“Joy v. Happiness”

John 1:6-14 (NRSV)
South Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship of Faith
December 17, 2017 – Advent 3
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift

 John 1:6-14 (NRSV)

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  

He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

This is the Word of the Lord.           Thanks be to God.


Today is JOY Sunday.

So far in Advent we have had Hope … Love … and today is JOY!

Today is the pink candle because joy is its own thing. Purple, you see, is the liturgical color of both Advent and Lent. It is a color that represents royalty (in THIS case, the birth of a King) but it also represents self-reflection … penitence … meditation … preparation.

Historically in the church, the 3rd Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday … “gaudete” being the Latin word for REJOICE. And the reason that THIS Sunday is called that is because traditionally the opening sentences for worship on this Sunday were taken from Philippians 4:4-5 which reads: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

“The season of Advent originated as a FAST of forty days in preparation for Christmas. [Just like Lent is the 40-day fast in preparation for Easter.] … In the ninth century, the duration of Advent was reduced to four weeks, and Advent preserved most of the characteristics of a penitential season which made it a kind of counterpart to Lent.”[i] Today … especially in many mainline Protestant churches, Advent is self-reflective, though not necessarily penitential.

Anyway … the pink candle reminds us that we are half-way through this four-week period. Many priests and ministers will wear rose-colored vestments today to set it apart from the other Sundays in Advent. And today is the day we focus on the JOY that Jesus brings to those of us who are walking on The Way with him.


Oh, I can just hear some of your thoughts right now.

“Joy … yeah, right. What is there to be HAPPY about? How can we feel JOY? Just look at what a mess the world is in right now.”

And while I will agree with you that some parts of our world seem pretty BLEEK … I will disagree when it comes to JOY.

Y’see … joy is not HAPPINESS and happiness is not JOY. While some dictionaries[ii] will say they are synonymous … they really are not. “Happy” is “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” It is a REFLECTIVE feeling that is linked to one’s environment or surroundings or inner state in some way.

Whereas the synonyms for Joy, on the other hand, include: delight, great pleasure, jubilation, triumph, and exultation.[iii] There is something celebrational and ACTIVE about joy. “Happy” is more passive, I think.

It was once explained to me in terms of a beach ball and a buoy.

A beach ball that rides on top of the waves is like happiness: it can be its own container of lightness but it rides along on the water beneath it. It’s not really STURDY – it goes where the water takes it.

A buoy, on the other hand, is something that is so strong … no matter how far it gets dragged beneath the surface of the water … it will ALWAYS resurface. It can’t HELP but resurface. It rises to the top regardless of the currents of the waves. And it is firmly ANCHORED. It NEVER just floats wherever the winds take it. It’s SOLID and ever-present.

The buoy is JOY.

Today we are looking at how Jesus is that buoy for us: strong … always resurfaces … not blown about but constant … he helps us get our bearings straight … he is FIRMLY anchored in God and never just floats wherever the winds of our society or culture try to take him.


I don’t know about YOU, but lately, I find myself troubled by the world in a way that I haven’t been in a long time. Maybe if we go back to the 60’s and 70’s (for those of us old enough to remember them), we might find this kind of upset, but not since then, I think.

CNBC, the business channel, echoed this observation in a reports that: “The online counseling company Talkspace is growing 70 to 80 percent faster than projected since November 2016 … one year ago. [This is a place where you can get counseling and therapy online.] There are … spikes in female, minority, Muslim, Jewish and LGBT customers. The majority of patients are millennials, with an average age between 33 and 34.” [iv]

We KNOW that these are troubled, anxious, and worrisome TIMES. And if we just think in terms of HAPPINESS, we might be able to hold on to some feelings of pleasure and contentment, but those are FLEETING. They get bounced around on the SURFACE. The waves and upsets swell, the currents change and happiness gets swept away. It is IMPERMANENT.

But the JOY that we’re talking about with JESUS … it’s NOT fleeting.

No matter how far we get dragged UNDER by the waters around us … no matter what’s happening in our WORLD … JOY brings us back up every time. JOY gets us back to the surface. Joy ANCHORS us so we don’t drift away.

Joy is a more-or-less PERMANENT state.

And for those of us who are Christian, that Joy is Jesus.


Now, we know that the gospels are the stories of Jesus’ life and teachings. Right? And as the FIRST gospel written, Mark has no birth story. He begins the story about Jesus with his baptism by John, the Baptist.

