Am I a happy person? Yes. No. Sometimes. I don’t know, it sort of depends.
Am I a joyful person? Yes.
Wait, what? How can I be joyful if I’m not always happy? Aren’t those the same thing?
Surprise: they really are not! Happiness is an emotion that can rise and fall like the barometer (and, honestly, is often tied to the same). Joy runs deeper than that. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. You know–love, joy, peace, patience, and all the rest? The virtues of Advent are virtues that only the Spirit of God can truly, fully give us. The world’s experiences with and definitions of these things are but dim reflections of the real deal.
I know, I know, it’s confusing. But in summary: happiness is a tenuous emotion, while joy does not fluctuate like emotions do.
The third week in Advent is a beautiful time to remember this. Often called Gaudete Sunday, or Rejoicing Sunday, the Sunday of this week breaks through the gloom of our Advent ponderings to say rejoice, rejoice! Rejoice? What do we have to rejoice about, in a world of chaos and darkness? Well, a lot, actually. Let’s take a peek at this week’s lectionary readings, shall we? (Side note, I am using the ACNA 2019 lectionary, Year A. This may be different from other lectionaries.)
From Isaiah 35:
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
This passage goes on to talk about the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the mute singing. Water in the wilderness, streams in the desert. The highway of God, the Way of Holiness.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 35:10)
Yeah, okay, that’s a lot to rejoice about. But for us in the 21st century, doesn’t it all seem a little… far-fetched? Like, “pfft, yeah, that’d be nice.” The world seems to be more chaotic than ever before, more filled with anger and destruction. Our leaders are weak, our people are miserable, our planet may literally be dying… How can you say “Be strong; fear not!” and tell me God will arrive with vengeance to save?
I can say it because it’s true. Psalm 146 tells us it is true. (I’m posting the whole thing, get ready.)
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord!
We can have joy in a dark and desolate era–whether a personal era or on a global scale–because the Lord sees. He sees and helps and reigns.
This is where we build on the previous themes of hope and faith. Hope holds out that one day all broken things and people will be healed. Faith says, “I believe you will do this, God, even if I don’t see it right now or it doesn’t happen the way or when I want it to.” Joy says, “God, you are good, you are mighty, and I praise you.”
Joy can very much exist in great sorrow. In fact, there are times that it seems like that’s the only place joy can grow. It is in suffering that we learn to see and rely on God’s goodness. James tells us, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. […] Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (5:7-8, 11). Hope breeds faith breeds joy because God is good.
I could write for days on this topic, but all I could say would boil down to those three words: God is good. He is not good in terms of human comprehension. He sees the big picture, the eternal picture. He knows that something that sucks for us right now will grow us into stronger Christ followers later, if we but exercise the faith to let him work on us. He knows that things we might desperately want may not be good for us, or if they are, maybe the timing is wrong, or we aren’t ready to receive it. Only he knows. But we can trust that he sees us, he hears us, he knows our pain and complaints, and he is busy behind the scenes.
No one on Earth has the power to make things right–or even the desire. No political figure, activist, governing body, doctor, lawyer, whatever can give people the hope, faith, peace, and joy they really need. Nobody can do that except God, who is the ultimate and purest Good.
God is good. He literally embodies goodness. Even in his vengeance, even in his justice, even in his mercy, even in his difficult lessons, he is good. He is good in my bad times and good times, when I am happy and when I am stuck in a depressive spiral. He is good when people I love are in pain and when they have the best day ever. He is good when the world is too much to bear and when it is heaven on earth. He is good when your favorite politician fails and when there’s too much plastic in the ocean. He is good, because he exists outside the limited human comprehension of good. His goodness is not dependent on his mood or our attitude, like our goodness is. We cannot jinx his plans. He is not startled by our mistakes or overwhelmed by our sin; he has already seen it all and knows it all, and he chooses to love us anyway. He is goodness. His goodness is the source of joy.
That’s it, that’s all I can say. It’s such a simple lesson, but one that I have to repeat to myself and will repeat until I act like I believe it, until I can pray fervently the way James 5 says to do, until my peace is not shaken by the tumult of the world, until I do not put my hope and faith in mortals.
God is good. He sees me, he knows me, he loves me. And he sees YOU and knows YOU and loves YOU. Individual you. Individual me. If, as Christ tells us, a sparrow can’t fall out of its nest without God noticing, how much more does he watch over us?
God. Is. Good. Rejoice, rejoice!
And that’s all there is to it.
Per aspera ad astra,