Several years ago the Los Angeles Times ran a story about an amazing man named Ruben. For 35 years, Ruben Pardo has driven and steered one of the last manual elevators in the city, located in an Art Deco office building on Wilshire Boulevard. His life is simple, some might even say mundane. In virtually every building in every city in America his job has been replaced by a rather simple computer and some buttons. But he still spends his day, six days a week, operating an elevator, riding up. And down. And up. And down. And up. And back down again. Doesn’t seem like much of a life. But his purpose is clear and his heart is full of joy and gratitude. Every day young, bright graphic designers, web branders, and search engine optimizers ride his beautifully ornate elevator to their loft offices. And every day, he greets them by name with cheer. While young employees come and go, he is a fixture in the building. One young tech company executive said, “He’s been in this elevator longer than I’ve been on the planet.”
The son of a shop owner, Ruben was born in Mexico City. When he was seven, his family moved to the States. Through hard work like painting garages, shoveling snow, and operating elevators like the one he still manages, he was able to support himself, and eventually, his wife. He works six days a week and rarely takes paid vacations. Every Sunday, he takes his wife to dinner as a gesture of gratitude. And he says, “[My wife and I] are happy.” While the young people in the office building move off to school, get married, and travel the world, Ruben remains steady and constant, doing the thing that he’s done for 35 years. “I love my small, little world,” he says. And yet here’s how Luis Zavala, a 33-year-old Web graphic designer, describes him: “It’s like a glass of fresh water every morning. I don’t know how he does it, but every day for him just seems to be a bright opportunity for something.”[i] All from inside the four walls of his elevator.
Wouldn’t you like to find joy like that? A joy that just spills over, filling the space wherever you find yourself? Have you known someone like that? Someone who just exuded joy? A joy that ran deeper than their circumstances? I mean, elevator operator is hardly on anyone’s list of dream jobs. Where can we find that kind of joy?
Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, is a season of preparation. Preparation for a celebration. The celebration of Christ’s birth. Not just Christmas as everyone knows it, with decorations and food and gifts. Those things are wonderful and we should decorate and feast and give gifts. In fact, I think extravagant gifts are ok. I mean, we’re celebrating the most extravagant gift ever given: Jesus, the Christ, “God with Us.” But Advent is a time to prepare our minds and our hearts, our intellects and our emotions, to celebrate the coming of Christ. You know, I think we’re so familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth that we, especially those of us who have been following Jesus for a long time, we miss the sense of awe and astonishment that the people who experienced it felt. And because we’re so culturally removed from the culture and customs of that time, we miss the radical thing God was doing in choosing Mary, in the angels’ announcement to the shepherds, even in the visit of the Magi. So Advent is a time for us to slow down and take a close look at everything that we miss because we’re so familiar with the story.
And THIS advent season, we’re looking at the four great themes of advent: hope, and peace, and joy, and love. Four gifts that belong to those who follow Christ not just now, during the Christmas season, but day after day, month after month, year after year. Three of the four Paul calls “fruit of the Spirit,” the direct result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. And today, we’re talking about joy.
When Mary, who has just found out that she has become pregnant with the Messiah, the Son of God, goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, who has been pregnant for about six months, the older and much larger unborn baby who would be named John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb leapt. He didn’t kick. He didn’t stretch. He leapt, crashing and careening into poor Elizabeth’s internal organs. The word for leaped means “skipping or leaping, like a young lamb in a pasture.” Those of you who have been pregnant, you remember your baby, as he or she grew, stretching and kicking and eventually sticking out in weird places, don’t you? But could you imagine your baby LEAPING inside you. And Elizabeth told Mary, “when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for JOY” (Lk. 1:44). Her baby, who would grow up to become John the Baptist, leapt for Joy inside of her when Mary approached with what would be the three to four-day old zygote Jesus in her own womb. He leapt for joy in the presence of Jesus. When the angels appeared to the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem announcing the birth of Jesus, they proclaimed “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great JOY that will be for all the people” (Lk. 2:10). Joy.
