Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sermon: The Joy of the Lord

The Joy of the Lord
Isaiah 61: 1-4; Psalm 16: 7-11; John 1: 6-16
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 17, 2017
The Third Sunday of Advent

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
- Isaiah 61: 1-4

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
- Psalm 16: 7-11

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
- John 1: 6-16

Henri Nouwen is known in faith circles as a deep well of spiritual wisdom. He was a respected Dutch Catholic priest, a seminary professor, and an author of many books on spirituality and pastoral care. But one of Nouwen’s gifts was his ability to be transparent and real about the journey of faith. Nouwen was a wounded healer. He struggled with depression and wrote about his own dark night of the soul:

Everything came crashing down — my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God… everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness.

What had happened? I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss.

Nouwen found incredible healing in being surrounded by a small circle of trust and compassion; friends who shined God’s light of love and grace into his darkness. Nouwen’s experience completely changed his understanding of joy; for JOY is knowing that the promise of God’s presence is a solid foundation that grounds us in the strength of God’s grace.

Years later Nouwen offered the truth he learned about the joy of the Lord:

Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God's love for us…Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing-sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death-can take that love away. [2]

The Psalmist was a wounded healer too. He had in incredible gift of pinning down his own human experience and his daily need for God’s grace. The Psalmist opened his heart and mind to be real about his own oppressions, heartbreaks, grief, and longings for new life. And we find comfort in his bold trust in God that spans lament and praise.

But we need to know the hidden truth for the Psalmist – it was true for Henri Nouwen too; even before the Psalmist found his voice to be a light of encouragement to others, the Psalmist was first aware that he was fully understood and fully known by God. This is a key truth of joy.

The Psalmist’s bold trust that God was and is ever before him was the Psalmist’s strong foundation, therefore he would not be moved (Psalm 16:7-8). The Psalmist’s conviction granted him joy in all circumstances; that joy was a keen awareness of God’s grace breaking in.

The Psalmist’s conviction was not a solo endeavor. He was encircled by the goodly heritage of God’s Word. Our ancestors of faith like the prophet Isaiah surrounded this wounded healer with the promise of Emmanuel “God Is With Us;” the Lord will bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim the Lord’s freedom and favor, comfort and provide for those who mourn, and give a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3).

The Lord God showed the Psalmist the path of life for it is illumined with the light of God’s promises. That path is not an easy one nor is it free of challenges, struggles, pain, or grief. It is the path of life because God is with us in all situations and even shares in our human struggles as revealed in the fullness of Jesus Christ. The life of the Christ Child is the light of all people (John 1:4).

As we anticipate his birth once again, it brings us great joy. Nothing compares to the wonders of Christ’s love and the glories of his righteousness. Because the Lord is ever before us, we shall not be moved. As we live into this great hope others take notice of that light shining within you and me. That true light which enlightens everyone is coming into the world.

As we enter into this third week of Advent, I want for you to think about your journey along the path of life. Consider the all the twists and turns that you have encountered along the way.

Where have you been hard pressed?
What situations at home, at school or work, and in the wider world hurt your heart?
What do you need to be freed from that is gripping your life?
Has grief come to visit you again leaving you a longing for comfort?

Yes, these are deep questions, but we do not answer them in a solo endeavor. Even as we are trying to find the words to articulate our own stories and name where we need God's grace, we are already fully known and fully understood by the Lord, for God is with us.

Take heart in the prophet’s promise. Be encouraged by the vulnerability of the wounded healer of the Psalms. And follow in John’s footsteps of shining the light of your truth about the wonders of Christ’s love and the glories of God’s grace breaking into your life and in the wider world.

As we live into God’s story that still changes the world, we find joy. True joy is not superficial happiness. It cannot be bought or self-generated. True joy is a gift that encircles us. And we need one another to find it.

Henri Nouwen says it this way:

People who have known the joy of God point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real Presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other's wounds, forgive each other's offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God's Glory. [3]

Listen in the silence. Listen in the noise. Listen for the Spirit’s voice of compassion.

From his fullness we have received grace upon grace (John 1:16).

May the joy of the Lord move you and me to share the light of God’s promises in Emmanuel.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1] Henri Nouwen, “The Inner Voice of Love” (New York: Random House, Inc., 1996), p. xiii.
[2] Henri Nouwen, “The Heart of Henri Nouwen” (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003).
[3] Henri Nouwen, “The Return of the Prodigal Son: The Story of Homecoming” (New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1992), p. 117.

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