Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
January 13, 2019—Baptism of our Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The word of the LORD as told by the prophet Isaiah: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. I will be with you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…
Where we might fear that God despairs, God rejoices. When it seems that God has given up, when we are far from home and have lost everything, God breaks in with a promise. God assures us that God has not given up, no matter how it may seem. God has not given up, even if we have come to believe that he should.
He should have, maybe… I mean, we’re not really all that. Like Israel as a chosen people, we are far from exemplary. They strayed; we stray. They were stiff necked and stubborn; we are stiff-necked and stubborn. They longed for an easier life as slaves, rather than the challenges of freedom; we too choose that, even if we don’t always admit it. Tempted by gods of wealth. Chafing against God’s commands to care for the poor and helpless. Having good days, for sure; but also having bad days. Bad years. Bad decades.
And yet, God did not despair over Israel. And God does not despair over us. God rejoices in the knowledge that God’s people will always return.
Or, at least, we can return. And that’s good enough for joy.
Joy is a funny thing. A holy thing. A divine thing. Unlike happiness, joy does not rest in succeeding at something. Think about it. So often, happiness depends on things having gone well: on having got the job, or falling in love. On a beautiful day, or a breathtaking view. On good news, good health, good outcomes.
On the gratitude, perhaps, of the people you freed from the clutches of the world’s biggest despot and brought into the promised land! Maybe they could be grateful, I don’t know, for a year or two? Not take their good fortune and their freedom for granted? Not ask for more, and more, and more? That might make a god happy….
Until it didn’t. Happiness is fickle that way. Because it rests so heavily on fulfilment, it has a way of upping the ante. Of increasing our tolerance for good fortune, so that it doesn’t make us quite as happy as it used to.
It’s sort of like our first-world tendency to live right at the edge of our income, no matter what our income may be. So that we never really feel wealthy, or lucky, or secure. So that well-being and ease always live just beyond our reach.
Happiness can be like that, if we have to achieve something, or experience something, or acquire something, to get it. We can chase it so hard that we are blinded to its signs all around us.
Joy is different. C.S. Lewis attempts to explain this in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. There, he describes joy not as “a satisfied desire but an unsatisfied desire ─ a deep longing for God, a hungry pursuit of God’s heart that never ends and is more satisfying than any earthly happiness.”
There is something there about longing for the right thing. Longing for something true and beautiful, longing for something so large that you can never attain it (and thus transform it into the mundaneness of security or pleasure). Longing for God. Or at the very least, longing for those things that give us a glimpse of God’s face in this world.
A longing so bright that it pierces your soul, and transforms you. A longing that cannot be destroyed by the misfortunes of this world. A longing that Lewis says makes joy as unlike security and prosperity as it is unlike agony.
It is hard to describe, hard to define, but there are nonetheless clues to follow. We can sit a while with the monk Thomas Merton, who struggled with the idea of his belovedness, his worthiness, because he feared his actions were imperfectly pleasing to God. Hence his fervent prayer that “the desire to please God does indeed please God.” We can contemplate the perspective of Kristin Kimball, writing of the 20 hour a day struggle to bring a small farm back to life, who said of her husband, “In his view, we were already a success, because we were trying something hard and it was something that mattered to us.” We can open our hearts to the mystery spoken by Nadia Bolz Weber, (in Accidental Saints): that the presence of Christ is located not in the one served nor in the one serving, but in the service itself.
And we can also learn something about joy from a God whose longing for his people outlasts their capacity to run away. And from the people’s longing for God, even though they have been overrun and exiled and devastated over and over; their longing for God that draws them back even though the golden calf of security and prosperity always sounds easier.
And we learn something from the crowds who went out into the wilderness, not quite knowing what they sought. What on earth did they think they’d find out there in the wastelands, anyway? But just maybe, it was the emptiness and the “not knowing” that invited them into joy. Into holiness. Into a search for God.
You must long for something vast and beautiful and true and just. And if it makes your heart leap, even when you cannot achieve or possess it, you know you are longing for the right thing. And you will begin to know something of joy. You will know you are on a journey toward God. May it be so, Amen.
 Unpublished letter to Mrs. Ellis written August 19, 1945, quoted in https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/09/unseen-cs-lewis-letter-defines-joy-surprised-by-joy
 The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball