“Changed Hearts” Colchester Federated Church, December 16, 2018, Third Sunday of Advent (Luke 3:7-18)
One of the most thoughtful movies that premiered a few years ago is Pixar’s Inside Out. It tells the story of Riley—a happy, hockey-loving Midwestern girl from Minnesota whose world gets turned upside down when her family moves across the country to San Francisco for her father to begin a new business. Riley’s emotions (Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness) guide her on this journey of adjusting to life in San Francisco and all the changes this transition brings. The emotions live in Headquarters (the control center inside her mind) and advise Riley on her words and actions. Though the emotions conflict over how to handle the changes because it ends up that our emotions aren’t always simple. It’s even possible to feel the joy of a new adventure and the sadness of leaving behind people that we love to begin that new adventure. People can have a complexity of emotions, and Pixar has a remarkable way of conveying this reality that affects everybody.
It’s commonly accepted that people only have six emotions we’re capable of feeling. Take a moment to consider how you feel right now. Tired is not an emotion just in case that’s your first thought. Psychologists would say that we can feel: happy, sad, surprised, afraid, disgusted, or angry. It’s fascinating that our range of emotions isn’t as expansive as we may assume. In my hospital chaplain days, we had to identify our feelings using only four emotions: glad, sad, bad, or mad. Those were our choices—and we were expected as chaplains to identify how we felt before and after every interaction with patients. Glad, sad, bad, or mad—and ask ourselves why do we feel this way?
If we had to identify John the Baptist’s emotional state as we just heard in the Gospel of Luke it would probably be mad. I don’t know about you, but I don’t typically call people “broods of vipers” when I’m feeling glad. Though John was legitimately mad—people were being terrible to each other and life under Roman occupation was difficult enough without people making each other’s lives even worse. He’s out there in the wilderness telling people to take better care of one other, what’s wrong with you people?! If you have two coats, share with someone who doesn’t have a coat at all. If you have plenty of food, give some of that food to people who are starving. Tax Collectors, don’t cheat people out of their money. Soldiers, don’t go around intimidating people to supplement your wages. Basically, stop being horrible to each other! Quit exploiting people who already have nothing!
The irony here is that we encounter John the Baptist angrily yelling at people on the Third Sunday of Advent—when our theme is Joy. Really? Of course there is some joy that John is pointing to Jesus who will come after him. Someone will soon arrive who will teach people how to fully love God and love one another as we love ourselves. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-Us, and he’s going to arrive if we just wait and help prepare the way. So John the Baptist pointing to Jesus’ advent is joyful.
Though this text still isn’t one we would naturally turn to 9 days before Christmas to get really happy. Maybe Luke helps us to see that there’s a difference between happiness and joy. Here’s how the British magazine Psychologies explains the situation: “Joy is more consistent and is cultivated internally. It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.” We can see that happiness is an emotion based on external factors while joy is more of an internal state of being based on being at peace and loving yourself. Happiness comes and goes depending on what’s happening around us. Joy goes deeper and can therefore have more staying power.
It wasn’t easy to be happy when John was preaching in the wilderness talking to people about how they needed to stop being mean to each other. People aren’t sharing with those in need and they’re cheating and intimidating people to take more money from the have nots. What’s there to be happy about? Do we honestly blame John the Baptist for being mad? Though he did have some joy—because he knew who he was, why he was there, and how he needed to prepare the way for Jesus.
When we look around at our world today it’s hard to always feel happy. Because there are people, events, and places that break our hearts. In our own congregation, some of us are grieving and some of us are struggling with illnesses. Some of us are being supportive of others who are struggling and feel the emotional weight on ourselves. Some of us may love our jobs and some of us may not. Some of us may have issues in our families or with our friends. We could keep going with whatever each one of us sitting here this morning is facing. Holidays in general can be bittersweet and trigger memories that are difficult to face as we look at an empty chair at the table. There’s a reason why Ebenezer Scrooge encounters the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol as we talked about last Sunday. Memories and emotions and time itself can make Christmas both beautiful and complicated.
