Third Sunday of Advent
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "I Believe in Joy"
Scripture: Isaiah 57: 14-19, Luke 1:1-4, 26-56,
Ok. I have a confession to make. I have been watching a video that is giving me an inordinate amount of joy. It’s a video of two cats who have been trained to ask for a treat. Or maybe it’s the person whose been trained to give continuous treats to the cats, this person played by a disembodied hand. In any case, I laugh every time I watch it. And since I’ve confessed, I think it’s only right that I share this video with you. Here it is:
So funny. I’m wondering if any of you have your favorite funny animal videos. And it turns out, this doesn’t even need to be a confession, because doing things like watching funny animal videos creates in us what researchers very aptly call “positive emotions.” Sonja Lyubomirsky (Luy-bo-mirsky), chair of the Psychology Department at UC Riverside, says positive emotions, which include hope, love and joy, are essential for humans and can neutralize negative emotions such as fear, anger and disappointment. Positive emotions can help us get started on a task we’re dreading, help us to be creative and get out of a narrow mindset to look at the big picture. We need this kind of joy, that momentary jolt of positive emotion, that release of serotonin through laughter and connection. It’s no wonder that a google search on happy animal videos returns 2 trillion videos. Trillion!
Joy is the focus of the third week of Advent. There are many different kinds of joy. There is the kind of joy we get from watching something funny or doing something entertaining. And there is the kind of joy that is often associated with the commercial Christmas season, that kind of Hallmark movie joy where the story goes as planned, disappointment or sadness is fleeting, and in the end everyone gets what they want, including their desired love interest. And they all live happily ever after in a nice big beautifully furnished house where someone else has done the dishes. That kind of joy, that version that is supported by a version of Christmas that says we can get the joy in that picture by consuming, is a little easier this year to not be consumed by. Because we aren’t out and about being bombarded with flashing light messages that equate joy with consumption, it’s a little easier to stand aside and see what induces real joy, and what does not. And that, in spite of the darkness and challenges of this year, can be a good thing.
We have this phrase “holiday cheer.” What do you think of when I say “holiday cheer?” There’s a part of the concept of holiday cheer that we are missing this year, the gathering, the getting together with friends and loved ones. And “holiday cheer” can also often translate to drinking alcohol and partaking in delicious sweets and other wonderful things to eat. All of these things, in moderation can be good things. But sometimes we find, in an attempt to really be filled up, we drink too much alcohol, eat to many delicious sweets and we move from “holiday cheer” to “holiday excess” which is also a thing. Our holiday cheer crosses a line where it does not produce joy but rather pain and suffering, or just nagging regret.
Why is this? I don’t believe it’s just a case of “too much of a good thing” in the holiday season. I believe we drink too much, eat too much, overdo, buy or consume too much because we all have a yearning inside of us, a space that we are trying to fill. And we’re bombarded with messages that suggest all sorts of ways to fill this space. Now don’t get me wrong, this space inside of us doesn’t mean there is something wrong with us, or that we are lacking as human beings. No, I believe this is how we were created because this space, this longing, can only be filled…with God. There is no other God but God, no other sense of presence that is like the presence of Immanuel, no other transcendence like the soaring of our spirit at one with the holy spirit. But incomprehensibly, we often choose not to fill the God sized emptiness with God and instead choose substitutes that can approximate transcendence for awhile, but always dissipate, and leave, the same hole, unfilled. And when we go back to that substitute, we can sometimes use more and more, trying to make sure the feeling and the filling doesn’t dissipate this time, trying to ensure that the transcendence lasts. But it won’t last, because whatever the substitute is, its not God. And this cycle of returning again and again to a substitute is what can result in addiction.
Through all of our yearning and striving, God is trying to get through to us, but we can be so distracted with other things that we can miss it, or scarcely believe it. In our scripture today from Luke, we hear again Mary’s response to the news from the Angel Gabriel saying she would be the God bearer. She says, “How can this be?” Then she says, “Let it be with me according to your will.” Now some have critiqued Mary’s response, calling it disempowered or submissive. But this is because they imagine that Mary is saying yes to something other than God. This isn’t Mary saying yes to distractions or consumptions. She is saying yes to being filled…with God.
Often we focus on the literalness of Mary and her story in Advent—that she was a young teen, that she became physically pregnant, that she was a virgin—all of these important details—but what if we shifted our focus to Mary fully as exemplar and symbol of the relationship between all of humanity and God. A womb is a creative space. Again, laying aside what it literally does, let’s think of it more as a symbol for humanity. To fill a creative space we need imagination, generativity, honesty, risk, openness. It is a waiting space. It is a space that longs for God.
We all have this space inside of us. God asks us continually to let God fill that space, but for the fullness to come to fruition, God’s yes must be met with our yes. And it is through that yes, OUR yes, that our yearning is filled, that our desiring is responded to, that the hopes and fears of all the years are met. It is in that yes, in our decision to be filled not with things but with God, that we find…joy. What a surprise! After all this time of acquiring and consuming the answer all along has been in surrendering. In saying, as Mary did, “let it be with me according to your will.”
This is a tough time to talk about joy. Many are experiencing more of the longing than the sense of being filled right now. The words of the anthem we just heard from the choir resonate deeply with us, hear those words again,
“There is a yearning in hearts weighed down by ancient grief and centuries of sorrow. There is a yearning in hearts that in the darkness hide and in the shades of death abide, a yearning for tomorrow.
There is a yearning, a yearning for the promised One, the First-born of creation.
There is a yearning that fills the hearts of those who wait the day of His appearing. There is a yearning when all our sorrows are erased and we shall see the One who placed within our hearts the yearning.
But as we await the promised coming of Immanuel let us not forget that we know our yearning will be met. We who live in the blessing of Christian community know that this light abides, this space while maybe feeling empty now, will be filled. Immanuel is coming, and has come. I believe in joy, because I know my yearning will be met. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - December 13, 2020
Advent Week 3 - I Believe in God: Ode to Joy
Prelude: “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Welcome & Opening Prayer - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Carol of Joy: “UMH 238 Angels We Have Heard on High” - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Isaiah Reading: Isaiah 57: 14-19 - Dana Buntrock
Children’s Message - Susan Jardin & Judy Kriege
Gospel Reading: Mark 1: 1-15 - Dana Buntrock
The Witness of Music (Anthem): “The Yearning”
Message: “I Believe in Joy” - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Carol of Response: “Love Came Down at Christmas” - Rev. Jerry Asheim, Margot Hanson & Caroline Lee
Litany of Belief - Peter Ngong & Orion Lacey
Prayers of the People - Sophie Shafer
Special Music: “In the Stillness” - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Melani Gantes
Announcements & Offerings - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Doxology: “Believe with a Hopeful Heart” - Judy Kriege
WE GO FORTH
Carol of Resistance: “Joy to the World/Ode to Joy” - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Postlude: “Song of Joy” Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special thanks to:
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Dana Buntrock, Melani Gantes, Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Orion Lacey, Caroline Lee, Peter Ngong, Sophie Schafer
“The Yearning” Madonna and Child images compiled by Orion Lacey, Jacob Wilbur & Merrie Bunt
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt