JOY: What Is It?

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

bowlGo find a bowl. Any size will do—preferably glass. Look at it. This bowl is empty, is it not? And yet, still a bowl, right? Now put stuff in it. It doesn’t matter—fill it. Now what is it? Has the bowl changed its essence? Is it now “candy” if that is what you filled it with? Is it water? Is it coins? No, the bowl is still a bowl. Now I want you to imagine that this bowl is you—your life. Now imagine all the things that your life becomes filled with—events, circumstances, successes, failures, good and bad relationships, life and death, money and no money, jobs, school, sicknesses, discoveries, sunny and rainy days, etc, etc. Your bowl [your life], though filled with events and things and people—is still not defined by its contents. Your life is still your life. You are still you. In spite of what we may think, our bowls are still the empty vessels of life that they always have been.

All of the stuff our bowls get filled with does not define us.

The bowl is about identity, of course. And so is the Matthew Gospel story about John and Jesus. During this season when many Christians are focused on the baby Jesus—a story that appears in only a handful of Bible verses—it is appropriate for us to talk about who Jesus was and is. Of course, that identity of Jesus has been determined by people over the centuries and still today.

Most of you probably have already figured out that Christ-mas and December 25th have little to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. These traditions of Christmas [leading up to Dec. 25th in the West and January 7th in the East] are relatively new and more closely related to cultural traditions and winter solstice observances. In fact, celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. Moving forward, in the 1st and 2nd Century there is no mention of any celebrations of Jesus’ birth in the writings of early Christians like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen of Alexandria. Still in this time period, Jesus of Nazareth was defined by his life and ministry, and his death. The four Gospels provide much more detail about his life and his death. They even provide more specific times as to when his death may have occurred.

So to sum up, the earliest NT Biblical writings—Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark—do not mention Jesus’ birth. Neither does the Gospel of John. Only Matthew and Luke tell this story and in entirely different ways with different details. The New Testament is much more concerned with what Jesus did as an adult and how he died. This is how he was defined.

But in Matthew’s Gospel, this was not even the case yet. John wasn’t sure about Jesus.

Everyone was waiting for a Messiah, a ruler of some sort, or at least a prophet who would shake things up and change the current state of people’s lives. They were all waiting. John was waiting. Was Jesus their guy? Or had they been waiting in vain? John was confused. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly no king. Actually, he wasn’t even a religious leader. He had no sway in the temples, no power or authority in Jerusalem.

So was it time to give up on this Jesus and start waiting for another Messiah?

Of course, Jesus’ response isn’t what many wanted to hear. Jesus did not tell John:
Sure, I’m the Messiah. Here I am!
Bow down to me, worship me, the deal is done!
Everything is going to get better!

Instead, Jesus told his disciples to report back to John—to remind him of the compassionate and life-changing things that were happening to those who were typically left out and pushed down. Once again, Jesus borrowed from prophets like Isaiah, and lifted up the healings of those who were suffering; the new life for those who were considered dead; the poor being uplifted rather than ignored. But Jesus never really talked about himself. In fact, he talked about John. Who was John? How did people define him? What did people expect? A great priest with long, flowing robes who would lead the people? A prophet who would preach to them? John certainly was a prophet, but more than that. John was a guy who told the truth [no matter how painful]; he lived among the people without pretense; he exposed hypocrisy, greed, and injustice.

People tried to define John in certain ways and with various titles.

So did people try to define Jesus in certain ways and with various titles.

We still do it.
At Christmastime, we talk about Jesus as Savior and Messiah—and these are things that Jesus actually never said about himself.

We sing joy to the world, the Savior reigns…but after 2000+ years, does the Savior reign?
I mean, the world that John and Jesus both hoped for still doesn’t exist.

People are still incredibly poor. There is still great evil and corruption in the world.

Many times, joy is hard to come by.

I know that I am challenging a lot of our most popular assumptions. But I think that we need to do this if we are to concretely live out faith and practice compassion in life. Jesus of Nazareth and his cousin John both taught compassion, love, truth, and justice. Neither one of them believed that one person alone could bring such balance to the world. It would take a village—no, a whole community of people. And so Jesus called people lights in the world. Lights is plural. You, me, everybody else—lights in this world.

