We could take a little poll to see what percentage of us would appreciate more joy. All we would need to do is ask for a show of hands. I don’t think we have to. Joy is something most of us crave. Christians are led to expect it. In the beginning of Galatians 5—this is Paul’s description of the things the Spirit produces in our lives—we read that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,” and so on. There is joy coming in at number two.
In the last verse of Isaiah 12, a few chapters out from the Old Testament reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent we come across this: Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. Joy is a response to the presence of the Holy One in our midst. It’s the culmination of the thought that begins with the famous phrase, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” The shouting, the singing for joy at the presence of the Holy One—it’s the culmination of that. And then, of course, there is Luke 2. The angels are talking to the shepherds. Do you remember what they say? “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior . . . .” Did you catch that, “great joy”? We find ourselves in a mess that runs too deep for us to fix. So there is joy at the birth of a savior.
The quick and obvious conclusion is this: God’s presence in our world and God’s work in our lives should make us joyful. If the faith helps us live well, joy should be part of the deal. But saying it ‘should’ isn’t the same as saying it ‘does’.
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Let’s take a different angle. Some of you, just a few maybe, have been doing some shopping lately. Others of you will start on Wednesday. Some of you might have found your shopping list has taken you into a bookstore or caused you peruse the book section. If you have, you may well have noticed the profusion of memoirs.
The memoir is at least as old as Augustine’s Confessions but in the last 20 years these books have proliferated. I would be curious to know if there is a relationship between the growing popularity of these stories and the decline of sharing testimonies in church or simply telling each other stories around the dinner table. There is something about a true-life-tale that grabs us.
Mary Karr is one of the people behind the surge of volumes in this section of the book store. Her book Liar’s Club was immensely popular in the 1990s. I’d like to share a little of her story with you. I think it will help us think about this joy thing in a new way. The part of her story I want to share comes from her more-recent book Lit. Karr is a splendid story-teller. Check out here books if you want more.
Mary Karr grew up in an oil-refinery town in a swampy part of Texas. Her childhood was not what anyone would call happy. So as a teenager she decided to go to college in order to make a break. Part of what made Karr’s childhood so gothic was that her mother was an alcoholic who passed the addiction on to her daughter. Now, we must be fair, alcohol is but one way we humans sometimes try to deal with the chaos of our being vulnerable animals. Others of us are drawn to other things with similar detrimental effects: porn maybe or shopping or working too much. Anyway, as Karr and her mother make their way from Texas to her college in Iowa they get drunk in a hotel bar. Karr writes, “Mother patted my back as I threw up into the toilet. . . . I passed out sending prayers up at machine-gun speed, like a soldier in a foxhole to a god not believed in, Don’t let me be her, don’t let me be her. For however she’d pulled herself together for this trip, she could blow at any second” (31).
As you might guess, going to college is not particularly helpful to someone on the road to an alcohol addiction. Not particularly, though, as Karr tells it, there is one exception: a faculty member who makes it possible for her to begin seeing a therapist. This begins to drain the pockets of poison form her past. The problem for many of us, however, is that life doesn’t stand still. It throws new things our way just as we are coming to terms with our past. When Karr’s career is slow to start, when her marriage barely stammers along, and when she must assume most of the childcare responsibilities for a young son—she resorts again and again to alcohol. She gets to the point where a tumbler of whiskey doesn’t offer the warm numbness it once did; it only offers relief from the craving.
As you might expect, Karr’s pilgrimage toward sobriety goes through AA. It also goes through the temptation of suicide and through a stay in the hospital. But for her, the pilgrimage to sobriety is also a pilgrimage toward recognizing God’s presence. That part is difficult too.
Initially Karr can’t stand the idea of prayer. Getting on her knees and talking to the air molecules, is how she thinks about it. She’s never felt anything remotely mystical in her whole life. It’s a young doctor, herself a recovering addict, who convinces Karr that faith isn’t about having a set of mystical feelings. It’s about taking certain actions and grappling with the picture of God we all have in our heads.
Rather desperate, Karr does try to pray: “Higher power where the eff have you been?” (That’s my translation for a general audience.) She is enveloped by silence and a blanket of dread. Looking back, she identifies a deliberate refusal of God’s presence (220). What begins to change things is that she realizes that, like many of us, she has not paid attention to the many wonderful gifts in her life. They are opportunities for joy. We all have them. Karr has a son, which brings everyday pleasures, like tossing him into the pool. She also has the sort of job she would have only dreamed about as a teenager. How quickly our definition of success changes.
