Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Dec16, 2018
After decades of listening to people’s difficult stories, whether at church or through Amnesty International, I have come to the conclusion that it is not primarily sadness or pain or even grief that robs us of joy. It is fear.
Richard Rohr has noted that the most common one-liner in the Bible is “Do not be afraid.”It actually occurs in the Bible 365 times—a much-needed daily reminder. Lastweek we heard an angel say to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid.” An angel also pronounced the same to Mary, as did another to Joseph. The first words of greeting to the shepherds on the hill were, “Do not be afraid.”
Our fears are no less than they were in biblical times. A playwright once wrote,“Thank God we can’t know the future, or we’d never get out of bed.”We fear that hate and intolerance is taking over our world. We fear increasing violence and poverty in our own city. We fear the escalating addiction to crystal meth. We fear our own insignificance at making a difference. And on a personal level, we fear shame and hypocrisy if our own weaknesses and foiblesare discovered. We fear failure. We fear pain. We fear an absence of God. Wefear not doing enough to meet the needs and expectations of others. We fear not being enough. (place Amnesty candle on communion table) Fear, worry and anxiety wrap around our lives like a barbed wire, relentless in its piercing bind.
Paul had much to fear. He was imprisoned when he wrote the letter to the Philippians and was in much distress. And yet, this epistle is called the letter of joy. Paul writes that, in spite of his dire situation, he rejoices and asks the Philippian congregation to rejoice as well, even though they were in the midst of internal conflict and feared Paul’s very survival.
What helped Paul not be imprisoned by his fears? He explains that his source of joy is hearing about the continuing spread of the gospel. Even though he was imprisoned for preaching about Christ, others took up the call and continued to spread the good news. His work was not silenced. He also writes that he is hopeful for his release because of the prayers and gifts from the Philippians. He was not forgotten.
Prisonersof conscience tell us that their biggest fears are being forgotten and their human rights work being silenced. If they know that others are petitioning for their release and carrying on their work, they are better able to focus on the light that begins to dispel their darkness. (light candle) This Amnesty International symbol helps us to change our focus from the barbed wire to the lit candle. An ancient Chinese proverb says that it is better to light a candlethan to curse the darkness.
Prayer also helped Paul refocus. He found that when he prayed for others, he was able to set aside his own distress. He was also able to find things for which he was grateful. He told the Philippians to do the same—to direct the energy of their worries into prayers of petition and thanksgiving. He asked them to think on things honourable, pleasing, just and commendable. If they could refocus in this manner, they would find an unsurpassable peace of Christ guarding their hearts.
It might sound a bit simplistic. But I keep hearing stories of people who have actually found joy in midst of suffering. African American churches are exuberant in their expressions of joy, even while they are faced with daily racism. Barbara Holmes explains that joy for these churches is not unrestrained frivolity, but a deep longing.C. S. Lewis also describes his joy with the German word Sehnsucht, which means longing or desire. It is a deep joy that is not dependent upon external circumstance, but radiates from within.
Richard Rohr describes those who have been able to move into the wisdom stage of life as having a “bright sadness” or a “sober happiness”. They still hold as much darkness of the world as before—perhaps even more—but they have learned to hold it with less anxiety.Spanish mystic John of the Cross, from the 16th century, writes about “luminous darkness” while describing the coexistence of deep suffering and intense joy within the saints. The Eastern Orthodox Church believes that authentic religious art will always have a bright sadness to it.
St.Augustine, an African Bishop from the 4th century wrote to God, “You were within, but I was without. You were with me, but I was not with you. Soyou called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flared, blazed, andbanished my blindness, you lavished your fragrance, and I gasped.”
God tries in so many ways to get our attention and give us an inner peace and joythat knows no bounds. But it takes many gasps before we can eventually rest ina bright sadness. Rohr counsels us: “You are sad because you now hold the painof the larger world…but there is brightness because life is somehow—on some levels—still ‘very good’.”
Our concluding hymn today is Joy to the World, one of our most uplifting Christmas carols. Except Isaac Watts did not write it as a Christmas carol. It actually has nothing to do with Christmas. It is based on Psalm 98, which says, “Make a joyful noise to God all the earth.” It refers to the end times when the peacable kingdom of God will finally bring the whole earth peace, justice and joy. Isaac Watts wrote the words in 1719 when he was 45 years old. Watts knew suffering. He was disfigured and spurned and yet, in spite of his pain, beautiful poetry spilled from his heart. Apparently, there was a woman who was enchanted with his writing and she arranged to meet him. But when she entered the room and saw him, she turned and left, later explaining that she admired the jewel, but not its setting.
How could Watts, accustomed to such humiliation, write a song so full of joy? Peter Short, former United Church moderator, wrote in the Observer some time ago that the joy to which Watts referred was “a Presence that dwells deep inside us…a spring of fresh water that we can drink from…whenever we need to. It’s about knowing that we are never lost from the sight of our Creator…and that in God’s world, beauty is defined differently. It’s about knowing a stunning kind of grace…buried deep within our turmoils and failures.”
This deep joy is about God meeting us in our disappointments, our humiliations, our grief, our loneliness. It’s about God’s blessings flowing as far as the curse is found. It’s about the wonders of God’s love through a tiny, vulnerable babe.
 Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), p. 6.
 Tracey Letts, August: Osage County.
 James H. Evans, Jr., Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 64.
 Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards, p. 117.
 Ibid, p. 122.