Our texts this morning are two readings about joy.
From the Old Testament, the Prophet Isaiah, in the midst of a series of stern warnings about the impending future of Israel, interrupts himself to offer a vision of comfort and restoration.
“You will say on that day: ‘I thank you, Lord. Though you were angry with me, your anger turned away and you comforted me.’”
And he promises the people: “You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation…shout and sing for joy, city of Zion, because the Holy One of Israel is great among you.” (12:1, 3, 6)
It is a vision of life and restoration for a world into which the Messiah will have finally come.
Then we heard from the Apostle Paul, writing much later, after the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
It is another brief passage from Paul’s great love letter to the church he had founded at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” he urges. “Again, I say rejoice! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near.” (4:4-5)
Those are certainly nice words. But the sense of an impending future hangs over them, too.
At that time, he days that were ahead for the Christian communities were not going to be easy, and that was already clear…already very much happening, as Rome began to take notice of this strange new religion that was sprouting throughout the Empire.
Paul knew that firsthand, himself. It helps to know that, in fact, he writes these words about joy from prison, in what was likely his final incarceration in Rome, during which he died…probably by execution.
So this is not a holiday candy gram sent from Canyon Ranch or Aspen.
Paul talks about “the peace that passeth all understanding,” and if he makes such a point of talking about joy, then these words are very much an expression of that peace, and of the joy that flows from that peace.
And so if Paul and Isaiah can talk about joy within the context of their particular circumstances, then we are invited to do the same. We’re invited to speak about joy within the context of our particular circumstances.
What can we possibly say?
I suspect that the general consensus is that joy is not having a particularly great year in 2015.
So let’s not start on joy just yet. Let’s talk about something else.
Instead, let’s start by talking about de-cluttering.
Many of you may know about de-cluttering—the art and science of organizing the spaces where we live and work.
Some of you are probably David Allen fans—he’s the guy who wrote that book called “The Art of Getting Things Done”.
Some of you may follow Heloise with her helpful hints. She’s good, although in my experience, for Heloise, every solution to every problem somehow seems to involve diluted white vinegar. I don’t get that.
Or maybe like me, you’re married to someone who loves the Container Store. I’m told that some people love it so much that, given the choice between a week in Acapulco without children or four hours without children at the Container Store….
So anyway, my point is here is that I am told that de-cluttering is a little bit of all of those things.
And so for those who study its mysteries, 2015 will be long remembered as the year of Marie Kondo, the author of “The Life-Changing Mage of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of De-cluttering.”
You see, Marie Kondo approaches the practice of de-cluttering with Zen-like simplicity.
And she says that the way to de-clutter is not an elaborate system to be created. Rather, it is to ask one question of each and every thing we own.
She tells us to take each thing in our hands, look at it carefully, and ask: “Does this spark joy?”
If something sparks joy, keep it. If it doesn’t, give it away or throw it away, but it needs to go away. Pretty much now.
Fundamental as the question is, and easy to ask, it turns out that this is harder than you might think.
So often, we seem to hold onto things. Things that should spark joy. Things that used to spark joy. Things that might one day spark joy. Things that someone we’re not thinking of, or someone we may not have met yet will one day see and say, “Hey! That sparks joy! I’m so glad you have that!”
Well, that’s not good enough, says Marie Kondo. Don’t overthink it, she says. Just at a gut level, today, does what you’re holding in your hand spark joy?
Because, as one of her disciples explains, the reality is that we don’t hold onto things, per se—what we hang on to are the emotions attached to those things.
And emotions can be so hard to let go of.
I don’t know about you, but I find that helpful to remember in this time before Christmas.
For so many of us, Christmas is a season of emotional over-eating and emotional over-spending and emotional over-load in general.
But when was the last time you looked at a Big Mac grabbed on the run on the way back from the mall after some Christmas shopping and asked, “Does this spark joy?”
When was the last time you that you held another invitation for another December party and asked, “Does this spark joy?”
When was the last time you held a gift for someone else in your hands and knew that it was destined to spark joy, both in the giving and the receiving?
Sometimes, we really need to ask ourselves what it is that we’re trying so hard to hold onto.
If you think about it, I think you’ll see, that these aren’t just the questions of de-cluttering. They are the questions of Advent.
Advent is, likewise, a time of personal inventory, and not only of our things, and of our relationships, but also of ourselves.
Sometimes, the thing we’re holding onto most tightly of all is some cherished image of who we are. What our lives should be like, or should be like again. We have an image of the company someone like us ought to be keeping. The impact we should be making.
Our lives are cluttered with the false notion that the world belongs to us, and that what happens to us is the most important thing in the world.
And the fact is, that makes it awfully hard to be joyful.
But if we go back to Isaiah, writing in a time of great peril for God’s people—a time when so many had lost sight of what was most important, and lost sight of nothing less than what it meant to be faithful—he’s talking about joy.
What is this joy that he’s talking about?
He says, “You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation.”
He says that because for him, joy and water are the sources of life. But they’re sources that flow from an even greater source, which is the love and faithfulness of God.
It’s a vision not just of individual salvation, but of a people redeemed and reoriented toward what really matters.
It’s a vision of a life lives with and for others, and lived with and for God.
In the same vein, if we go back to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always! I say rejoice!” And he can say that, even from prison, even in the face of stern days ahead, because he has learned that the thing that sparks joy in him is learning to be true to the God, come what may.
He sees this as the answer for him, and for us all.
In Paul’s case, this is all the more remarkable, because he is a great thinker, a great reasoned, a passionate arguer—and yet in this moment, he’s not making a thoughtful, reasoned argument to his friends. He’s telling them not to be anxious, that a peace that passes all understanding—a peace that passes all reasons, all arguments—will keep their hearts and minds on Christ Jesus. No matter what may come.
What’s that about?
For Paul, it’s about knowing that the Lord is near.
It’s about the clarity that comes with knowing that the Lord will return, and so the only things there’s time for now are the things that give us joy. Not the happiness and diversion of the moment — Paul has no time for those. But the things that offer joy. The things that point to the love of God.
He and Isaiah are reminding us of what Advent is all about. The rest, they suggest, is just clutter. They’re right.
It says in the old hymn, “Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of heaven, Lord of love. Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above.”
And that is what we’re called to ponder. What is it that makes our hearts unfold—not what used to, not what’s supposed to, not what’s going to—what is it that makes our hearts unfold…today…now?
The church’s view is that if you look carefully enough, God is to be found in that unfolding.
And the message of Advent is that as the Lord draws near, there is no time for anything else. The time to listen and the time to act are now.
As we said before, in 2015, joy is not having a particularly great year.
Fear is rampant. Anger is rampant. Despair is rampant.
These are hard times.
But I would suggest to you that the Christian voice that the world needs to hear is not the voice of Christian fear, or Christian anger, or Christian despair.
What the world needs now is voice of our hope. The voice of our love. The voice of our peace. And the voice of our joy.
The world needs to hear from each of us now. That’s how we begin.
That makes the questions of Advent that much more urgent: What is it that sparks joy in you and me? What is it that makes our hearts unfold?
And how can we find a way to share it? How might our reaching out make other hearts unfold? How might our new-found love for one another teach us to move forward together?
That is what Advent challenges us to ask and what it is that God seeks to answer.
That is what the world is crying out to know.
Because the rest is clutter. Advent reminds us that it’s time to let it go.
“And the peace that passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus,” says Paul.
Let every heart prepare him room.