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Advent Change: Sing for Joy

December 15, 2019 Sermon
Advent Change:
Sing for Joy

Scripture Reading:  Isaiah 52:7-9

7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.

9 Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.

Message – “Advent Change: Sing for Joy”

Have you ever wondered what it would look like, be like, feel like to REALLY have something to complain about?

Maybe some of you don’t have to wonder, don’t have to imagine:

  • Maybe you’ve experienced times when you legitimately didn’t know when or from where your next meal would come;
  • Maybe you’ve had to sleep on the street or in your car for an extended period of time;
  • Maybe you were falsely imprisoned…or faced the prospect of serious punishment for something you did not do;
  • Maybe your health was critical; you faced death;
  • Maybe someone you loved very deeply passed away;

Have you ever wondered what it would look like, be like, feel like to REALLY have something to complain about?

Every time I hear folks, especially Christian folks, church folks, complain about certain kinds of things:

  • We haven’t sung their favorite song in worship for a while;
  • The communion wafers are getting a little stale;
  • Someone slighted them by talking to them for 2-½ minutes instead of 3 minutes last Sunday;
  • The grocery store temporarily – like for one day – ran out of their favorite food;
  • Their favorite television show was preempted by a special event one night;
  • It’s rerun season;
  • Their favorite sports team hasn’t won in a while;

Every time I hear folks complain about certain kinds of things, I wonder whether or not they understand what it would be like to REALLY have something to complain about.

Y’all, God’s ancient people, in the time of the writing of our scripture reading from Isaiah and for close to 50 years prior, they REALLY had some things to complain about:

  • Their parents’ generation had been overtaken by their enemies, the Babylonians, and removed to a foreign land.  It would be like if an enemy of the United States, say Russia, overtook the United States and carried us all away to Russian.  Imagine being surrounded by foreign people who speak a foreign language and have completely foreign customs and culture to your own.
  •  As if that predicament weren’t enough, the religion, the faith of God’s ancient people made it pretty clear that the only way Babylon could have done what Babylon did is if God had abandoned God’s people.
  • But it gets worse.  Psalms like Psalm 137, written by God’s people in exile, reveal how God’s people were treated by those Babylonians.  They were derided, ridiculed, mocked. The Babylonians taunted the Israelites for their faith in a God who lost.

So, there God’s people were, far away from home, amidst strangers who spoke a strange language and practiced strange customs, amidst strangers who mocked and ridiculed them, and their only potential hope for returning to something akin to a normal life rested in a God who had either abandoned them or who, according to the Babylonians, was powerless to help them.

Y’all, I would submit that God’s ancient people who found themselves in Babylonian exile, they REALLY had something to complain about.  And yet, what did God encourage the “ruins of Jerusalem” to do? “Sing for joy!” Sing for joy for what God will do next. Sing for joy for what God will do in about 540 years; the people of Isaiah’s time didn’t know it would take 540 years, but they sang for joy…anyway.

My friends, today is the final message in our sermon series entitled “Advent Change”; it’s our final time to consider together how God calls us to CHANGE as a result of our knowing that God sent Jesus into this world.  And today, we consider one final life-changing response to Christmas that we should all adopt this year: singing for joy.

No…I don’t mean literally singing; although, literally singing – like a group of us will be doing later today when we sing Christmas carols to some folks who very badly need to hear Christmas carols – literally singing can be part of what it means to sing for joy.  However, what I’m talking about is a state of mind, a way of thinking, and especially a way of vocalizing…whether your words be spoken or sung. What I’m trying to say is, even if you can’t carry a tune, even if you have no voice at all and cannot speak, you can still adopt this Advent change of singing for joy.

Because it’s all about attitude.  It’s all about looking at your life through the lens of what God has done and is doing instead of looking through the lens of all the things you can find that are wrong.  It’s a mental and emotional “breaking into song”.

We can learn quite a bit from God’s command through the prophet to “break into singing”; for today, I’ll focus on two key learnings.

The first key learning is that the command applies REGARDLESS of your circumstance.

