The Christmas Eve sermon was inspired by the 300th anniversary of the hymn, “Joy to the World.” Isaac Watts composed this paraphrase of Psalm 98:4-9 in 1719. As we leave 2019 behind and move into 2020, the topic of joy still seems germane for our consideration. How do we find Joy in the new year?
In our world – and especially in our context here in the United States – we hear a lot about happiness. Let’s try to keep everyone happy. Does this make them happy? We just want you to be happy. I was watching a movie recently, and the antagonist said to the main character, “all Americans think about is their own happiness.” While we might bristle a bit at this over-generalization, a quick perusal of any self-help aisle in a bookstore will indicate that there is at least a hint of truth to the statement. After all, the “pursuit of happiness” is a phrase found in our Declaration of Independence.
Happiness and joy are not the same thing. Wiser minds have spilled much ink to parse the differentiating characteristics, so I will highlight but one. Joy requires connection. We usually think of the connection being with another person, but the important connection might also be with a place, a community, an animal, an activity. Joy often arises from a connection with something/someone outside of ourselves.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus speak of joy (15:11): “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus has been speaking to his disciples using the famous vine and branches metaphor. (v. 1) “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” He said (v. 4), “Abide in me as I abide in you….” (v. 5) “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Using this agrarian metaphor, Jesus speaks of a most profound and intimate and demanding connection. Christian joy comes from our connection with Jesus Christ, from our being ultimately grounded in a personal relationship with him, just as his joy flows from his union with the Father.
Note what Jesus doesn’t say. In this context, he doesn’t say, “Bear fruit.” He doesn’t say, “Be joyful.” That’s where we often get it wrong: we focus on producing the outward manifestation. What Jesus says is, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Apart from him we will not bear fruit; apart from him we will not experience his joy. It’s simply not possible, just as it’s impossible for a branch to live once it’s been severed from the vine.
As we begin another calendar year, let us recommit ourselves to focusing on this most important connection. The world promises happiness, but Jesus said that he wants our joy to be complete. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” So let every heart prepare him room, and then heaven and nature will sing for joy.
Rev. Barrett Ingram