Karr’s prayers begin to lengthen. Prodded by a friend’s advice, she begins to thank God for things. She writes, “Enumerating these small things actually pierces me with a sliver of feeling fortunate” (224). Yet it isn’t until things get worse—I told you that she has to check herself into a hospital—that she recognizes she is unable to cope with life on her own. It’s only in that state that the urge to pray comes from inside.
Karr is in a shared hospital room when she feels as though she simply must communicate with God. With no privacy, she locks herself in the bathroom. She kneels and lets God have it—the rage and the frustration, childhood, marriage, career—she flings it all. And then she says, “I feel something stir within me, a small wisp of something in my chest, frail as smoke. It is—strangely—the sweetness of my love for my daddy and my son. It blesses me an instant like incense.” For them, she thanks God and that thanks evolves into a semblance of trust. She lets go of the need to figure everything out and she simply waits. Then she notices the fact that she is kneeling before a toilet. Karr writes, “How many drunken nights and slungover mornings did I worship at this altar, emptying myself of poison. And yet to pray to something above me, something invisible, had—before now—seemed so degrading” (277).
For Karr it is the spiritual life, with the moments of gratitude from which it is constituted, that allows her to rewrite the story of her life (304). And at first this isn’t a church thing. It isn’t until several years later that she goes to a church at all. Her son convinces her: he wants to see if God is there. In the church community Karr is drawn into the rich heritage of the saints and ancient spiritual masters. In particular she is drawn to Ignatius. She begins to see God’s presence in the world in new ways. When we can see God with us things light up. For Karr simply learning to pray in trust and in gratitude was the key.
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Just about any way we measure it, chronologically or politically, it’s a long way from Mary Karr’s story to that of King Ahaz. Unlike, Karr who is from Texas, Ahaz was from Judah. Karr was in charge of herself and eventually her son; Ahaz was in charge of a small country. Yet, I’m staking my sermon on a parallel, one that extends to us. Both Karr and Ahaz were worried that they couldn’t control their situation and both were given an opportunity to trust God.
The problem for Ahaz was that the armies of Israel and Aram (referred to as ‘Syria’ in some places) had joined forces against him. Isaiah showed up with son, this is the beginning of chapter 7, and said it would be alright. He told Ahaz that his people will not be wiped out. And then he delivered this great line in verse 9, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” We need to hear that twice, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”
Faith is trust. Faith is an acknowledgement of God. Faith is a recognition of the goodness of a power bigger than ourselves. And faith is the actions that come with this, sometimes before and sometimes after.
Faith is not attempting to control everything, to work every power lever within our grasp. Faith is confidence, yes, but it’s a confidence in things we can’t see and can’t quantify. So Ahaz was told that if he wanted to stand he must stand in faith. There is no other way. “Stand firm in faith or you will not stand at all.” And get this, in verse 10, where the reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent begins, God offered Ahaz a sign. It could have been anything. Anything to show that trust in God was not irrational lunacy.
But Ahaz refused. He feigned piety, saying that he didn’t believe in testing God. What he actually didn’t believe in is God. He didn’t want to take God up on the offer because he didn’t want to tread the hard road whose guiding lines are faith and trust.
Friends, we could stop with that, because this is life with God. It is a constant invitation to trust. I know some of you are going through difficult things. Let’s not miss this invitation to trust God. Do we need signs? Look at the lives around us, listen to the stories, read the memoirs. God gives us signs. Let us not be defined by unbelief.
Ahaz did not believe. In II Kings 16 we learn that he made an alliance with Assyria instead of trusting God. We often have other options too. There are usually shortcuts. Trusting God doesn’t mean we don’t do anything, but it does mean we keep our sense of things. Instead of trusting the all-powerful God, Ahaz put his trust in what looked most assuring: the king in command of the most chariots. But shortcuts like these always come at a cost. For Ahaz the cost was the treasure of Jerusalem. I can’t know what the cost is for each of us.
God gave Ahaz a sign anyway: the young woman will bear a child and he will be named ‘Immanuel’, which means ‘God with us.’ Now watch this, God promises this hopeful sign, while also promising judgment and change. God would use Assyria, the very empire in which Ahaz sought security, to humiliate Judah. The child would eat curds and honey because cultivated food will be impossible to find. God’s presence, it would seem, is not a blessing on the way things are. It changes the way things are.
Let’s close with this simple recognition: this is how it is. When God gets involved things don’t stay the same. We are called to give up old ways of coping and old ways dealing with others. This is the outworking of God’s presence among us. We exchange manipulation for trust. As Karr learned to pray and to see God with her she looked back over her life and noticed God’s hand was at work in surprising places. I trust that this is also true for each of us.
As we begin a new year I hope we take the time to look back and recognize that God has been with us. Unless we deliberately avoid it, God is present and at work. At this we are joyful.