Filling the God-Sized Hole = Joy

I want to start a movement.

I’d like to speak with whoever it was, whatever committee it was that decided that the third Sunday of Advent should be focused on joy. There’s something almost sadistic about holding back the emphasis on the one thing we need above all others, saving joy until the time that many of us are just about running on empty, until the “almost too late to do anything about it” moment. I’ll be honest. At the moment, when hope is threatened by cynicism that is fed by the reality that is unfolding in my world and in the world around me; when peace is nearly overcome by the complexity and urgency of the needs I see both in my family and in families all around us; it almost seems pointless to speak of joy, to consider the possibility of joy in the midst of so much anxiety, so much pain, so much hopelessness.

I’m thinking about starting a movement to Make Joy Sunday the First Sunday of Advent. I’d need to come up with some catchy slogan like: Joy, it’s not just for the third Sunday of Advent. Or: Joy: Just Do It. Or: Joy! a little dab will do ya. Or maybe: I’d walk a mile for Joy

I could start a Facebook fan page, maybe even get Oprah on board. Surely this is something the folks at MoveOn.org could get behind. Do you think we might try to get Senator Kyl or Senator McCain to work for a constitutional amendment? Listen, I’m not kidding. I really believe that if we don’t pay more attention to joy in our lives, in our world, we might as well hang it up. Because as good as all the social justice work we do, all the money we raise for ministry, all the houses we build, the food we give away, the homeless families we shelter, the Nicaraguan children we support, the compact fluorescent light bulbs we install, if we can’t connect to joy and help others find joy in their lives, we will continue pouring ourselves out, working way too hard, doing way too many things to still our anxiety over the state of our lives and in our world and very little will have changed.

That’s because we think the opposite of joy is something different than what it is. We think the opposite of joy is suffering or pain or grief or sadness. But what if the opposite of joy is nothing? What if the opposite of joy is emptiness? What if the opposite of joy is a void that no amount of ministry, no amount of money, no amount of frenzied shopping or family celebration can fill?

Yearning

There’s a yearning in each one of us. Can you feel it? There’s an emptiness, that cries out to be filled. And we try as hard as we can to satisfy that hunger, with the busyness of work and parenting and volunteering and friends, we still have this little voice, this whisper that says: I don’t feel full The emptiness is so vast, the power of anxiety so great that we feel driven to keep on keeping on. The moment we stop filling up the empty space, that craving for something, the yearning that cannot be denied reminds us of that emptiness, so we start up the doing all over again.

I believe that hunger for joy will never go away – not in our lifetimes – not ever. I believe this because I believe God made us this way – with a hole in our hearts that is shaped just about like God. Think about it. God’s design for creation includes creatures that experience thirst. What kind of God would make a world that didn’t include water? God’s creatures get hungry and behold! There is a bounteous feast of good food provided that is more than sufficient for all. The human beings God created to inhabit this planet have a built in desire to connect with another human being and voila! We have any number of human relationships provided to fill that void.

So if we follow that analogy: the hunger for joy is in us for a reason – God didn’t make a mistake when we were created with that yearning within us. It’s not some kind of ploy on the part of the Evil One to keep reminding us that we aren’t good enough, strong enough, healthy enough, hopeful enough. We feel empty, we yearn for joy because God created us with a God-sized hole in our lives. And both Mary and Zephaniah recognized that: Listen again to the reasons Mary gives for rejoicing (Luke 1:50-54): “God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” And when Zephaniah (3:18b-20) speaks God’s word we hear: “I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”

Those of you who love grammatical analysis will notice the plethora of active verbs and once you notice that, you can’t help but notice who is the “do-er” of the action. God shows strength, God scatters the proud. God brings down the powerful. God lifts up the lowly. God fills the hungry. God sends the rich away empty. God removes disaster from us so that we won’t have to bear it. God deals with oppressors. God saves the lame. God gathers the outcast. God changes shame into praise. God gathers us. God restores our fortunes. So where did that leave Mary, where did that leave Israel? Where does that leave us?

What if the prophets, Mary, Jesus, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther King Jr. got it right?

In his article in the Christian Century, John Ortberg, one of my favorite authors put it something like this: What if we tried to live as though Zephaniah and Mary, and people like Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi got it right? What if all things are going to be well, as Julian would say. What if the mountaintop dream of Martin Luther is coming true? What if all the visions and hopes of the prophets are even now in the process of being unfolded before us? What if Jesus knew this? And God has always known this.

If we could stop working so hard to heal our own pain, fix all our neighbors’ problems, answer all our world’s questions all on our own, if we could stop feeling the emptiness of failure when one more effort falls far short, when one more friend succumbs to a terminal illness, when one more self-help program or medication of the day fails to calm our deep anxiety, if we could just pause for a moment…keep silent for just a minute…hold body, mind and spirit in stillness, we might have a chance to grasp the invitation that is in the yearning we feel. We might have a God-blessed opportunity to see that the yearning we feel was put there by God’s own Spirit:

  • put there so that we would reach out for salvation from the one who knows us best,
  • put there so that we would turn toward the healing and wholeness that is found in the one who loves us when we struggle to love ourselves
  • put there so that we would have a continual reminder that we are an incomplete creation without the one who
    is gracious enough to make his mercy fit the shape of our yearning.
If we have any prayer at all, our prayer might be – Lord, help me stop trying so hard, so that my joy may be completed by you.

When we surrender our control over that yearning, over that empty space, when we acknowledge to ourselves and to our God that we cannot fill the void that is within us, then as Pastor Ennis put it, we might experience the kind of joy Karl Barth had in mind when he spoke of faith as being “in on God’s joke.” We can join God in this hilarious secret: God knows something we don’t. Like the clown at the circus who gets shot out of the cannon, or strolls casually into the lion’s cage, or gets hit over the head with a huge sledgehammer. Only the clown knows things are not as they appear. The clown knows she is safe all along, and so the clown can laugh because the clown is “in on the joke.” This is the joy Zephaniah described to Israel. A joy that came at exactly the right moment, and was exactly the right size to fit their God-shaped hole, even when they weren’t living as 100% obedient, 100% faithful servants of the Lord. This kind of joy is what Mary experienced. It came to her even when she knew something of the troubles that would come to her and to her son. That same joy that is waiting to fill our yearning right here, right now. 
Let us pray.

with inspiration from the following articles:
Ortberg, John. “Hungry for Joy.” The Christian Century (September 4, 2007)
Ennis, P.C. “Funeral Homily: Joy Defined by Trust.” Journal for Preachers (21 no. 2 Lent 1998, p 24-25.)
Photo by: Agnieszka Bialobrzeska from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/biala9

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