‘Joy is a new baby…’ a sermon for Adel Parish Church – Advent 3

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‘Joy is a new baby…’ a sermon for Adel Parish Church – Advent 3

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-end; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

“Happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby.”

“Joy is stronger than happiness.”

Preparing for this sermon on joy, I trawled through various learned books on my shelves…but ended up, as I often do, returning to some of the best theologians around – our children.

“Happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby.”

“Joy is stronger than happiness.”

The first, a quote from a school assembly when I was curate; the second from our own Callum Holmes when year 3 came to church last week.

To try to tease out the meaning of ‘joy’, we were looking at how it differs from happiness…and why joy, not happiness is our Advent theme.

It’s not an easy thing to put into words and I’ve been wondering what it is about those two statements that hit the nail on the head. I think perhaps it’s something about trust, endurance and promise.

Trust…it can be difficult in today’s world. All around the world people are bombarded with fake news…statements made just to keep people happy…with little regard for the truth. ‘The virus is nothing to worry about’, ‘climate change isn’t real’, ‘we’ll be fine by Christmas’, ‘our country is doing just fine’; and promises to do the impossible if only one is elected.

Some of the time it works, at least for some people – there can be too much hard stuff to face, especially at the moment…we might well be happier ignoring it. But this happiness won’t last – because it isn’t based on the truth.

Today’s readings also contain joyful messages of wonderful things to come; but both concentrate on the authority of those bringing the good news. The prophet Isaiah begins, ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news’. John the Baptist is very clear that he’s not the Messiah, nor Elijah; he’s the voice crying in the wilderness foretold by Isaiah, sent by God, he’s there as a witness to the coming of Jesus. These are messages from God, messages that can be trusted.

Callum suggested ‘joy’ is stronger than happiness – perhaps this is because it’s always rooted in the truth. Joy comes when we trust the good news we hear, even if things are not so good at the moment.

Perhaps joy is also stronger because it endures. Even genuine happiness tends not to survive difficult times; but joy is strong enough to withstand the darkness.

Advent comes at a time of darkness and shadows, when days are short, the weather often poor. This year we can add anxiety, the weariness of isolation, grief made worse by separation, fears about the economy. But Advent is also when we hear the good news that God comes to live as one of us, to share the darkness and shadows of even the worst human life. So Advent brings the news that we are unconditionally loved…by God. We can know this to be good news even in the darkest times. Happiness may be difficult at the moment – but joy endures.

Of course, happiness can be very real. This summer held many happy moments enjoying nature, on holiday, with friends. And I well remember the happiness of a new bike – or other longed for toy when I was a child.

Yet I immediately recognised the truth contained in that statement: ‘happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby’. And I wonder whether that truth lies in the promise and potential of a new baby. Unlike happiness that comes from possessions or holidays…a new baby holds the promise of a lifetime of growth, development and interaction. It’s not just about now – but about what is to come.

I was bowled over by the birth of both of our children…but I have to admit to finding tiny babies a little boring. The joy of being a mother unfolded as they smiled, laughed, began to ask endless questions, and shared their childlike wisdom with me. The joy is still unfolding now they are adults and our relationship grows and changes.

That child in my assembly chose the image of a new baby because there was one in her house; but we could equally talk of joy being a deep and lasting friendship. I suspect, I hope, we all have people who bring joy into our lives by their companionship, the phone call or text when things are hard, the offer of help. And friendships aren’t static…bonds gradually deepen as, bit by bit we share ourselves more fully. Again, the joy comes in the promise, of love given and returned, of an unfolding relationship that is always new.

Advent joy comes from the promise that Christ can be born afresh in us this Christmas. And it’s joy rather than happiness, because it’s not just a day of recalling Christ’s birth, but the start, or the deepening of a lifelong relationship.

Advent is traditionally a season when, despite the business of preparing for Christmas, we try to put time aside to wait quietly for God. This year I’m doing that partly with this book on the poems of R.S. Thomas. Advent is quiet, sometimes solemn – but it’s still a time of ‘doing’.

Perhaps trust, and promise bring enduring joy rather than fleeting happiness because they call for a response. In Advent, even in the darkness and difficulties we are asked to trust in God’s steadfast love. To trust that God really does want to share even the darkest parts of our lives.

Then we are invited into a relationship, with Christ. As with every other relationship, the more time and effort we invest in it, the more its promise will unfold, and the more joy it will bring.

Advent joy is stronger than happiness because advent joy is a new baby. As we await the birth of the Christ-child we are called not only to come and adore him, but to stay and grow with him. Amen

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