A Different Kind of Joy

At particular moments and in specific circumstances, there are times when we stumble upon a different kind of joy.

It’s not the joy of party hats or award ceremonies. No one is jumping out from behind the couch and yelling, “surprise,” or putting a first-place medal around our necks. You don’t unwrap this joy or scratch off the winning ticket. It is different.

Frederick Buechner, God rest his soul, was on vacation with his family when they stumbled upon this different kind of joy. He says they were standing there looking out, watching the water carefully and waiting by the water patiently when all of the sudden, out of the blue, this whale leaped into the air surrounded by the glistening sun, and then crashed back down with this magnificent splash.

He says he was not ready for it.

All of a sudden, he felt tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. He looked at his family on his right and on his left, and they had tears welling up in their eyes as well.

He says that he thought about this reaction for a long time, for weeks and months, and he finally decided that they had started to cry because they had caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God–something beautiful and sacred in the midst of the harshness of this world.

As he writes, ”The world does bad things to us all, and we do bad things to the world and to each other, and maybe most of all to ourselves.” But at the heart of it all is unimaginable joy.

He says, “Joy is home. And I believe the tears that came to our eyes were more than anything else, homesick tears.” 

If you’ve ever been homesick, you know it is completely and utterly overwhelming. It’s like that stomach pain that makes you double over where you can’t stand up or walk around. You can’t think of anything else, but how bad it hurts.

When you are homesick, all you want to do and all you can think about is seeing your family, who just last week was driving you crazy. Home is not the joy of excitement, it’s not the joy of enthusiasm, it is the joy of the ordinary. Because at home, we don’t always brush our hair. We don’t always put on makeup. We walk around in our socks that are fuzzy and embarrassing, and we wear our favorite pants that have holes in them, so we can’t wear them out of the house.

Homesick tears remind us of a different kind of joy. The joy of belonging. The joy of fulfillment. The joy of God’s grace.

Every single advent we overhear Mary’s joy, where she proclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” It is a kind of joy that lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.

We need to pay close attention to Mary’s joy, so we come to understand it. Because in the world that Mary lived in, things were not always easy. She was still waiting to be married when she received the news about her pregnancy. She lived in a world plagued by Roman oppression. She did not have any influence or power. She knew what it meant to sit at her table and to feel real hunger.

And yet, she speaks of the Joy of God!

Perhaps she knew what that joy looked like and sounded like because she was so familiar with the voice of the prophet Isaiah in scripture, where the prophet proclaims, God brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the brokenhearted, proclaims liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.

When we look at each one of those things, it is a different experience of home, returning to freedom, fostering healing, and receiving salvation. There might even be tears of joy within them.

Isaiah is speaking to a people returning home from the Babylonian exile, where they had been taken away and lived so long.  The Persians finally defeated the Babylonians and the Persian ruler, Cyrus, let the people return home. But when Isaiah is speaking, all is still not well. 

The temple is still in ruins. The people are still fractured. And yet Isaiah speaks of joy. He says, it will be like a wedding where the bridegroom wears garland and the bride wears jewels. There is a celebration! It is not the mourning of a funeral. It is the celebration of a new beginning because it is returning home. 

We might discount the joy of home because it’s rather pedestrian. Home is where we do our laundry, fill out our grocery list, clean the bathroom. But is there joy?

Miroslav Volf is a theologian that teaches at Yale. He and a couple other professors created an undergraduate course called “Life Worth Living”. Surprisingly, it has become a sensation. It is hard to get a seat in the class.

They ask questions from a 30,000 foot view, like “What is worth wanting in the first place?” He says, if we’re not careful, we can end up wanting that old Walgreens slogan, you know, “Life at the corner of happy and healthy.” If all was well, we would be happy. But is that the same thing as a good life?

There are times when happy is a trade-off for what is most good because what is most good can be deeply challenging and stretching. There is happy, but then there is joy, which can find us even when everything is not going our way. It’s the joy of belonging, the joy of fulfillment, and the joy of grace.

Years ago, Don Shockley was the chaplain at Emory University, but before serving in that position, he was a pastor of a congregation in rural Alabama. He had this habit of getting up early on Sunday morning and going to a local coffee shop to finish his sermon, working against the deadline of the 11 o’clock hour.

He says that it was remarkable how many times he noticed something at the coffee shop that ended up being in his sermon that morning. In fact, on one Sunday morning during the season of Advent, he got up and went to the local coffee shop, and he was sitting there—hovering over his notes, scribbling different things, crossing things out, adding further notes, drinking his coffee—when one of the waitresses started to get nervous.  She noticed him writing all of these things down. Then out of the corner of his eye, he noticed her watching him.

Then she came over, pointed her finger at him, and accused him of being an undercover agent, working for the larger franchise that owned that local coffee shop, sent to take notes on her job performance.  He said, Oh, no, I’m just the pastor of the church around the corner, trying to finish my sermon before worship.

He had to convince her he was not a spy. When she finally was convinced, as she walked away, he overheard her say, “I’m sure glad you’re not one of those expecters.” 

Not inspector, but expecter, which found its way into his Advent sermon, as we are expecting the arrival of Christ,

He was accused—and perhaps we are too—of being chief expecters of the joy of God, even when life is hard.  During the season of Advent, we can learn again what it means to stay awake to a different kind of joy, as we are surrounded by the goodness and grace of God.

They are ordinary moments where we might catch a glimpse of the sheer beauty of creation, and realize that we are a part of it.

Amen.

Auburn First Baptist Church