Part of the anticipation and excitement of the Advent season is the expectation of the coming “gift” of the Christ Child into the world and into our lives. It is a “gift” that we know from the scriptures and prophets to be a most exceptional gift in that it promises to all new beginnings and life . . . a fresh start . . . that life will be good . . . all wrapped up in the cute little package of a baby. Everyone loves babies. It makes us feel good.
So, what happens when the good feelings disappear and the reality sets in?
The problem with babies is that they grow up . . . that they are a lot of hard work . . . and, they are not always what we think they are. Where are the good times now?
All of us gathered here this morning are what I would call “veterans of the faith”. None of us are spring chickens . . . we have been about this faith business for quite some time. Knowing that . . . what would you tell someone who is just entering into the faith journey? Someone who is filled with the anticipation and excitement and expectation of the “gift” of the Christ Child. Filled with all the expectations of new life, new beginnings, and that everything is going to be good. What would you tell them about the reality of faith? Would you pop their balloon or would you let them revel in their euphoric state? What would you tell them?
Well, I have always been one for telling the truth, and the truth is that the journey of faith . . . that following in the footsteps of Jesus . . . is not easy. Being faithful is hard work. All of you have shared stories of the difficulty of your faith journeys . . . of the hard times in your life when nothing felt secure . . . that God seemed far off or inaccessible . . . that you were alone and forgotten. Each Sunday morning we spend a portion of our time in worship sharing “concerns” that we have for others . . . the hardships of their lives and asked for prayers for them. This exposes the fact that the journey of faith . . . that following in the footsteps of Jesus . . . is not all cake and ice cream. Faith can be difficult.
So . . . what are you going to tell someone who is wrapped up in the expectation and anticipation of Advent and the coming “gift” of the Christ Child?
Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica was written for two reasons: to correct some of the misconceptions of his teachings about faith, and to provide encouragement. Paul recognized that the followers of Jesus did not quite grasp what he was attempting to convey about the faith . . . that they were ignoring the fact that there would be difficulties with the journey of faith and that there would be hard times. Paul recognized that they were like most of us . . . typical human beings who embrace what we want to hear and disregard the rest. We tend to embrace the good at the expense of the difficult and hard. But the apostle wants them to understand that faith is hard work and that there would be dark days while on the journey. It was not all cake and ice cream. At the same time he wanted to encourage them to keep the faith . . . to put on the face of “happy, happy, joy, joy”.
Paul writes: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Here the apostle is encouraging the people in Thessalonica to remain faithful . . . to hang on tight to the course set by Jesus . . . no matter how difficult or hard the journey might become. The reward is greater than the hardships of life. He wants the people to put on the face of “happy, happy, joy, joy”.
“Happy, happy, joy, joy” is a song that was on the children’s cartoon show, Ren and Stimpy, years ago . . . a cartoon I imagine that many of you did not have the privilege of viewing unless you now have children in their late twenties or early thirties. Unfortunately I do have children in that age range, and unfortunately I was a victim of my children’s viewing habits. I endured the reign of Ren and Stimpy. But the “happy, happy, joy, joy” song—of which that is the whole song—was introduced as a parody on putting on the stiff upper lip and enduring in times of hard luck. Trust me, Ren and Stimpy had lives of hard luck. Their solution to the problem was to put a smile on their face and start singing “happy, happy, joy, joy” . . . to make the best of a bad situation because they knew that these times, too, shall pass.
That is what the Apostle Paul is telling the people to do . . . but, what happens when it feels as if we can never dig ourselves out of that hole in which we feel lost and forgotten . . . when our faith is being challenged . . . and, we can no longer bear the pain of it all? What happens then?
One of my favorite psalms is Psalm 137. This psalm tells the story of the people of God being exiled from their homes and homeland. The people of God had gotten too prosperous and haughty in their ways of living . . . they had become relaxed and lazy in their faith . . . they were ignoring the means of faith and treating one another terribly . . . they had drifted from God. Israel was at the height of prosperity in the world . . . a great nation filled with wealth and power. They had gotten too big for their britches . . . and, God sent prophets to warn them to shape up or else.
Well, when things are going well people have a tendency to ignore the signs of trouble brewing . . . and, that is what the people did. They ignored it all. The result? They were invaded by their enemies from Babylon and severely defeated. The Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem . . . tore down the sacred temple . . . and made the people captives and exiled them from their homes and homelands. Basically the Babylonians put a major whooping on the children or God.
And, the people of God felt deserted by God . . . abandoned by God. All their beliefs about being the children of God were washed down the drain. All that they believed as the “chosen people” . . . that God would always take care of them, protect them, and make them a strong and prosperous nation . . . well, that was all was down the drain. Reality set in and reality sucked . . . reality was hard.
Which brings us to Psalm 137. The people are being marched to Babylon. It is a hard and difficult march filled with woe and sadness. Depressing times for the people of God. Yet, when they stop and rest their captors demand from them a song . . .demand that they sing for them. Psalm 137 expresses the feelings of the people in a time of hardship:
By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
The fact is that when things get tough . . . and, they will get tough . . . it is not easy to keep the faith. It is difficult to sing a song of joy when we are in a strange land . . . difficult to sing the songs of Zion when we remember the good days that now seem so far away. The apostle Paul knows this . . . knows that hard times will come . . . and, so he tells the people to rejoice and to sing “happy, happy, joy, joy”.
Paul is not the first to abide by this wisdom. Those captives over there in Psalm 137 even realize the power of hope that comes from putting on the “happy, happy, joy, joy” in the face of difficult times . . . of hanging on no matter how thin that strand of rope might be.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill,
may my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Or, to hear it in the words of Paul: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
In the anticipation of the “gift” of the Christ Child and all that he holds for us in the journey of faith, let us be realistic in our faith and acknowledge that the road will not always be smooth and easily traveled . . . there will be hard times. Let us also acknowledge that despite the hard times the gift is more than we could ever imagine and that despite the difficulties we are the children of God . . . a people blessed . . . a people saved. As such we are a people who realize the “gift” for what it is . . . hope. Always hope. Because of that we can persevere through the most difficult times . . . we can sing the songs of joy . . . we can sing “happy, happy, joy, joy”.
What would you tell an exuberant newbie to the faith? Well, I would encourage them to learn to sing . . . “happy, happy, joy, joy”. There is blessing in the journey and Paul’s benediction upon the people: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”