Joy to the Cynical World: An Unpreached Sermon


The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

Joy candlesWords like these can seem so sickly sweet, like cheap Christmas ribbon candy. We hear words like gladness, rejoicing, glory, splendor. At best, we could be tempted to gloss over them as fluffy religious sentimentalism. At worst, we could say, “yeah, right…”, sweeping them behind us as contrived, naive notions. After all, look at our world. Sure, we see glimpses of gladness. We feel passing moments of joy. There’s glory and splendor to be found here and there. But to define all of life and our world by those terms? To use a popular expression: Really???

We have so accustomed ourselves to disappointment. People let us down. Politicians don’t keep their promises. Companies are corrupt. Preachers are phony. Lovers leave us. Parents  fail us. And the list goes on and on… From one broken dream to the next, we live in a cynical world that expects the worst, and in that respect, at least, is rarely disappointed.

The truth is, we often see and receive exactly what we expect to see and receive. I once pastored a woman who seemed to live in letdown. She would always complain about the people failed her- children who demanded much and gave little, friends who abandoned her, church friends who never paid her attention, pastors who failed to follow through, etc. etc. She had suffered some genuine losses, to the point that she banked on everything else turning into eventual grief. I always felt kind of anxious around her. I did the best I could to care for her, but I knew it was only a matter of time before I became yet another form of disillusionment. Sure enough, despite my best efforts, I did.

People who expect the worst will find it. Cynicism spawns more cynicism.

So on a much brighter note, if it is true that those look for the worst will get it, might it also be true that those who look for the best will also receive what they’re looking for? If I’m expecting joy, gladness, splendor, and glory just as readily as the cynic is expecting doom, what is to say I wouldn’t also find all of that?

The cynic would readily reply, “But that’s just it! We don’t get what we’re looking for. Dreams don’t pan out the way we want. That’s the way it is. You can expect nothing and never be disappointed, and you must always brace for the worst.” On that gloomy note, cynics always pride themselves for having purely pragmatic realism. The only thing sacred to the cynic is Murphy’s Law: “…anything that can possibly go wrong, does.”

But there is another sacred truth the cynic cannot (or will not) see. There is also a constant thread of right, of goodness, of love, of blessing, of mercy, of grace that permeates the world. For every wound, there is the possibility of healing. For every lie, there is the possibility for a greater truth. For every set-back, there is the possibility for growth and strength. For every transgression, an invitation to forgiveness. In that way, good always has the last word, if… if… if we listen for it and make room for it.

Looking back at the Scripture reference, notice the setting. It’s in the dry, barren lifeless desert, parched, and languishing for the waters of life. The desert wilderness is the cynic’s playground where everything he looks for is validated tenfold. But then, a strange sight begins to emerge.

Late Winter CrocusIt’s a crocus. A crocus is the perfect image for the kind of hope Isaiah is describing. At my last church, there were crocuses planted in a forgotten flower bed. In the late grey and brown of winter before there was a spot of green or color, the crocus bloomed. The royal purple of this little low flower shouted the promise of life to anyone who saw it. Then, not too long after the crocus appeared, spring began to slowly wake up. After the yawn, spring takes over in an explosion of green, color, life and just fun.

A crocus blooms in the desert. It’s easy to miss or dismiss, but it points to a much greater reality. Those who see it rejoice. Their hearts are gladdened. Then suddenly the great cedar trees of Lebanon and the splendor of Carmel and Sharon pipe in, and before we know it, we see the glorious splendor of the Lord of all life and salvation. It all began in the desert, and yes, it had the last word with convincing power!

†††††††

“So this is Christmas…” John Lennon once sang. What I see in the dead winter of Christmas is not the full bloom of life, but an invitation to shift our vision. In contrast to the stark world of emptiness, shallowness, bitterness, and pain, a child is born. A child on her own doesn’t have the power to change anything, of course. But welled up within her is an explosion of potential, that yes, can move and shake the world.

Nelson Mandela. Ghandi. Rosa Parks. Pope Francis. Billy Graham. Malala Yousafzai. A 7th grade science teacher. A mother. They all started as helpless babies and children. But they grew into individuals who have blessed and healed the world when they were unleashed, fully living into their God-given purpose.

The reality of Christmas- the Messiah born to a peasant virgin and laid to rest in a manger somewhere in the Palestinian village of Bethlehem- has the power to shift our focus from the cynicism of this world to the bubbling wellspring of life that can quench the thirst and revive the spirit of anyone who drinks deeply. It has the power to turn depression into joy.

“Like a crocus, it will burst into bloom…”

If you think about it, our favorite stories of Christmas are all about redemption. Scrooge went from tightly clenched money hoarding to extreme generosity. George Bailey went from hopelessness to seeing the wonder and value of his life. The Grinch went from despising all things Christmas to seeing that Christmas, as Dr. Seuss so subtly put it, “means a little bit more.” Note: in each of these hallowed stories, nothing in the world changed… at first. But through a changed heart, the world would be indelibly changed through them.

“Joy to the World” has nothing to do with claptrap Christmasy junk and sentimentalism. Joy is a changed heart that can see and create redemptive good, no matter the circumstances in which it finds itself. Joy, like a crocus in the wilderness and a Child in a manger, can blossom within tears, depression, and loss. (I know, because I’ve experienced that several times.) Joy can be sung in simple quiet or in rapturous shouting. That’s because joy is simply a shift in attitude from cynicism to thankfulness. From there, new life begins.

My prayer for us this Advent and Christmas is that we would all open ourselves to being shifted away from cynicism and towards the joy of Jesus who is Emmanuel, God with us. Even a little shift in the right direction can go a long, long way towards blessing ourselves and others with the gift of Christ’s life.

May the love and life of Jesus Christ fill us where we are empty, sooth us where we are hurting, sing with us where we are happy, walk with us in our everyday coming and going, forgive us to offer forgiveness, and bless us to be a blessing to others, this day and always. In all these ways, through Christ in us, may joy indeed come to our world. Amen.

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