Matthew tells the birth story from the perspective of Matthew’s Jewish audience so he focuses on Joseph and parallels between Jesus and Moses. He’s the one who contains the story of the Magi and the slaughter of the innocents which is akin to the slaying of the first-born at the first Passover. And just as the Jewish people came OUT of Egypt, Matthew has Mary, Joseph and the baby fleeing TO Egypt for their safety after the birth. Matthew presents a LOT of parallels between Jesus and Moses.

Luke, on the other hand, was writing to a primarily Gentile audience of Greeks and Romans and he doesn’t include ANY of that. HIS birth narrative accounts for most of the angelic sightings … for the gentleness of the shepherds. It’s told pretty much with a focus on Mary, not Joseph. And after the birth, LUKE has Mary, Joseph and the baby returning to Nazareth. They never go to Egypt in Luke’s account. And he never has any visitors from the East.

Same story told from different viewpoints.

But what about John, the fourth gospel? How does HE handle the whole birth story?

Well … he was writing years after Matthew and Luke … maybe as much as 20 or 30 years after … and HIS audience was made up of people who had deep, SPIRITUAL understandings and outlooks of the world, the COSMOS, being connected in a Oneness of the Universe. GREATLY influenced by Greek philosophers and the Gnostic communities yearning for an internal, unique, one-on-one experience with divine energy.

So John’s “birth story,” if you will, begins by saying, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God … and the Word WAS God” (John 1:1). What we read today comes about 4 verses later in John’s gospel: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. [That would be John, the Baptist.] He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  [And then he clarifies that John,] himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. JESUS. Jesus was coming into the world!] So right here we have John’s statement about who Jesus IS … he is the true light that enlightens EVERYONE – not just those who MET him … not just the Jewish people that he was a PART of … but Jesus came to enlighten EVERYONE!

And then John goes on to say: He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. [Jesus, as One with God, created this world, but the world did not KNOW him.] He came to what was his own, and his own people did not ACCEPT him.

Ah … But to all who RECEIVED him, who BELIEVED in his name, he gave power to become CHILDREN of God. [And what is special about children of God? Well, they were] born, not of blood or of the will of the FLESH or of the will of HUMANKIND, but [by the will] of GOD. People who are children of God are PART of God. LINKED.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

THIS is Jesus’ birth story in the gospel of John.

It’s very different from the other two in Luke and Matthew, isn’t it?  Because JOHN is talking about the buoy and not the beach ball. JOHN is laying out the case here for US being connected to God through Jesus from the very beginning of TIME and the other gospel writers make that point much later. For THEM, we are connected through JESUS’ teachings and ultimately through his resurrection and his POST-resurrection COMMISSION to us.

But for JOHN … he pins it all on the fact that Jesus is present at the Creation of the Universe … that Jesus is the embodiment of Holy WISDOM as we talked about a few weeks ago.

For John, receiving Jesus … FOLLOWING Jesus … is like tethering ourselves to the buoy. No matter what drags us down or overwhelms us … the buoy – Jesus – will raise us back up to the surface. It will help us keep our BEARINGS straight. It will shine a LIGHT – enlighten, if you will – on everything in life.

And BECAUSE of that Light … because we are TETHERED to that light … because that Light is JESUS … we ALWAYS have Joy.

That’s the JOY that surpasses feelings of happiness.

We can be GRIEVING … and still feel Joy.

We can be SCARED and ANXIOUS … and STILL feel JOY.

No matter what we are going through … Jesus brings enlightenment and meaning … Jesus is our never-failing REFERENCE point … Jesus brings JOY! Jesus. IS. Joy.


And that’s what today’s candle is all about – reminding us that Jesus is our JOY! No matter what we’re going through. No matter what’s happening in the world. No matter how HARD things get. He is Deep … permanent … eternal … Joy.

THAT’S what we are celebrating in two weeks.

As we wrap this up today, I’d like us all to turn back to the Advent Candle Lighting that we did earlier and to close with the prayer at the end of that. Can you find it in your bulletins?

Let us pray: Holy God, you call our hearts to hope, to believe in love, and to find great joy in you. When the concerns for our world close in, these lights remind us that you have a plan and that Jesus came to implement that plan for all of humanity. And so on this Sunday, half-way through Advent, we are reminded of the angels who came and said, “JOY to the world,” for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.



[i] “Gaudete Sunday,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaudete_Sunday. Downloaded 12/16/2017.

[ii] Google online dictionary, “Happy.” Downloaded 12/16/2017.s

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “Millennials are flocking to this online therapy start-up since Trump’s election.” https://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/22/talkspace-online-therapy-grew-80-percent-faster-since-trump-elected.html Downloaded 12/16/2017.


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