Text : Psalm 126
Theme Verse : “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” (Psalm 126:1)
Poet Czeslaw Milosz said simply, "It's madness to live without joy!" I would agree. I know, however, that the pain of life can often suffocate the joy within. At Christmastime, we battle the ups and downs of the season – moments of reprieve and respite to appreciate the deep joy of life – only to be countered by the Grinch, realities of brokenness, and the ugliness of cancer. My mother’s voice plays in my head often. Among the “greatest hits” of her encouragement to me: “Don’t let anything steal your joy.” The Psalmist prays for restoration – a longing for hope, peace, joy, and love – “like those who dream.” It is a prayer for that depth of spirit that cannot be stolen. Maybe we need just such a prayer this season.
anthem : 'Ding Dong Merrily On High' (arr.H.Helvey) :: Chancel Choir - Kelly Ford, director; Billie Kay Sawyer & Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
reader : Giselle Chebny
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
closing : 'Old Church Choir' (Z.Williams) :: The Rising Band - Isaac Herbert, leader
*** NOTE : If you're listening to the sermon, BE SURE to click over to the 'transcript' tab for the video shared toward the end. You will NOT want to miss it! ***
ju·bi·late [joo-b uh-leyt] – verb. To show or feel great joy; rejoice; exult. Jubilate. I honestly didn’t know you could use this word in this form. One can be jubilating all over the place and that is totally acceptable; especially on “Joy!” Sunday. Are you with me yet? Maybe you need a picture. THIS. This is my favorite expression of holiday jubilating so far this season. That’s our own Autumn Herbert with her mother Sarah Grace. Sarah posted this picture saying, “The perfect picture to sum up how I feel about life. Pure joy. And my daughter laughing just like me, throw-your-head-back-close-your-eyes.” That kind of laughter. Jubilate. Do you know this kind of joy?
Joy does have its peak moment expressions of course. Clive Staples Lewis said, “Joy jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) thru sleepless nights. It shocks one awake when the other puts one to sleep. One second of joy is worth twelve hours of pleasure.” Beyond those peaks, however, joy is truly more of a way of life than a moment in time. Joy is a well. It’s deep and it accompanies all sorts of moments and can include tears, laughter, and sometimes both at the same time. Joy is a frequent visitor in scripture. The word “joy”, not counting its many synonyms or variations of the term shows up more than 200 times in the Bible. This time of year, you might think of Mary and the Magnificat – “My soul magnifies the Lord! My spirit rejoices!” She’s going to have a son! “Mary did you know?” Yes. She did. Joy. I think of the lost passages in Luke’s gospel. The Shepherd jubilating when the lost sheep is found. Joy. The woman sweeping her home, jubilating when she finds her lost coin in the seat cushions on the couch (always check the couch cushions first!). Joy. The father running down the driveway to embrace his prodigal son near the mailbox. His son had been lost to the world for too long had come home. Joy. There’s a special well of joy found when life is restored, made whole, reconciled in some way. Have you ever found something after it had been long lost?
Bill Fulton lost his wallet but he wasn’t a bit panicked about it as you might expect. Maybe that’s because he lost it in 1946. By the time it was found 63 years later, he’d pretty much forgotten that he had lost it in the first place. Bill’s not exactly sure how he lost it. It was a smooth leather wallet with a cowboy design on the front of it. It was found behind the wooden bleachers at Baker Middle School in Baker City, Oregon. He imagines it was during a basketball game between the Baker Bulldogs and some opponent long forgotten. It sat there for sixty-three years until a construction worker, Nathan Osborne, found it on June 17, 2009, while tearing out the old, pre-World War II era bleachers during the school’s renovation project. Osborne found the wallet right where Bill must have dropped it. He also found stuff other students dropped back there over the years: some old homework, lost library books (imagine those fees); and a program from the 1964 school talent show.
Osborne turned it into the Baker Middle School secretary Melanie Trindle who brought the newly found wallet to Fulton’s home in Baker City. “He was pretty much amazed,” she said. “He just kept saying, “Thank you! Thank you so much!” Bill opened the smooth leather wallet (with a Cowboy on the front of it) carefully and shook his head as he fingered through the contents. He was overjoyed to have it. He found his Social Security Card tucked in its usual place. He didn’t have any cash to begin with so none was missing. His bicycle license was in there which had the address of his childhood home. The contents held no real value except for the memories that flooded back for Bill and that wonderful period of his life.
