by Bob Cowan
Despite my best intentions of supporting small independent businesses or even, in my wilder flights of fancy, becoming less of a slave to consumerism full stop, I inevitably find myself with depressing frequency in Hornsby Westfield, especially at this time of year. In between being forced to jump over the black tiles by my kids, almost all I can see, appropriately enough, is this year’s Westfield Christmas slogan: “All we see is joy”. It’s the sort of bland, vaguely meaningless phrase which, in spite of ourselves, sticks in our heads as our subconscious desperately tries to find some meaning in it. Of course, there is none. Or rather only that joy can only be achieved by the purchase of appropriate merchandise, while keeping the idea of joy sufficiently ill-defined and non-specific that it can come from the products sold by the full range of shops within the mall. Joy itself remains vague and even banal and empty.
I have to confess that I experienced a surprisingly and disturbingly similar sensation when first looking at this week’s lectionary readings. Not so much joy as terror and despair. These weren’t the sort of meaty passages which would give someone delivering their first ever sermon plenty to get their teeth into. What on earth could anyone say about joy? Don’t worry, be happy? Always look on the bright side of life? At best, joy seems the sort of abstract, featureless quality which you know when you feel it, but which is impossible to put into words. At worst, it can feel like an evasion or even an act of insensitivity. How can we say “Sing and shout for joy” to refugees driven by war from their homeland and facing an at best uncertain welcome elsewhere? How “rejoice and again I say rejoice” to those suffering bereavement, illness or hardship? As ever, we need to read a little deeper and in particular a little wider to look at the contexts of these passages.
The passage we heard from Rob is not exactly typical Zephaniah. Even by the laugh-a-minute, sweetness-and-light standards of the minor prophets, Zephaniah stands out as missing no opportunity to threaten fire and brimstone, blood and thunder and everything else the Lord his God can hurl. The Lord’s opening promise in chapter 1 verse 2 is “to destroy everything on earth, all human beings and animals, birds and fish. … to destroy the whole human race, and no survivors will be left”. And he is only getting warmed up. Next, the imminent fate of the people of Jerusalem and of their neighbours is set out in terrifying and sometimes gruesome detail. It cannot be said of Zephaniah that all he sees is joy. And so it is all the more meaningful when his injunctions do turn to joy, and the joy he then describes is all the more complex.
Paul’s exhortations to joy in Philippians are not as radical a shift in the tone of the epistle, but neither are they part of a vapid message of simple and simplistic good spirits. Paul tells us that he is writing the letter in prison, contemplating the possibility of death, and writing to a newly-established church facing all the challenges and difficulties such churches always faced. Again, joy is not all we see because we see joy in context. But what is that context and what can it teach us?
As a rookie preacher, I’m afraid I am going to fall back on the hackneyed three points, but they will be short ones.
The first thing about the joy to which Zephaniah and Paul exhort their readers is that it is a humble joy. In 7th-century BC Judaea and 1st century AD Macedonia, perhaps even more than now, joy, laughter, even smiles could be as much the assertion of superiority as the spontaneous overflow of the heart. The joy of being better than our neighbour, the laughter of derision at our enemy’s misfortune, the smile of disdain or smugness, each can be all too easily confused with true joy. So it is exactly these pitfalls against which prophet and apostle warn us. Immediately before our passage, in 3.11-12, Zephaniah has the Lord promise his removal of the proud and arrogant, leaving in their place the humble and lowly. Paul immediately follows his repeated rejoice with the qualifying instruction to “show a gentle attitude towards everyone”. In the Greek, more literally “let your kindness be known to all human beings”, a call not just to decency but to bearing witness to what it means to be a follower of Christ. The Greek τὸ ἐπιεικὲς conveys a wide sense of gentleness, goodness, fairness, decency, not a check or balance to the call to rejoice, but rather a refinement, almost a definition of that joy. The joy of the people of the Lord stems from love and expresses love, not hate.
The second thing about joy in these passages is, as we have already seen, that it comes in the context of suffering and sadness. This is not the unsurprising and untested joy of those who have never known any real sorrow. Nor is it the retreat into denial of those who have known so much sorrow that they no longer feel able to acknowledge it. Instead this is the joy which can emerge from sorrow, or rather can coexist with sorrow, giving each emotion its proper due. As successive cohorts of my students can testify, having small children has shrunk my frame of cultural reference from the hippest films and TV shows which I could nonchalantly drop into my lectures (or so I fondly imagined), to ABC for Kids and Disney films. So, writing a sermon about Joy, I couldn’t help thinking of the recent Pixar film Inside Out. For those of you who haven’t yet used children or grandchildren as an excuse to see this, it is set inside a young girl’s head, showing the personified emotions which guide her actions. The ostensible heroine is Joy, who spares no effort to make all the girl’s experiences and memories happy ones. Yet—and here I must give a spoiler alert—when a crisis arises from the family’s move to a new town, Joy comes to realize that the apparently useless and counterproductive Sadness does not merely mope and bring everyone down, but enables the girl to cope with life’s upsets, to reach out for help and to maintain the balance which will allow joy—and Joy—to return to their proper place. So, in Zephaniah, in Philippians, in life, true joy does not deny sadness and nor does it totally obliterate it. As we acknowledge in this very church with the institution of Blue Christmas, even, or rather especially, at times of joy, our personal sorrow and also our collective sorrow must find their place. Alongside the tidings of great joy of the nativity there is the massacre of the innocents, alongside the aroma of frankincense and gleam of gold, there is the bitterness of myrrh. But the inverse is also true and, as Zephaniah and Paul remind us, at times of sorrow, joy must also find its place.
And where is that place? Again, the Good News translation unpacks Paul’s words a little, and while ‘be joyful in your union with the Lord’ perfectly capture one aspect of what he writes, the Greek is simply Χαίρετε ἐν κυρίῳ πάντοτε; in the version famous from the hymn which of course had to give way to carols in my choice for today’s service, “Rejoice in the Lord always”. That seemingly simple but endlessly complex “in the Lord” is the third, final and most important of the points I want to make, and it connects to the other two. The joy that comes “in the Lord”, in our union with Him, our knowledge of Him, our love for Him, in every relationship that can possibly be conveyed by that simple “in”, that joy cannot be the smugness of superiority, the laugh of derision or the smile of disdain. The joy which we find in the Lord is one which reminds us of and grows from our humility before him. At the same time, the joy which we find in the Lord is one which transcends—or at least puts in its proper place—the sorrows which would otherwise threaten to overwhelm us. Again, Zephaniah stresses the joy which should arise from what the Lord will do for his people. Paul reassures us, urging us not to worry about anything, joining our joy in the Lord with the peace of the Lord which, like his joy, surpasses human understanding. Joy is joy in the Lord.
The message Zephaniah is declaiming to the people of Jerusalem, that Paul is writing to the church at Philippi, that today’s readings are presenting to all of us, is not that all they can see is joy. I have tried roughly to fit this sermon into Chris’s Advent series on the people of God, focusing today on the ways in which we, as the people of God, are a people of joy, appropriately at a time when we remember the angels brings tiding of great joy to the shepherds and all humankind. What I at least take away from Zephaniah’s and Paul’s words about joy is that we cannot be a people of joy if we are only a people of joy. The people of joy must be always the people of love, sometimes the people of sorrow, and above all the people of God.