What is joy? What image pops into your mind when you think of joy? I was curious about what people think joy is, so I did what you do these days when you want to learn something, I Googled it. And because joy is one of those things that you can depict better than you can describe, I clicked images. And what came up was several hundred images of people doing this (show images). Hands raised, arms outstretched, jumping, free, unrestrained. Kind of has the feeling of “YAHOO” doesn’t it? Makes me think that we’ve kind of confused joy with happiness. The problem with happiness is that it depends on happenings. Happiness depends on circumstances. If you’re happy all the time, either there’s something wrong with you, or you’re on some really good medication. And by the way, I’d like to borrow some of it. Because it isn’t possible, or healthy, or even godly to be happy all of the time. A third of the Psalms are Psalms of Lament, pain, blues. We all feel pain. We all experience sadness. We can’t, and shouldn’t, be happy all the time.
If happiness, which is dependent on circumstances, dependent on happenings, is your goal, you’re in for quite a roller coaster ride trying to follow Jesus. But happiness is what we as human beings seem to be after. Ask someone what they hope for their lives, and they may tell you about the kind of job they hope to have, or the kind of house they hope to have, but what they’ll usually end with is, “I don’t know, I just want you to be happy.” Ask parents what their dreams for their children are and they’ll tell you, “We just want them to be healthy and happy.”
During the 2007-2008 NFL season, Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots, set the record for most touchdown passes in a regular season, paving the way for his winning the MVP award. By the age of 30, he had already won three Super Bowls, he has now won 4 – an accomplishment that sets him apart as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
In 2005, Tom Brady was interviewed on 60 Minutes. Despite the fame and career accomplishments he had achieved already, Brady told Kroft that it felt like something was still lacking in his life: “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what [it’s all about].’ I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me? I think, ‘It’s got to be more than this.’ I mean this isn’t – this can’t be – all it’s cracked up to be.” When pressed as to what the right answer was, he added: “What’s the answer? I wish I knew… I love playing football, and I love being quarterback for this team. But at the same time, I think there are a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find.”[ii] There’s a lot of young boys out there who at some point or another have wished they could be just like Tom Brady. There’s a lot of grown men out there who have wished they could be Tom Brady. There’s a lot of women out there who have wished that their husbands were Tom Brady. The looks. The athletic ability. The money. He gets to do something he loves. He’s got it all. But happy? Sometimes, I’m sure. All the time? No. He’s just like you and me. “There must be more.” Joy? Doesn’t sound like it, does it?
Dallas Willard has defined joy, as it’s spoken about by Jesus, as it’s spoken about in the Bible, as “a pervasive sense of well-being. A sense that all is well, even when enduring suffering and loss.” I’ve defined joy as “a quiet confidence that God is in control, regardless of what I am going through.” Doesn’t mean that I don’t have questions, that I don’t wonder why I have to go through the difficult times, the traumatic times, the sad times. But through it all, I know that God is in control. Sometimes, joy looks like this (show picture of sadness). Sometimes, it looks like determination (show picture). Sometimes it looks like confusion (show picture). Sometimes it looks like frustration (show picture), and the whole rest of the gamut of human emotions. Sometimes it looks like this (show finishing strong). And yes, sometimes it looks like this (show one of the jumping up and down pictures). Joy can look at all of these things, because joy is deeper than an emotion. It is a pervasive sense of well-being that comes from knowing that you are loved by God, forgiven in Christ, and that God is in control.
Now, it’s easy for any sermon to become another burden on the backs of the people of God. It would be possible for you to leave here today thinking, great, more evidence that God isn’t really real in my life, that I’m not following Jesus the right way, that my faith isn’t strong enough. I don’t have joy and I’ve got to go out there and find it. I hope you don’t do that, because you can’t. But we try. Pastor Tim Keller said, “If Jesus didn’t come, the story of Christmas is one more moral paradigm to crush you. If Jesus didn’t come, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere around these Christmas stories that say we need to be sacrificing, we need to be humble, we need to be loving. All that will do is crush you into the ground … [But] if Jesus Christ is actually God come in the flesh, you’re going to know much more about God … If Jesus is who he says he is, we have a 500-page autobiography from God, in a sense. And our understanding will be vastly more personal and specific than any philosophy or religion could give us. [Christmas give you the chance to] look at what God has done to get you to know him personally. If the Son would come all this way to become a real person to you, don’t you think the Holy Spirit will do anything in his power to make Jesus a real person to you in your heart? Christmas is an invitation by God: Look what I’ve done to come near to you. Now draw near to Me. I don’t want to be a concept; I want to be a friend.”