Remember what I said a while ago: the circumstance of the people to whom God spoke through Isaiah was NOT good.  It was most definitely worse than just about anything we face in our time today.

  • Maybe you don’t like what’s going on in politics, don’t like the president or the congress or something about the judicial branch is torquing you off.  
  • Maybe you’re tired of the divisiveness within our nation.
  • Maybe you don’t have the resources to go on the extravagant vacations you hear about from some of your friends;
  • Maybe you can’t afford the finest foods or the most luxurious accommodations;
  • Maybe someone looked at you this morning in a way that you deem peculiar or just wrong;
  • Maybe you don’t get your way about every single thing but sometimes someone else gets their way;

Folks…in terms of general circumstance – meaning the circumstance of us overall as a society, as a people…we’ve got it way better than those ancient Israelites who were exiled in Babylon.  Could we be more prosperous than we are? Sure. Could we have more freedoms than we do? Sure. But, in general terms, compared to them, we’ve got it pretty good. And God told THEM to sing for joy…as a result of something God would be doing 500+ years in their future…as a result of something God has ALREADY done almost 2,000 years in our past.  If God told THEM to sing for joy in their circumstance, don’t you think God is telling us the same? Don’t you think God is wondering how it’s even POSSIBLE that we can’t see how much we should be singing for joy since we KNOW that God has sent God’s Messiah?

And this general circumstance stuff, it applies personally, as well.  God told the ancient Israelites to sing for joy amidst TERRIBLE circumstance.  So…even if YOUR specific circumstance seems pretty bad, I’m quite confident God would stand before you and tell you to sing for joy…for what God has done.  Sure, God gives you the space to grieve and mourn when appropriate, but God STILL, ALSO, tells you to sing for joy.

Which brings me to the second key learning…which is all about WHY.

The why is multifold.  The first part of the why can be gleaned quite clearly from our reading…well, the context of our reading.  These verses from Isaiah 52 conclude 12 chapters of God providing the why. In the midst of their terrible circumstance, God tells Israel to sing for joy because:

  • God loves them;
  • God is with them and will be with them forever;
  • God forgives them;
  • God seeks to comfort them;
  • God WILL do something amazing for them in the future.

Don’t all of these reasons apply to us?  Even if, even when, it feels like the circumstances of life stink, if we simply look up above our present circumstance and place our gaze, our thoughts, upon God and God’s love, place our gaze and our thoughts upon Christmas and Jesus, we will find reason to sing.  God loves us and cares for us so much God sent God’s son to show us the best way to live and even to bring eternal peace between us and God. Isn’t that reason enough to sing for joy…no matter what else is going on?

And the second part of the why is not so clearly defined in what God said through Isaiah, but it is implied, and it’s most certainly confirmed through modern psychological science.  There is POWER in singing for joy.

Last week, I shared with you what psychological scientists have begun to learn about the power of forgiveness.  Today, I’ll share with you a bit about the power of positive thinking, the power of “singing for joy”.

The author of an article I read about the “science of positive thinking” (James Clear, Huffington Post, July 10, 2013), suggested what most people likely think when they hear the phrase, “the power of positive thinking”: “Positive thinking sounds useful on the surface… But ‘positive thinking’ is also a soft and fluffy term that is easy to dismiss.”

The author goes on to say that those views of positive thinking as a soft and fluffy thing are beginning to change, a change fueled by scientific research.

In fact, research suggests all kinds of benefits from positive thinking, positive attitude, singing for joy.  Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, published a paper in which she performed a test that revealed the source of the benefits, benefits that last for a very long time.  In her work, Frederickson discovered that positive feelings help a person envision more possibilities in life and in any given situation, which leads to development of more tools to help a person deal with all kinds of situations.   With this understanding, it becomes clear that the benefits of positive thinking expand exponentially. “Frederickson refers to this as the ‘broaden and build’ theory because positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life.”

By the way, if you’re thinking that negative thoughts ALSO help you develop tools for dealing with all kinds of situations, science has proven that to be FALSE.  Frederickson’s study suggests negative feelings lead to a very narrow range of tools, like attacking or fleeing. The tools that result from positive emotions are exponentially greater…and they keep expanding throughout life.