It is one of the biggest challenges of this holiday season, because we often force an identity on Jesus and then on ourselves. Christmastime is supposed to be a happy season of smiles, hugs, warm feelings, and stuffed stockings. But that’s not really at all what the story and message of Jesus of Nazareth is about.

It is about JOY.

Okay, but what is joy? To address this question, we have to ask another question:

What is happiness?

Often, the two words [and ideas] of joy and happiness are lumped together. Certainly, during this holiday season, we are bombarded with images, songs, and stories that tell us to be happy. Have a holly, jolly, Christmas! We say merry Christmas for a reason, right? Or..happy holidays? I mean, who would really go so far as to say to someone have a mediocre, melancholy Christmas or May you have a realistic holiday or better yet,
Miserable Christmas to you, too!

Uh, I’m joking, of course. But I am not joking about this word happiness. We have got to take a closer look because Happy Christmas is less about reality and more about marketing.

According to the Free Dictionary and Psychology Today, happiness is an emotion based on the external. It is based on situations, events, people, places, things, and thoughts. Happiness is also connected to the future—something you do not currently have but hope to have one day. Happiness depends on outer circumstances that will need to align with your expectations in order for you to “feel” happy. Thus, a “Merry” Christmas, in this sense, depends on whether your family and your friends meet your expectations for the holidays to be “happy.” If they don’t, unhappiness results. Happiness, then, is a roller coaster of emotion; we are at the mercy of other people and things, speeding up and down and hurling through loopy-loops until we get sick. Now I happen to like roller coasters, but just not the emotional kind that I was speaking of there. I’m not a huge fan of being happy one moment and then depressed a bit later, and then repeating the same cycle again and again.

So that’s happiness. But what is joy? Ah, here we go.

Joy is actually not external, cannot be bought in a store, is not conditional on someone else’s behavior—in fact, joy is completely independent of everything and exists on its own. Joy laughs at attachments. Joy doesn’t need them. Joy is free; joy lives and breathes on its own. Hmmm…so do you think we can start a movement? Can we instead say to other Christians, have a joyful Christmas? Can we say to those who are not Christians, have a joyful holiday?

I think we can. And I think it is more real and certainly healthier. For joy means being at peace with yourself—accepting who you are, where you are, and why you are. Joy is about accepting who you are not, and who you are not with. I received a great question about joy this week: what does joy feel like? Seems like something children are privy to. Explain the way joy feels!

Joy does not feel like happiness. It’s deeper, fuller, more realistically yours.

JOY does not come from your successes or achieving goals you set for yourself.

JOY is not dependent upon external circumstances.

JOY is when you are grateful consistently—even when there is no success.

JOY is internally and eternally yours when you are joyful regardless.

With practice, we can experience joy even in the midst of sadness. We will need to see life as more than just one disappointment or success after another. We have to let go of judgments and the negative emotions that come with them. If we can work on that, we will find joyful freedom.

Life is a gift. And each and every one of us is a life-gift. Our bowls can be filled with plenty of things, but it doesn’t change the fact that each one of us is a life and gift. Gratefulness comes when we just realize how much of a gift life actually is. And those around us are gifts, too. And this life is unpredictable and will always surprise us. Joy is in embracing the changes and the surprises. It is seeing a snowstorm not as an inconvenience or a fearful event, but as a moment to pause and admire creation—to stop and breathe and laugh, cry, and experience. When joy and gratitude live in you, the imperfections of your life add beauty and wholeness to your life.

Friends, we are trained at very early ages to believe that we are defined by other people and by the things we have. We are often told that only when we acquire certain things will we be happy. We are conditioned to believe that if we do not have certain things, we cannot be whole or content.

But we are not valued by what we have, nor by what we accomplish.

Our value is in who we are.

So find inner joy in who you are, as you are. And may that internal joy you discover lead you to compassionate living with others—recognizing the life and gifts in them. That is what this season and this life are about.


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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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