A Revolution of Joy
Text: Philippians 4:4-7
I know just what I want for Christmas. No more seasonal socks. No more Christmas ties. Not one more sweater. What I want for Christmas may sound a bit excessive, even greedy, but here it is. I want a life’s supply of joy, genuine joy. I do not want a “joy substitute” like happiness. Now, happiness is fine. I am a big fan of being happy, but happiness is fleeting; it depends almost entirely on mood and circumstance. Happiness is a poor and elusive substitute for joy, not unlike when people tell me that my sugar-free desserts taste just like they had real sugar in them. Well, not exactly!
I want genuine joy for Christmas and for every day that follows, and there is the rub. On this third Sunday of Advent, when the candle of joy burns brightly, joy seems in short supply. Maybe in a world as dark as ours my Christmas wish seems silly, but if so, I am in good company. While I am a proud Protestant and a lifelong Presbyterian, it has only been within recent years that I have found myself listening carefully to a Roman Catholic. He happens to be the current Pope and though I wish he would speak more clearly and definitively on sexual abuse by priests, I am often inspired by his words.
Who dares ask for joy, much less speaks of joy, in days like these? The Pope does. Not only does he speak of joy but he calls the children of the Christ child to join the revolution of joy, to revolt against tolerating, much less practicing, uncivil, nasty, hurtful speech in the political arena or in the church, to revolt against stoking fear and reciting false facts about immigration, to revolt against the myth that we deserve all that we have and that we have the right to treat this planet however we choose, to revolt against the Darwinian notion that some people are meant to thrive while others are intended to be selected off the island Earth. To reject the attitude Scrooge expresses to those seeking a Christmas gift for the poor: “If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
The Pope invites followers of the Christ Child to join the revolution of joy. It is an odd pairing “revolution” and “joy,” because most revolutions are hardly joyful. They are all about who has the most weapons, is willing to carry out the most violence, and is ready to justify whatever is necessary to succeed. The Pope, instead, calls us to a "revolution of tenderness,” a revolution in which you and I celebrate “the tenderness of God toward each one of us.”
Seriously, your Holiness, how can we be a people of joy, expressed in tenderness toward each other and the earth, in our world today? With all due respect, Holy Father, your wishful thinking is not only unhelpful, it is dangerous. Who do you think you are to call us to a revolution of joy?
It is a fair question and one that I suspect the Apostle Paul fielded after writing his letter to the Philippian Church. It would be easy to imagine that when Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. . . . Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” that he was having a really wonderful day, had enjoyed an marvelous meal, was sipping an exquisite wine and was gazing upon a cloudless, starry night.
Actually, though, Paul wrote these words while locked in a Roman prison, his liberties denied, his life confined, his hope threatened by the monumental force of Rome. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” For those asking, “How can we rejoice in times like these?” the Apostle Paul speaks of a joy that can withstand the darkest travails, the harshest suffering, and the greatest fear; joy that stands when happiness has sailed. It is the joy of which the Psalmist speaks when he says, “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5). It is this joy, given by God, embodied in Christ, that makes rejoicing possible no matter the mood, no matter the circumstance, no matter the month, no matter the year.
This Christmas, I want to join Pope in his Revolution of Tenderness, what I would call, The Revolution of Joy. I want to rejoice in God’s transforming love in Christ on a daily basis and stop drinking from the water fountain of bitterness. The water of bitterness poisons the heart, fries the brain, and leads us to spend most of our time angry or frustrated at how our colleague, our boss, our spouse, our child, our President, our Congress, our “you fill in the blank” has failed us.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice . . . Do not worry about anything.” What would it be like to lay claim to that joy freely given to us by God in Christ? What would it mean to believe the words that the Apostle would pen to the church in Rome: “There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”? What would it mean to stop confusing joy with happiness and to know to the very core of our being that in Christ joy has come, the gift has been given, and ours is simply to receive?
A revolution overturns something. So, what does the revolution of Joy overturn? Joy turned Paul from a zealous religious persecutor into a tireless servant of the Risen Christ. Joy turned Paul’s old ways of looking at the world and gave him not only new insight but the “peace of God” that makes joy possible, even when living in the land of deep darkness.
Once joy has turned us around, politicians will still be making outrageously stupid statements, there still will be talk of throwing immigrants out of the country on their ears or locking them in cages, and Congress will still be deadlocked. In many ways, when the Revolution of Joy comes, the world will look exactly the same, but the way we look at the world, live in the world, pray for the world will look profoundly different.
That is why Paul could shout from a prison cell “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice.” He knew that his peace and his joy were not dependent on the mood of Caesar. Paul was not asking the Philippians or asking us to do anything different other than what he did with each morning prayer and before he slept at night in a Roman jail.
That is why the Pope invites all followers of the Christ child to a “revolution of tenderness,” even in such untender times. The Pope knows that those who have been treated with compassion and tenderness have the God-given capacity to live with compassion and to practice tenderness.
That is why you and I do not need to ask for joy to come on Christmas Day. It has already come and it awaits those ready to embrace it and to be turned around by it. It comes wrapped in human flesh, born in Bethlehem, executed on Calvary, and risen to transform us into servants of joy.
So, let me revise my Christmas, if I may. What I want for Christmas is to join the Revolution of Joy, to tell a troubled world that there is more than enough of God’s joy to go around. Or, as the poet Carl Sandburg says so powerfully at the close of his poem, “Joy”:
Let joy kill you!
Keep away from the little deaths.
My friends at Cove, as Christmas approaches, join me as we enlist in God’s revolution of joy.