December 16, 2018

THE ECONOMICS OF JOY

Third Sunday of Advent

BIBLE READINGS
Luke 3:7-18
Philippians 4:4-7
Zephaniah 3:14-20

REFLECTION

In our Advent study, we heard a story about a Bishop’s son who was obsessed with a toy. He was only five years old and he really wanted a red toy truck for his Christmas. So, he told his parents about the toy. He pointed it out to them at the shop. He showed them its picture in the catalogue. He wrote to Santa about it and told Santa in person about the toy at a shopping center. He even prayed about it.

Finally, on Christmas morning, his wish came true. Under the Christmas tree, he found the red toy truck that he had been dreaming about. His dream was now a reality.

There were other presents for him, but he ignored them all. He finally had what he always wanted. He was overjoyed. No doubt, in his mind, that must have been the best Christmas morning ever! 

But then, not long after dinner, the Bishop heard a loud cry. The boy came to him with the red toy truck on one hand and its wheels on his other hand. He then said to his father, “Daddy, my Christmas is broken already!”[1]

I think we can be like that five-year-old boy. How many times do we think that our joy this Christmas will come from our possession of material things? How many times we think like the boy, “If only I have that one thing in my life, my Christmas will be perfect”? We may not be obsessed with a toy, but what about that new car, television, boat, or even that new relationship? 

But, we all know how fleeting the feeling of joy that we get from material thing is. The poet, Robert Burns, captured this reality in his beautiful poem. He said,

“... pleasures are like poppies spread-
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river-
A moment white, then melts forever.”[2]

 That’s why Jesus once warned us. He said, “For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.” [3] The author of our Advent Study book then gives us this wisdom:

 “Don’t get your heart too set on material things. Material things aren’t   permanent ...
Material things are nice, but don’t get too attached to  them.”[4]

If we think that we can find joy in material things, then we will be disappointed like the Bishop’s son.

But where else can we find joy this Christmas, especially the everlasting joy that we all covet? How can we be joyful this Christmas when someone that we love is terminally dying? How can we be joyful when we have just been made redundant from our long-time job? How can we be joyful when our body is severely limited by an illness or a disability? Where can we find the everlasting joy that can’t be broken like the red toy truck?

Perhaps, joy becomes so elusive in our life because we are looking for it in the wrong place. Perhaps, the mistake lies in the way we understand what joy actually is. Perhaps, we make the mistake because we often see joy as something to have rather than something to give. Perhaps, we will find everlasting joy not by looking for it, but by giving it away to others.

At least that is what I hear from all of our readings today.

When the tax collectors and soldiers asked John the Baptist what they needed to do to be saved, his answer was simple. He asked them not to abuse the authority given to them. They were officials of the Roman Empire and their role was to serve the Empire. But, they were also servants of the citizens of the Empire. As such, they must not do anything that brought suffering to other people. Their salvation depended directly to the way they conducted themselves in relation to those they served. 

Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us more clarity on the issue. Through his letter, he invited the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always. He didn’t ask them to rejoice only in good times. No. He asked them to be joyful regardless of the situation they were in.

Paul then related this joy, the joy that was everlasting, to the way the Philippians related to one another. He asked them to be gentle to one another.

In New Testament Greek, gentleness was not about being meek or mild like in English. In New Testament Greek, gentleness was about tolerance. It was about how we behave towards other people. It was about how we choose to use power in relation to others.[5] To be gentle, then, is to use our power/authority to bring out the best in other people’s life. Only when we do this that we can always rejoice in the Lord. 

God is our prime example, as we hear it today from the mouth of the prophet Zephaniah. God found joy by removing disasters from Israel. God found joy by freeing Israel from their oppressors. God found joy by saving the lame and gathering the outcast in their midst. God found joy by transforming their shame into praise. God found joy by bringing them home. God found joy by restoring their fortune. 

The image that comes into my mind when I hear this passage from Zephaniah is the image of a wedding. I imagine God as a proud father who sees his daughter as a bride on her wedding day. I imagine tears welling up in God’s eyes when he sees his child, grown up, ready to create her own family. I imagine that God is looking back to those years of caring for his child from an infant into an adult; to those dirty nappies he had to change; to those sleepless nights when he had to stay awake to care for his sick child; to those money he had to spend to make sure that his child had the best education and the best chance in life; to those job opportunities he had to let go to have more time with his child; to those moments when he had to swallow his pride to forgive his child.

But, God doesn’t mind any of those. For an outsider, they look like a burden to him. But not for God. For him, every sacrifice that he makes for his child, Israel, brings joy into his life. And the more sacrifices he makes for his child, the more joyful he is.

This is one of life’s greatest paradoxes: the more we make other people joyful, the more joyful we’ll become.

Today, through the mouth of his prophet, Zephaniah, God also wants us to learn about this paradox. To find joy, everlasting joy, the joy that can’t be broken, we have to first learn to create joy in others.

A couple of weeks ago, Abia, Rita, and I joined the Christmas pageant in Mandurah foreshore. We wore our traditional Indonesian dresses and walked through the streets of Mandurah to greet the crowd.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to do. Other participants seemed to have practised their routines beforehand. We, on the other hand, were only there because our friend asked us to.

What broke the ice for me was the children who were lining the streets. They gave their hands out, wanting us to touch their hands or to give them ‘high fives’. And every time I did that, they would beam with joy.

That’s when it dawned on me: I was there to give these people joy. So, I began to loosen up. (By the way, my wife had already loosened up from the start, blowing bubbles and greeting the crowd). I was a bit late, but I finally caught up. We greeted the crowd, waving and saying Merry Christmas to them with a smile. We interacted and being playful with the crowd and they enjoyed it. They responded positively, greeting and waving back at us, saying, “Merry Christmas!”. They especially enjoyed Abia who was doing his own full-scale charm offensive to the crowd.

We finished the pageant exhausted and hungry. It was a cold and windy night. Our traditional dresses did not provide much cover to our bodies (they are made for tropical conditions). We also had to walk a long distance from where we parked to the place where the pageant started and back.

At the end of the pageant, our bodies said, “Enough!”, but our hearts shouted, “More!” That was one of the best nights we ever had during the Christmas season. Our hearts were filled with joy.

And that joy came because we spread joy to other people. This is the economics of joy: the more joy we give, the more joy we receive. As we created joy in others, they filled our hearts with joy in return.

Friends, the world often tells us that joy is a commodity that we can purchase if necessary. There so many advertisements today, trying to lure us to buy more and more things for Christmas. Children are especially susceptible. And these advertisements were created to make us feel as if we could only be joyful by buying their products.

But joy is found not by looking for it or buying it or owning it. Joy is found by giving it away. Joy is created in our life when we create it for other people first. And the more we create joy in on other people’s life, the more joy we will find in our life.

Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] In James W. Moore, Christmas Gifts that Won’t Break, Nashville: Abingdon Press.

[2] In James W. Moore, Christmas Gifts that Won’t Break, Nashville: Abingdon Press.

[3] Matthew 6:21 (New Revised Standard Version).

[4] In James W. Moore, Christmas Gifts that Won’t Break, Nashville: Abingdon Press.

[5] Holly Hearon, Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7, on www.workingpreacher.org (December 16, 2018).