What is joy?  So many of us seem to confuse joy with happiness.  Being happy isn’t a bad thing; however, we all have had times in our lives when happiness was absent.  Yet, even in those times of unhappiness, joy can still be present.  Joy is a kingdom value and a kingdom goal.  It is much deeper than happiness because it originates in relationship to God.

This third Sunday of Advent, we light the pink or “rose” candle on our Advent wreath.  Some churches even have vestments and altar hangings that are rose colored for this Sunday to signify the joy that we have as the beloved people of God, even in the midst of a season meant for repentance.

How do we recognize this joy?  Some days it’s easier than others.  Also I know that I have a harder time recognizing joy when things don’t seem to be going well.  Even though I know joy and happiness are different, it’s hard to believe in joy without feelings of happiness.  And perhaps that is part of the key to understanding the difference.  Happiness is based on our emotions and I think, mostly experiences that are external and dependent on things outside ourselves.

Joy, on the other hand, is more internally focused.  It can be present even when external circumstances aren’t happy or fulfilling.  It comes from our knowledge that we are loved by God and are in relationship with God.  It is a gift that doesn’t depend on us or on others; however, there are some things we should probably be doing so that we are aware of that loving relationship with God.  

Paul talks this morning about some of this.  One of the most important things he mentions is praying without ceasing.  When I first heard of that concept I admit to being a bit taken aback by it.  How does one pray without ceasing?  Well, it’s one of the things that we do as we prepare and wait for Jesus’ kingdom to be fully manifest on earth.  Does it mean we are always praying?  I think that’s both a yes and a no.  Certainly, as people of faith, we have to engage in prayer.  It’s essential to help us know God and to know God’s world and our place in it.  I think when we pray without ceasing, we have about us an attitude of prayer; we fill some of the empty spots in our day with prayer; we are constantly aware of the Holy Spirit in and around us; we get out of the way of the Spirit praying within us; we soak our lives in prayer so that everything we do, even if we aren’t “praying” at a particular moment, is infused with our prayers.  It’s a state of being in the world where we are aware of being intimately connected to Jesus through the Holy Spirit.  Praying without ceasing helps us to realize our dependence upon God for our very being.  I’d like to think when we have this way of being that we are constantly learning about God, about ourselves, and about our neighbor, so that we might more fully love and serve in the world.  Our joy comes to us through that knowledge.  

Gratitude is something else that Paul mentions.  If you go to amazon or pretty much any bookstore, especially a Christian book store you can find shelves of gratitude journals.  I have to say that over the years I have not been someone who has held much stock in the practice of gratitude every day.  That’s because I tend to be a bit cynical about most things that you can purchase that claim to help the spiritual life. But… if I go back to basics, back to where I first began to learn about the spiritual life, giving thanks was something that I needed to do and I needed to do it daily.  And, just like praying without ceasing, gratitude has less to do with my ability to affect my circumstances and everything about my relationship to Jesus.  It is there that I find my reasons to be grateful; it is there where I am challenged to become the person Jesus has asked me to become.  It is in that relationship where I learn what it is I need to be grateful for.  And, like other places where we experience joy, gratitude is something that we do despite some of the exterior situations we find ourselves in.

We are beginning to turn our thoughts toward Bethlehem; we have begun with Mary’s song of joy that tells of a God who is faithful, it’s a story of a God who does not act in the world as people think God should; and, Mary has taken her place in God’s story; her life is a study for us in prayer and gratitude.  As we begin to walk toward Bethlehem  to see the greatest gift given to us, may each footstep bring our hearts and minds closer to Jesus and closer to each other.  May we know what it means to truly pray without ceasing.  May we give thanks each and every day for the promises of God given to us in this child’s birth that we wait for in urgent anticipation; and yes, maybe we might even use a gratitude journal to do it.  However we do it,  I pray that we do it each and every day.  Let us make time each day this week to pray and to give thanks to God for the greatest gift of all; Emmanuel, God with us.  Come. Lord Jesus.