Sunday, December 13, 2015

Because Joy is Better Than Happiness (Philippians 4:4-7, The Third Sunday of Advent)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Does anyone here have a motto?  What’s a motto?  I dunno, what’s a motto with you?

A motto is a maxim, a short phrase meant to formally summarize the general motivation or intention of an individual, family, social group or organization.  At best, they should be memorable and recognizable – let’s see if you recognize some of these famous corporate mottos:

“Quality is Job One.” – Ford Motor Company

“Just Do It.” – Nike

“Finger Lickin’ Good.” – Kentucky Fried Chicken

“The San Francisco Treat.” – Rice-a-Roni

“The Ultimate Driving Machine.” – BMW

A good motto says something about the product or service or group or person it represents.  Again, it’s a memorable summary statement.

Many individuals have developed personal mottos.  These can serve as sort of a guiding principle for decision-making, attitudes, and behaviors.  They help set the boundaries for who a person aspires to be and what they’re about.

Whether you realize it or not, some of you have personal mottos.  What are the phrases you hear yourself saying the most often?  More than likely, that phrase functions as a sort of motto.

One of Bob Sawyer’s mottos could be, “If it’s not illegal or immoral, get with the program and get on with it.”  Mike Myers’ motto could be, “Come on people, let’s get this bus, already!”

That should be enough to make the rest of you self-conscious for the rest of the day.  What are the phrases you say most often, particularly the ones that guide your decisions, help you prioritize, shape your attitudes and behaviors?  If you’re having trouble coming up with one, ask the people closest to you what you say most often, because they might recognize it better than you, yourself do.  More than likely, you’ve got yourself a life motto right there.  The next question, of course, is whether it’s a motto you’re proud to be known for, or not.

If Bobby McFerrin had a personal motto, I think it would be “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” You probably know this song – sing a few lines with me:


Here’s a little song I wrote, You might want to sing it note for note:

Don’t worry – be happy!

In every life we have some trouble, but when you worry you make it double

Don’t worry – be happy!


This motto is starting to echo a bit of what we just read in the Scripture.  We are in the Advent season, preparing, waiting, watching for the coming of Christ into our world.  Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, it’s the day we focus on JOY, and the Lectionary has delivered us this little gem, four verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

These four verses could easily be a motto for the church. “Rejoice in the Lord, always!” it says.  Have you ever had a teacher or a parent or an employer say something along the lines of “If you remember nothing else I say, remember this” – sort of underscoring the most important thing, the nugget that shouldn’t be lost, even if the rest of it slips out of your head?  Paul does the same thing here.  “Rejoice in the Lord, always, [and lest we miss the point] again, I say, Rejoice!”

Friends, Paul’s teaching here is clear: to be a Christian is to be a person of joy.  We are called to be people of joy.

Easier said than done.  Perhaps we do not live in the best of circumstances, we’ve got real problems and real worries and real concerns, and Paul is telling us to be people of joy?  With all due respect, and I said, “With all due respect,” my life is not filled with the most joy-inducing of circumstances right now.”

Of course, neither was Paul’s life.  He wrote this letter from prison.  Believe me, a first-century Roman prison was not a pleasant place to be – not an environment that naturally lent itself to joy.  And yet, Paul writes for us to rejoice, to be people of joy always – in all circumstances and at all times and with all people – what gives, here?

What gives is the difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is a mood, an emotion, but it’s not something that comes from inside us, it’s driven by what’s around us.  Happiness is a product of our circumstances.  We might describe it as the difference between having a good day or a bad day – the weather is good, my team won, I have a good job, my family is healthy, there’s enough money in my bank account – I’m having a good day, I’m in a good mood, I’m happy.

And to be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being happy.  But, have you ever noticed how quickly a good day can turn into a bad day?  Happiness is fleeting; it doesn’t last because our circumstances change around us all the time, often in ways that we have no control over whatsoever.

And so, we often end up chasing happiness – finding ways to improve our circumstances, and therefore, to make ourselves happier.  We try to buy happiness, whether for ourselves or those around us.  At this time of the year, does a big pile of presents make someone happier?  Not really.  It might make them giddy for a moment, but the lasting effect is to make them selfish and spoiled!

Happiness is fleeting, at best.  Paul isn’t telling us to be happy.  He’s telling us, regardless of our circumstances, to be people of joy.  Happiness is a product of our circumstances; joy is a product of our relationships.

Be people of joy.  Paul writes these words from prison, less-than-happy circumstances.  But as he thinks about the people to whom he is writing, he is filled with joy because of his relationship with them, and their relationship, together, with God.

Happiness is fleeting, while joy lasts.  Happiness is a feeling, while joy is a disposition.  Happiness is rooted in our circumstances, while joy is rooted in our relationships.  As Christians, we are not called to be happy.  We are called to be people of joy.  If you remember nothing else I say today, remember this: to be a Christian is to be a person of joy.

Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll never have problems or concerns or difficulties.  It doesn’t mean you’ll never have a bad day.  It doesn’t mean going through life with some fake plastic smile on your face.

What it does mean, however, is that the light that shines within you is always brighter than the darkness that might be around you.  In all circumstances, we are called to be people of joy.  When life tries to get us down, God’s love lifts us up.  To be people of joy means that we are so filled with God’s presence, so filled with love toward God and all other people, that love and grace shine forth from every fiber of our being!

Take a look at this picture.  Which one of these people looks like a person who is filled with joy?  Based on that, which one do you suppose is probably the Christian? Do you ever find that people outside the faith are often more joyful people than we Christians can be?  Friends, as people of faith, we need to learn to loosen up and lighten up sometimes.  For goodness’ sake, we need to learn not to take ourselves so seriously all the time!

Mark Hart says, An annoyed and joyless Christian is the devil’s greatest billboard.”

Ever met a person for whom that description fits the bill?  More to the point, ever been that person?

I have to confess my own annoyance with those who claim to be Christians, and yet, are annoyed and joyless all the time.  It bothers me because it witnesses to something quite the opposite of who God is, and how we, as God’s people, created in God’s image, are to live.  What does it say about our faith if having faith puts a permanent scowl on our face?  How do we witness to the presence of God within us if we are mean, angry, and judgmental?

When I was in Boone, there was a man in the church there named Bill Roy.  Bill is one of the most joyful people I have ever met.  He frequently said, “There are far too many Christians who go through life looking sad, angry, and defeated. ‘I’m a Christian,’ they sigh, like it’s some horrible, awful, life-sucking burden.  They say it like they stopped having any fun and enjoying life the moment they became a Christian.  They’re so worried about who is going to make it into heaven, they’re putting the rest of us through hell.”

And then, he’d break into his trademark wide smile, throw his shoulders back, and say, “But the Christian life, it’s such a joyful thing!  When God is living in you, when you’re full of his love, it’s just such a joyful thing!  Like the Scripture today says, he was joyful in everything.

A joyless Christian?  No such thing, really.  The apostle Paul called us to be people of joy, because joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.

How’s that for a good motto?  We are called to be people of joy.  If you remember nothing else today, remember this: to be a Christian is to be a person of joy.  Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God. 

May we be joyful in everything.  Even in circumstances that are less than happy, even on our bad days, may the love and grace and light of God’s presence within us be brighter than the circumstances around us.

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