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Philippians 4:4-7, Zephaniah 3:14-20
by Rev. Susan Miller

Dallas Willard begins a chapter in one of his books by pondering the kind of life God must lead. [1]  Maybe God stands in the middle of the cosmos directing universe traffic-"Whoa, slow down there, little asteroids, and let the Black Hole pass." "Okay, Star Orex 543-D, go ahead and orbit on through." Of course, God probably delegates such eon to eon details to angels. Still, what kind of life does God lead?

Willard never gets around to proposing his theory as to what he thinks the divine job description might look like, but he does conclude that whatever and however God is about in the heavens, God is full of joy.

We should, to begin with, think that God leads a very interesting life, and that God is full of joy. Undoubtedly God is the most joyous being in the universe. The abundance of God’s love and generosity is inseparable from God’s infinite joy. All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness. [2]

We know something of what our lessons speak to this morning. We know the euphoric joy from a well-produced movie scene or from a few bars from Beethoven’s Fifth or the well-scripted lines from a poem.

Remember holding your child for the first time? What a magnificent moment-the baby is a wrinkly ball squirming and writhing in your hands. Those eyes stare up at you and you are reflected in them. And then you feel it-a deep sense of joy wells up within you.

Ever experience the quiet joy in just sitting next to a life-long companion? We’ve observed haven’t we? Two old poops sit together wordless. Joy is in the presence of each other. They’ve been together so long they know each other’s best-and worse-jokes, they know each other’s secrets, fears, and especially the little things that they’ve done together for a lifetime. And so they share deep joy in that knowledge and in each other’s presence.

We treasure and store our great experiences of joy for a lifetime of re-runs. But God-God-is the repository of all that is good and true and beautiful and right. God is the Perfect Being. God is pure joy.

Joy-that place of feeling high pleasure or delight or gladness, according to Webster’s-is not only valued in our culture but the effects of joyousness may make this quality a lifesaver. A National Public Radio program this week discussed a remarkable topic: researchers wanted to know why nuns lived so long! So they researched the nuns who had lived long lives (important: they were long-livers not loose-livers). The study clearly demonstrated two common qualities that these holy long-livers shared in common: they saw the big picture-God at work in the world-and they demonstrated a profound sense of joyfulness.

Caution: before we run off to the nunnery for our dose of joy, consider that God is the Source of all Joy! Joy-filled people are aware more than others, that no matter what happens to them or to their world, the Big Picture is that God seeks to redeem and reconcile all of creation through Jesus Christ. That’s what will keep us from getting mucked up in the minutiae of daily details. That’s joy!

Joy and laughter are God-inspired seeds that may help us to grow into long-livers, not loose-livers and people who are filled with God’s joy because we see the big picture!

Take a moment this afternoon and peruse a Bible concordance and note all of the references to this simple little word, joy. Maybe you’ll be as surprised as I was when I discovered how very prominent joy is in the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible and in the exhortations of the Christian Scriptures. Our lessons provide us with good digital images that can help get us started.

In the first lesson, a prophet speaks of joy in his oracle. Prophets are a little like ostriches-they keep their head grounded in the immediate concerns of living and dying like the rest of humanity. But every once in awhile, they pluck their heads up long enough to look up into the universe to see God directing traffic-"Okay, the Assyrians are coming through, outta the way." Then the prophets strain to see what’s coming down the road next. "Okay, here comes a better situation; here come Peace and Joy-make room." So the prophets take in this vision of the God who directs traffic on their small speck of the universe and then they push their head back down in our time/space world to tell the rest of us what they’ve seen. In our lesson, guess what the prophet sees? The big picture: God will personally come to bring peace, cleansing, justice, and stability to the land. And guess to where that leads him?


Of course, no one else at the time sees joy. Au contraire. Heads grounded in the day to day minutiae see only the inevitable-invasion by a vicious civilization from the other side of the Fertile Crescent. They see Assyrians destroying their crops, disrupting their city, trashing their Temple, and dividing their wealth. No joy in Gotham City for these folks.

Yet the prophet says that the God of the Universe, the God of all Joy is directing traffic. Just letting judgment pass through first, and then God will come in their midst and renew God’s love within them. Not only that, says the prophet, but God will rejoice right along with everyone else: God will rejoice over you with gladness and exult over you with loud singing. Pure joy . . . because wherever God is in the universe, there is joy.

Isaiah, too, pulls his head away from the earthbound life for a brief wrinkle in time and comes back with the same report. "God is my salvation, he says, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

Even in the Christian Scriptures we hear of this powerfully inspiring delight of joy. Paul practically trips over himself in getting joy into the minds of his beloved congregation. It’s like he is joy-crazed!

I constantly pray for you with joy . . . I want to stay here and see your progress of joy in faith . . . make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind . . . Even if I will not survive this imprisonment, I am glad and rejoice with you all . . . Finally, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say-have joy! [3]

Maybe it is true after all, as one writer has said, that joy is the surest sign of the presence of God. Joy comes from a deep sense that God is directing traffic in the universe and does have a perfect purpose for everything. Joy comes from the conviction that on this Advent Sunday we celebrate the greatest vision of God in the actual incarnation of the Son-the baby decked out in flesh-Jesus. Joy comes from the relationships that form around our hope and faith.

So today we remind ourselves of this fundamental truth of our lives. Joy is the buoyancy of gladness that comes from seeing the big Picture of God. Joy is the little cork that bobs on the unpredictable waters of life. The waters are calm one day and stirred into whitecaps the next. Yet joy never sinks-it functions by a different law that keeps up afloat come what may. Joy sustains us on our best days and also on our worst. That’s why the prophet can speak of joy when everyone else sees only invasion and destruction; that’s why an imprisoned Christian leader can write from jail with such joyfulness. That’s why our communities of faith can be resilient even when things aren’t going their way. And that’s what God is after in our personal lives-to grow within us some of the very stuff of God-Joy-which it is the fruit of the Spirit.

So on this Advent Sunday . . . take the advice from the prophets . . . take advice from Paul . . . and rejoice! Pray with joy, work with joy, work through your own imprisonments with joy, and rejoice. For your God is coming. Amen.


[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (NY: HarperCollins, 1998), page 62.
[2] Ibid, page 62.
[3] Philippians 1:4, 1:25, 2:2, 2:17, 4:4