Happiness Is Overrated
Text: Philippians 4:4-7
As a little boy was getting ready to head off to church one Sunday morning, his mother handed him a couple dollars to put in the collection plate. But as the little boy made his way to church, he decided to stop off and spend some of that money on some candy. When he arrived at the church, he figured that he would hide the candy that he hadn't eaten yet by shoving it into his pocket. The worship service then started, and everything was going along smoothly, until at one point in the sermon, the minister began to say: "God is everywhere! God is everywhere!" When the little boy heard that, he got a nervous look on his face, and quietly he said to himself: "I sure hope God isn't in my pocket, eating my candy."
The theme for this third Sunday of Advent is that because God is everywhere, we should rejoice. And so this day in the church year is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday, because Gaudete is the Latin word for "rejoice." You see, during the other weeks of Advent, we light the purple candles in the Advent wreath. And in the church, purple is a serious, somber color. It's a color that's meant to remind us that we should take a look at ourselves and make the changes that need to be made. And purple is the same color that we use during Lent, during the six weeks before Easter, when we are also encouraged to do some self-examination. But today, instead of lighting a purple candle, we lit a pink candle. Because pink is a symbol of joy.
But it seems that joy is something that we are not as acquainted with as we should be. For example, researchers have found that a five-year-old child smiles an average of 113 times each day. But adults, by the time they reach age 40, smile only about 11 times a day.
But we need to be clear about something. And that is that when we talk about joy, we're not talking about some feeling, some emotion. When we're talking about joy, we're not talking about happiness. But the reality is that happiness is what most people are looking for in life. After all, the Declaration of Independence says that we all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But the problem with happiness is that since it is just an emotion, it's temporary. The problem is that you can be happy one moment, but then when things change, you can be sad the next. Just like when snow falls, at first it can all be very wonderful and beautiful to see everything covered in white. But before you know it, that beautiful white turns into mounds of dirty gray slush.
Or at this time of year, you often hear people say how it would be so good if we could just take the happy feeling that we have at Christmas time, and keep that feeling the whole year round. But the problem is that that's just not possible. Because happiness is a feeling. And feelings come and go. That's what feelings do. But the good news for us is that God offers us something more than just good feelings. God offers us something more than just happiness. Because what God offers is what we call joy.
And what joy is is the firm knowledge that God is near. As our reading today from the letter to Philippians says to us, joy means that we don't have to worry about anything. Because no matter how bad the circumstances may seem, we can know that we are in God's hands. And the great heroes of the faith across the ages have shown us that what's most important is not trying to be happy all the time. No, what's most important is having joy, knowing that we have a God who can be trusted no matter what's going on in our lives.
For instance, the passage we listened to this morning was written by the Apostle Paul. And as Paul was writing these words, he was writing them from a prison cell, where he was being jailed because of his faith. But even though he was shackled in chains in some cold, dark cell, he was still able to say: Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say Rejoice. You see, Paul was able to say that, because despite how bad his circumstances were, he knew that he was in God's hands. And he knew that even in that prison cell, God was using him to do God's work. Because we discover in the Bible that the soldiers who guarded Paul were amazed at how his faith was able to sustain him. And because of his example, Paul was able to show those soldiers that joy that could be theirs as well if they allowed Jesus Christ to be their Lord.
Or in this century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer also sat in a prison cell. Bonhoeffer was a Christian leader in Germany at the time when the Nazis came to power. But in one of his letters to his fiancé that he wrote from prison, Bonhoeffer said: "Don't worry about whether I'm happy here. Because happiness always depends on the circumstances. I have joy. And that is something inside that no one can take away."
Or do you figure that Mother Teresa was happy, spending year after year picking up sick and dying people off the streets of Calcutta? No, that's not the kind of work that makes you feel happy at the end of the day. But there's no doubt that she had a sense of joy, knowing that even in the midst of all that misery, God was at work through her.
Or in front of the state capitol building in Hawaii is a statue of Father Damien. He was a Catholic priest who spent 25 years serving a leper colony on the island of Molokai. He not only labored there as their priest, but also as their counselor, their physician, and their undertaker. In 1885, Father Damien himself contracted leprosy, a disease that he died from four years later. But some today look at that statue of Father Damien and think that it's just too ugly to be in such a prominent place in front of the state capitol. Because the statue shows Father Damien in his later years, when his skin began to get disfigured due to the disease. But the artist who made that statue defends it, saying that Father Damien never felt sad about what happened to him. No, he had become what he wanted to become. And so even as his body began to wither away, Father Damien had a sense of joy, knowing that he had served God in that place.
Or in the African country of Sudan, you find a place that is worse than probably your most horrifying nightmare. A land of starvation and disease and never-ending warfare. A land where 90% of the people are refugees, people who have no permanent place to call home. Yet in the midst of all that agony, there are 450,000 Presbyterians in the Sudan. And each year the church there has been growing at a rate of 15-20%, making it one of the fastest growing churches in all the world. The people in the Sudan don't have many reasons to be happy. But they do have a reason to rejoice. Because they are discovering that amid all of that hardship, that they have a God who can be trusted, a God who will see them through.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say Rejoice. Most of the people in the world spend their lives trying to make themselves happy. But it's a losing battle. There's nothing wrong with enjoying happiness when it comes. But just remember that happiness is a feeling - it comes, and it goes. But joy is something that lasts forever. Joy is knowing that we don't have to be afraid. That our God is always with us, every step of the way.
C. Edward Bowen
Crafton United Presbyterian Church