Oh…and there’s another way that positive emotions, singing for joy, is scientifically proven to produce greater abundance in life.

There’s a relationship between happiness or contentment and success.  I imagine most of us would agree with this…and it is scientific fact.  However, most people would very likely also suggest that the relationship works like this: success leads to happiness. As it turns out, that’s not entirely the case. Likely the result of what Frederickson described in her broaden and build theory, the opposite is also true: happiness proves to lead to success…because happiness is essential to building the tools that lead to success.

So…if you accept that singing for joy is a much superior way to live, that positive thinking and living out of positive emotions is better, what can you do?

The author of the article about the science of positive thinking provided three suggestions; I’ll modify them for Christian living.  And they won’t surprise you at all.

Number 1: Pray…but not just any kind of prayer…focus on prayers of praise and thanksgiving.  I hope you know that praying out of negative emotions won’t help you much in this regard.  If you spend you’re time in prayer predominantly complaining to God or asking God to smite or otherwise impair people you don’t like, you’ll take that negativity with you out into the rest of the world.  And while I’m not suggesting you should never pray out of negative thoughts, I will suggest that most negative prayers are self-focused, which means they hardly qualify as prayer…which should be God-focused.  Y’all, the best way to move from negative emotions to positive emotions is to spend more time in prayer with the author of all good things, spending that time in prayer to focus on GOD…not yourself, not the people you don’t like, not the horrible stuff that’s happening to you or around you.  Focus your prayers on God. The more time you spend focusing on God, who is all-loving, all-forgiving, and all-comforting…and the more time you spend in prayer giving thanks to God for God’s goodness, the more positive will be your outlook on life.  

Number 2:  Sing, even write, songs of praise.  Our hymnal is absolutely full of songs of praise.  And if you don’t feel like singing is your thing, say the words.  And if you get tired of the songs in the hymnal, read the Psalms of praise in the scriptures.  Even read the joyful responses of people in the Christmas story that have been the focus of our Advent Wreath readings this year: the songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon.  Ya’ll, the Bible is full of songs of praise you can read to help you take a more positive outlook on life.

And if you run out of stuff to sing or say, write your own. A study published in The Journal of Research in Personality examined 90 people who were split into two groups.  The first group was instructed to write about an intensely positive experience for three consecutive days.  The second group wrote about a control topic. Three months later, the two groups were evaluated…and the group of people who wrote about positive experiences three months earlier were found to have better moods, fewer illnesses, and better overall health!  Y’all, writing down positive stuff can even improve your health! So sing, say, or write songs of praise!

Number 3:  Intentionally STOP Complaining.  That’s right: studies suggest complaining does more than just bring you down in the moment; it rewires your brain toward negativity, which means it prevents you from singing for joy more of the time.  Now…I get it that there are sometimes legitimate things to complain about. When you find those things, engage in what is called “solution-oriented-complaining”. What this means is only complain when you can do so specifically, not generally, have a purposeful solution in mind that you can work toward, and end on a positive…like what you will work toward making happen that is better, that is good, that is positive.  Solution-oriented complaining leads to the end of the reason to complain…which means it helps lead to reasons for you to sing for joy.

My friends, this time of year it’s pretty easy for us to remember to sing for joy.  It’s Christmastime, and we remember that God sent us the greatest gift EVER!  Which gets me thinking: focus for a few moments on how you feel when you sing the songs of Christmas.  Doesn’t it bring you joy, peace, to sing songs like “Silent Night”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, “Angels We Have Heard on High”, “Joy to the World”? Y’all, the joy, the contentment, we feel when we focus on the positive, the wonderful thing God was doing that we remember this time of year, the joy and contentment don’t need to be confined to this season.  But, if we want the benefits of singing for joy ALL…THE…TIME, we’ve got to figure out ways to sing for joy throughout the year. So…we can, we should, take the momentum of the Christmas season and carry it forward by establishing regular patterns that will help us sing for joy as God intends…and live the most abundant, contented, lives possible.

 Amen.