In the news just this week we could observe the protests turning violent in France. The turmoil over Brexit in the United Kingdom. Images from the ongoing and devastating war in Yemen. The Russia investigation in our own country. Over 400 clergy and migrant justice supporters marching to the border wall separating the U.S. from Mexico near Tijuana (including some of our Connecticut Conference UCC staff.) And some of those clergy who were peacefully protesting were arrested.
It’s during times like these that we can appreciate joy as an internal state of being that’s not dependent on other people, things, places, thoughts or events out there. Joy is what we can experience inside ourselves even when there’s chaos all around. Joy and gratitude often seem linked. And to not let the human emotion of fear rule our lives right now is almost becoming an act of defiance.
Perhaps we can’t look at the world and the difficult moments we face in our own lives and feel overwhelming happiness. That’s alright. Maybe instead we can work on cultivating joy within that is harder for external forces to shake by focusing on who we are and what we’re about, by focusing on anything that we’re grateful for. By contemplating the ways that our changed hearts can change the world. By taking to heart the words of John the Baptist when he told us to share that extra coat and food with those who have so little as we prepare the way for Jesus the Christ. It ends up that there’s some things that we can do and ways that we can be in this world that help cultivate joy and defy the rhetoric of anger and fear we too often hear all around us.
Letting our changed hearts change the world. Cultivating joy even and especially in the midst of fearful times. These are some of the last Advent themes to contemplate, helping us prepare our hearts for Christmas.
Now if you read The Crier, you’ll recall that I wrote about “Silent Night” this month. If you didn’t read The Crier—we’ll cover it anyway. Because this year marks the 200th Anniversary of that famous Christmas Carol. Here at CFC we’ll follow tradition and sing “Silent Night” in both Christmas Eve services as we light our candles to blaze in hope as we end our time of worship together. We do this to celebrate and symbolically mark the birth of Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world. It’s always been my favorite Christmas Carol because there’s a moving story behind this famous song.
The traditional story is that in 1818 in Oberndorf, Austria (in the Salzburg Lake District) there was a priest serving a local church named Joseph Mohr who also happened to be a musician. On Christmas Eve, the church organ broke and there was no way it could be fixed in time for worship as this was a little isolated church in the Alps. (Now it’s safe to say that if this happened to us, I may have a total meltdown.) Because Christmas Eve is one of those times where we hope to have family members who may not attend worship often and friends invited who’ve never been to worship with us before. It’s not that we phone it in every other Sunday, but there are those especially poignant times where we in the Church want to be especially on our A Game.
Back in that little country church in Austria, Joseph didn’t get disheartened by the broken organ. He was determined that there would be beautiful music by the time the congregation arrived that evening, remembering a simple poem he’d written a few years earlier. He thought that if he could find another instrument and a good melody, the congregation could sing the verses of the poem. Joseph asked the church organist, Franz Gruber, to study the poem and see what he could do. Franz was surprised that the poem was quite good. And luckily he was used to writing music on short notice. Franz came up with a soothing lullaby to accompany Joseph’s poem. That evening “Stille Nacht” was sung for the first time in a little country church in Austria accompanied only by a guitar.
My friends, this is what joy looks like. Life’s circumstances are sometimes not ideal, like discovering the church’s organ broken on Christmas Eve! Yet Joseph and Franz didn’t let that external situation that was beyond their control prevent them from experiencing a joyful Christmas and sharing their inner joy with others.
“Silent Night” still pierces the darkness two hundred years after that organ broke down in a little village church in Austria. We will still sing “silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright” in our imperfect church with imperfect families and friends beside us in an imperfect world. In truth, we may find ourselves feeling varied emotions in these days leading up to Christmas Eve. Not only is that okay, it’s to be expected in our complicated world. Though hopefully we’ll also experience some joy that can only come from deep within ourselves. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 “Joy vs. Happiness,” Psychologies, September 2015, https://www.psychologies.co.uk/joy-vs-happiness
 “Silent Night” Religions, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/christmas/carols_1.shtml