So let me let you in on something … are you ready for this? Listen closely. You’ve already got it. You’ve already got joy. And hope. And peace. And love. You’ve already got it. Don’t let Satan tell you otherwise. If you have placed your faith in Jesus, if you have believed in your heart and declared with your mouth that God raised him from the dead, I’ve got news for you … you belong to him. You’re following Jesus. And these things are yours. Now. They have been. But our joy dissipates when we look back at our sin and our failures. It shrinks when we focus on what might happen to us in the future. It’s minimized when we turn our focus inward on our faults and our struggles, the things no one else can see. But it grows when we look at Jesus.[iii] When we see our faces reflected in his joyful gaze. As we grow in our knowledge of AND EXPERIENCE OF his love, our joy grows.
Imagine an eight-year-old boy playing with a toy truck and then it breaks. He is disconsolate and cries out to his parents to fix it. Yet as he’s crying, his father says to him, “A distant relative you’ve never met has just died and left you one hundred million dollars.” What will the child’s reaction be? He will just cry louder until his truck is fixed. He does not have enough cognitive capacity to realize his true condition and be consoled. In the same way, followers of Jesus lack the spiritual capacity to realize all we have in Jesus. This is the reason Paul prays that God would give Christians the spiritual ability to grasp the height, depth, breadth, and length of Christ’s salvation. To the Romans Paul wrote, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rm. 14:17). And it is the desire of Jesus that his joy live in us and fill us. He said “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (Jn. 15:11). Full. Stuffed. No room for more. The first fruit, the first product of the Holy Spirit’s presence in and work in your life is love. And the second, is joy.
One of my favorite writers is Brennan Manning. His most popular book is probably “The Ragamuffin Gospel.” In another one of his books, “The Wisdom of Tenderness,” he tells this story: “Several years ago, Edward Farrell of Detroit took his two-week vacation to Ireland to celebrate his favorite uncle’s 80th birthday. On the morning of the great day, Ed and his uncle got up before dawn, dressed in silence, and went for a walk along the shores of Lake Killarney. Just as the sun rose, his uncle turned and stared straight at the rising orb. Ed stood beside him for 20 minutes with not a single word exchanged. Then the elderly uncle began to skip along the shoreline, a radiant smile on his face.” After catching up with him, Ed commented, “Uncle Seamus, you look very happy. Do you want to tell my why?” “Yes, lad,” the old man said, tears washing down his face. “You see, the Father is fond of me. Ah, me Father is so very fond of me.”[iv] That is a man who knows joy.
Joy. Not always happiness. Joy. It is the desire of Jesus that “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Paul said that the kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, that joy is one of the gifts the Holy Spirit bestows on everyone in whom Christ dwells, and that the key to joy is to grasp, to really understand, the height, the depths, the breadth, and the length of the salvation we have in Christ. That is our source of joy. And the joy that springs from it is something that no person, no circumstance, no trauma and no tragedy can steal from you. The next time you look at a nativity, here in this church, or in your home, or in a friend’s home, or in a store somewhere, gaze on the babe in a manger. And then allow your imagination to take you from the cradle to the cross. It is my prayer that as you do, you will begin to understand just how deeply God loves you. For that is the source of joy that will never run dry. Be blessed and filled this Advent season my friends, for you are loved.
[i] Nita Lelyveld, “Elevator operator’s overriding story: joy.” Los Angeles Times (10-15-11)
[ii] www.cbsnews.com and 60 Minutes (CBS, 2007)
[iii] I am indebted to Dallas Willard’s discussion of Joy in “The Spirit of the Disciplines for this material”
[iv] Brennan Manning, The Wisdom of Tenderness (Harper San Francisco, 2002), pp. 25-26