the joyful memories often, and to picture our joyful Savior dancing with us! Our minds and wills are very powerful. The world needs more joy and my soul needs it as well. I have decided to live more joyfully, not sit around hoping for a new joyful moment or pining for a past one. God gave us minds that, when working properly, have functional memories. In fact, long term memory stays when short term memories blur. We, like Jeremiah, can visit joy in the past so that we know what it looks like tomorrow. But if we approach tomorrow with radiance from past joy, we can change our days. Are you pining for days of yore? Remember: the mind, by design, remembers past events through rose colored glasses. The hardship of childbirth, of Christmases filled with tension, or anguishing over money, or living through wars fade as a coat of nostalgic, sepia-toned memories make the Kodachrome images of the recent past and the High Definition images of today seem downright harsh. Pining for the sepia tones of the past is not only unproductive, it is like taking God’s container of heaven-sent joy and pouring it right down the drain. Yesterday is a fine place to visit, not stay. Today we can decide to let the Christ in us add joy in the present as well.
Now we turn to the second passage which includes the beloved words of Mary. Can you hear how she revisited the past only to rejoice in God’s coming triumph over injustice? In the staggering news she got in Nazareth that fateful day, her world was certainly turned over. She went, as the Bible says, “with haste into the hill country;” she got out of town while she and her family dealt with having an unwed mother. Betrothed, yes, but not yet together. But there was joy waiting from a wise relative, Elizabeth. She had waited all her life to become a mother; late in life her prayerful request was being fulfilled, and now her joy was magnified by sharing her maternity time with Mary! When she came near, the special child in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” when Mary spoke! Mary stepped into the footprints of her Lord when the angel spoke to her, and then her maturity of faith showed that God was blessing her with wisdom and understanding! God was preparing her to know the background of this special birth. As the forerunner of Jesus in birth and in life, John’s first days are less repeated but just as memorable, born to “prepare the way.” Both Elizabeth and Mary had unique roles. Here Elizabeth certainly had the pain of childbirth, but it was followed by the joy of seeing her new son. Life seems to be a tapestry, does it not, of the matrimonial vows? Joy and sorrow, sickness and health, plenty and want all seem to be woven together. The danger is when joy is absent. Conversely, when tragedy strikes, it is most authentic to express other emotions before joy: loss, sadness, even anger. But life is not meant to get stuck in tragedy.
Derek Maul was in attendance here when Jenny was ordained to ministry. He is a writer and his wife preached the sermon that day. In his book IN MY HEART I CARRY A STAR, he writes this corrective about joy.
“Quite often we allow ourselves to focus on the negative….But something fundamentally joy-filled about Christmas reminds me of how God created a good earth. The world is not so much a dark and evil realm as it is a confused and misguided place. That thought—and it’s a thought that gains a lot of credibility at Christmas—gives me more than a little joy.” [Upper Room Books, 2008, p. 123.] “Tidings of comfort and joy” the carol declares. I visit those places in my mind and in reality: the places where carols are sung, food is offered, help is extended, love is shared, and hope abounds. Where those exist, it is not to be doubted, there is God. In Galatians, Paul reminds all Christians that the fruit of the Spirit, (the test of whether or not we are true or fraudulent in our faith) is present when all of the following are exhibited. Love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control … oh, and joy! To truly exhibit the spirit of Christmas, make sure people can find all of those in you.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 12, 2010