After high school, Bill went off to the Korean War, then to Berlin, and back to Baker City where he worked for a local lumber yard for thirty years before retiring in 1994. He now spends his days hiking in the mountains with his dog Smokey. Bill said, “I’ve covered a lot of country” since 1946. “Where did all the time go?” he asks with a deep sigh as he held up his bicycle license. “It’s hard to believe that the times have gone so fast.” If even for a moment, feeling the leather of that long-lost wallet with a cowboy on the front of it reminds Bill that it’s all somehow been worth it…it reminds him of who he is. Joy.
Finding something we’ve lost – especially something that reminds us who we are – brings both relief and a sense of joy. Today, as we continue our Advent series we’re calling, “Arrive,” we consider what it means to arrive at Christmas with the gift of joy. Psalm 126 is a psalm of joy… counted among the Psalms of ascent. It would have been sung by the masses of pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem, to the temple, for most any festival. It sings of gratitude to God… for the restoration of fortunes… not necessarily in the realm of returning stock value from a time of economic recession although some scholars point to the returning of good crops following a time of famine. The Psalmist speaks of “bringing in the sheaves.” If you grew up in church you may remember singing that song, one I can hear in my grandfather’s voice: “We shall come rejoicing… bringing in the sheaves!” It comes from this passage.
Other scholars have linked this passage to the radical change between the conditions that existed when the people were in exile and the conditions of their return from exile. When the “fortunes were restored”, the text says, “We were like those who dream.” I love that line: “We were like those who dream!” You know this feeling of restoration, don’t you? Your life is in a drought… a season of famine… things aren’t going your way. How does that feel? You feel beaten down… desperate, depressed perhaps. But when you come through that valley and land on your feet… you are like “those who dream.” Your soul sees with new eyes for you have been restored. Best line in Psalm 23? “He restores my soul.” It is a joy that cannot really be described until you feel it for yourself. It is a promise I hold onto every day. How might I jubilate today?
As a minister, I get the privilege of walking with people through their deepest valleys and their highest mountaintop moments. Even as I prepared to be in the spirit, to preach on the joy we find in this season – the jubilation we discover when we, like C.S. Lewis, are surprised by the joy we find in the Lord – I was reminded of those who, at this given time, are not in a place like “those who dream.” In fact, nightmare might be a more appropriate way to describe their circumstance. Some are battling relentless disease – not the dream they held for retirement or anything they ever imagined for their child. Some were desperately hurting over relationships going sour. Some were questioning God? Some were wondering where the money would come from to handle the need. Some were feeling betrayed. What do you do? How do you jubilate when others don’t feel like jubilating? Sometimes I don’t know. But the best I seem able to do is simply show up. You hold the hand of the sick. You wade through the brokenness with those trying to save relationships. You pray. And you try to hold in perspective the promises of God. As the Psalm says, “The Lord has done great things for them.” Who are they? …our ancestors… God has brought our ancestors through the same trials, and worse perhaps, than the ones before us. And they say, “The Lord has done great things for them… and they rejoiced.” Then they say, “The Lord has done great things for us… and we rejoice.” “Restore us again.” Remind us of our identity. We are children of God… valley moments and all. God will restore us yet. Somehow, the perfect picture of Christmas – the ones that usually end up on the front of Christmas cards is slightly askew from reality – at minimum, it’s a photoshopped Christmas.
It’s sort of why I enjoy our kids’ many programs this time of year. It makes for a full season with lots to prepare for and lots of nights herding the family in and out of places but they are ultimately moments to be treasured – a marking of growth and curiosity and experience that shapes their lives. This week it was band and dance and piano recitals and the children’s play this afternoon. It can get pretty steep but there tends to be an imperfect edge that makes the joy in my soul somehow more real than if the programs were too professionally polished. It’s what makes more than 200 sixth grade band students plodding through a single melody line of Jingle Bells somehow more like the first Christmas excitement in an animal trough. Raw and honest. It feels more realistic. Look at the size of that band – and here we all were to celebrate our kids and their new adventures in making music: Wondering if they’ll one day make a Grady Nichols or Kenny G Christmas album.
