Cultivating Joy

Ezra 1:1-4 & 3:1-4, 10-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18

In this third week of Advent, when our focus is on joy, we are going to spend a little time in a book that only the nerdiest of Bible nerds has probably paid much attention to. It’s the Old Testament book of Ezra. Before I tell you about it, let’s take a second to review where we’ve been. The first week of Advent is about hope and we read a prophecy from Jeremiah where we heard that the kingdom of Judah was going to fall but that one day the people would get to come home. The second week of Advent is about peace and we read a prophecy from Isaiah where we heard that the kingdom of Judah had fallen and people had been carried into exile, but that one day they would get to come home. This week in the book of Ezra we get to hear some of the story of the people actually coming home. It does happen. The kingdom of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians. The Babylonians tore down the walls of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and captured the best and brightest, wealthiest and most powerful people in society, and took them back to Babylon, which is basically modern day Baghdad. But the Babylonians don’t last. They themselves are conquered by the Persians. Babylon conquers Judah. Persia conquers Babylon. And Persia has a different way of doing empire. Instead of keeping captives, the Persians tend to send people back where they came from and allow them to sort of live their lives. They can worship their gods and practice their traditions; they just have to pay money to Persia. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about what happens when some of the people go back to Judah and try to rebuild some of what they had in the past. “So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book

Scripture Readings: Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4,10-13

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:

“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:

“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. Then Joshua  and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:

“God is good;
    God’s love toward Israel endures forever.”

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-18

Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.


Around the same time that the ancient Jews were trying to rebuild their temple, a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus wrote something that would have resonated with those Jews. He said, “No one steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and we’re not the same people.” 

Those ancient Jews had gone home. But they weren’t the same Jews and it wasn’t the same home. Some of them were much older than they had been when they left. Some of them were descendants who had been born and raised in Babylon and had never been to Judah before. And the land they returned to was inhabited by all the people who hadn’t been captured, as well as people from other countries who had moved in. Jerusalem was in shambles, but not entirely deserted. Yes, they tried to step back in the river. But it wasn’t the same river and they weren’t the same people. 

That’s often how I feel this time of year. At Christmas I want to step back in the river. But it’s not the same Christmas and I’m not the same person. I feel this intense tug of nostalgia and yet, it’s never quite the same as my ideal memory. Anyone else feel that way? Do you know what I learned this week? The word nostalgia is a combination of two Greek words that mean “going home” and “pain.” Nostalgia is the pain we feel when we try to step in the same river and have to face the reality that it’s not the same river and we’re not the same people. No matter how much we want to, we can’t ever really go home again. We’ve changed, and so has “home.”

Now at this point, some of you may be asking yourself, “Isn’t this week’s theme supposed to be joy? What the heck is she doing to us?” It is joy week. And we have much to be joyful about. And we are going to talk about how to cultivate joy. But it would be unrealistic, and frankly it would be unkind, for me to stand up here and pretend that everyone feels joyful all the time at Christmas. Some of us do, and that’s wonderful. But not all of us do. 

And in our family of faith, there is space for both joy and sorrow. Just like there was for the ancient Jews as they built their new temple. The old temple was gone and they had neither the time nor the money nor the workers to rebuild the glory that had been Solomon’s temple. But they wanted to worship and they wanted to be together and so they built something new. And that is a cause for celebration. Life moves forward and we build new things. We add new family members. We start new traditions. The ancient Jews built a new altar and laid a new foundation. And they rejoiced. But you know what gets me? At the very end of the story it says that the people who remembered the old temple wept. And you couldn’t tell the difference between the sounds of joy and the sounds of weeping. At the start of something new, some people were rejoicing and some people were weeping. And they were all together. 

This morning some of us are full of the joy of the season, excitement, anticipation, fun, parties, food, family, giving, decorating, singing. And some of us are weeping, for a year that didn’t turn out like we wanted, for people who should be with us but aren’t, because we miss the way things were. And we are all together. The joyful folks aren’t telling the sorrowful folks to get over it. The sorrowful folks aren’t resenting the people who are joyful. We simply came this morning to be the gathered people of God together, to bear witness to one another’s experience. And to love one another exactly as we are. We have enough room for both. 

And still it is joy week, so let’s talk about that a little bit. Joy is a tricky concept. We know it’s different than happiness, which is linked to our current circumstances. We have a sense that joy is something deeper and more transcendent. Here’s the definition of joy I like: joy is our response when we recognize grace. Joy is simply grace recognized. I like that definition because we can recognize God’s grace even in hard times, maybe especially in hard times. 

That’s what I hear in that reading from 1 Thessalonians where it says, “Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances.” Now if you took Sam’s suggestion from last week and you are working on memorizing last week’s reading from Philippians 4, you might notice a theme here. There’s a strong connection in the New Testament between joy, prayer, and gratitude. 

This verse invites us to rejoice, to recognize grace, in each moment. To pray continually, or without leaving any unnecessary gaps. And finally to give thanks in all circumstances, or literally just give thanks in everything. Notice please that these are verbs, they are things we do with our bodies and our minds. The act of rejoicing. The act of praying. The act of giving thanks. These three things feed into each other. They lead into each other. They dance together if you will, maybe in a similar way to how we imagine the Trinity dancing together. Rejoicing, praying, giving thanks. Joy, prayer, gratitude. If we want to cultivate joy in our lives, if we want to get better at responding when we recognize God’s grace, regardless of our circumstances, the keys are to pray—to ask for what we need—and to give thanks for what we already have. These are things we can do regardless of our circumstances.

Thoughts and feelings and actions are all interrelated. I’m a feeler, and so I always assumed that my feelings were driving my thoughts and actions. A good friend of mine who is also a counselor helped me understand it differently. Most psychologists say that our behaviors actually drive our attitudes; actions come first and then feelings, even if our feelings seem almost immediate. Actions can change our feelings. Deliberately thinking and acting on our gratitude, deliberately thinking and praying for what we need, these thoughts and actions can create our emotion of joy. Through our thoughts and actions we can cultivate joy, just like we can cultivate hope and peace.

If you are sorrowful this season, it’s OK. Nobody is trying to diminish what you are experiencing or rush you through it. But when you are ready, you have what you need to cultivate some joy. Because there is so much grace to be recognized in this season. During this holy season of Advent, we anticipate the arrival of grace in human form. We anticipate the arrival of the one who came to show us exactly what God is like. Whatever we were assuming about God, whatever we were afraid might be true, Jesus comes as the truth of God, revealing unconditional love and acceptance of everyone, especially including those who felt most unloved and unaccepted. When we see Jesus, we recognize God’s grace, and we rejoice. Amen.

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