Or one of my favorite holiday program memories was my son’s pre-school program a number of years ago. I think it was our second Christmas here in Tulsa and Carrie and I went to Dane’s preschool Christmas program… you know the ones – where the Director comes out and says, “Just enjoy the show, no need to take pictures or record it as we have a professional videoing the whole program that you all can have after it’s through” but when the kids take the stage, out comes four hundred cell phones ready to capture the moment. There were dozens of little kids dressed in their Christmas best for the pageant. Some stood and cried. Some sang louder than all the rest. Some tripped and started the domino effect through the little three and four-year old’s huddled on the steps. My very favorite moment was when they held up letters and did a chant on what each letter in the word Christmas stood for… you know… “C” is for the Christ child…” and the kid would raise that “C” high into the sky. What made it so great was some confusion set in and not all the letters were in the right place. Instead of spelling Christmas when all was said and done, nine proud children held high each letter gleaming from ear to ear as they spelled “Chrismtas”. When the burdens get heavy… the circumstances bleak… I restore a smile; my soul jubilates by remembering the gift of Chrismtas… the most wonderful time of the year. Amid the chaos, when I feel my identity is lost… I can remember, in Christ, who I truly am. Imperfect. Not Christmas card clean, but real and honest and known. Such moments remind me why I need Christmas in the first place.
The psalmist teaches us that joy isn’t just a good feeling that arises spontaneously. It’s a restorative experience of the soul… something we feel most intently after the resolution of a period of distress. It’s one thing to be happy carrying your wallet around – something we take for granted. But it’s something altogether different to treasure something that you felt was lost forever. It’s this thing we call perspective that only seems to come through experiences of hardship. It’s similar to the grace of God – much easier to live in that grace when life is Christmas Card beautiful. When we’re lost or struggling or distant from God, however, that grace has to be pulled from the well, that soul reservoir that holds every moment of joy you’ve ever experienced. And sometimes, when our reservoir is riding on empty, we have to lean on the collective joy of the Body of Christ… of our faith family. The gift of Jesus at Christmas is the coming of restoration to the world. The climax of all of history – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – has redeemed our checkered human history not only for us, but for the whole world. That’s why the babe in the manger is the ultimate discovery. When we were lost, God came to find us. That’s cause for jubilation.
Are you up for the joy? Let it rise through all the rest that tries to take joy’s rightful place in the soul. It’s there. Franciscan priest and author, Richard Rohr says, “We are given more than enough energy to transform ourselves every day, but we waste 98 percent of it on tensions, on emotional reactions unrelated to what is actually occurring, and on daydreaming and mental chatter.” What inhibitions can you release so that you might simply bask in the joy today? What would it take for you to arrive at the manger next week with joy?
Maybe we need to see another jubilate to inspire our own sense of jubilation. Meet six-year old Loren Patterson. She recently made her singing debut with the children’s choir of First Baptist Church in Dickson, Tennessee just a few weeks after her baptism. While some of her peers took the more stoic approach, Loren approached the song with a Chrismtas attitude. Take a look…
There ain’t nothing gonna steal Loren’s joy. Loren’s mom, Jennifer, typically keeps her social media posts private but made this one public so her husband, Mike, could easily share it with their family members. In nine days’ time, it had been viewed more than 54 million times. Jennifer said, “I feel like Loren is bringing joy to people in a dark world. I’m hearing from people all over the world.” One woman from Europe even wrote saying she recommitted her life to following Christ after seeing Loren’s passion. Amazing! Loren, later interviewed by USA Today said, “The song’s pretty cool but I just like to sing about Jesus.” Her mom said, “That is 100 percent her personality. She was just going with the Lord.”
Zach Williams is the artist who first recorded the song which, after Loren’s rendition, became the number one song on Christian radio and shot to the top of the Christian iTunes chart. Williams hopes to meet Loren soon. He said, “It just takes one person to start something like this and that little girl has captured hearts around the world.” Steve Shepard, the church’s associate pastor of worship and music was also interviewed about the joyous moment. He said, “I tell our choir if you’ve found the message of Jesus in your heart, then you need to notify your face.” Before heading off to school the morning of the interview, Loren had one last message to share with the world. “Jesus loves you!” 
ju·bi·late – verb. To show or feel great joy; rejoice; exult. Jubilate. ‘Tis the season my friends. Merry Chrismtas!
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 Surprised by Joy. C.S. Lewis. Harcourt Brace Publishing. 1955.
 While I found this story in multiple sites on the web, my primary source was from Bob Kaylor Senior Minister of the Park City United Methodist Church in Park City, Utah. His work inspired the restoration motif as well.