Rejoice, and Be Glad

Psalms 126

Sermon delivered by Minister Shirley Lin on 15th October, 2006

126:1 A Song of degrees. When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. turned...: Heb. returned the returning
126:2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them. hath...: Heb. hath magnified to do with them
126:3 The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad.
126:4 Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south.
126:5 They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. joy: or, singing
126:6 He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him . precious...: or, seed basket

The emotion that comes from this reading is joy. The idea of joy is pervasive in the Bible. There are 219 passages in the NRSV Bible where the word joy is used. Many times, we think of joy as Happiness. And we are very familiar with happiness. After all, this is America, the land where we have a RIGHT to life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It's written right there in the declaration of independence.

But what does this really mean?

Happiness is a loaded word. There's a myth of what happiness is and the necessity of it. It is a goal that we all strive to achieve; an end that we are all entitled to. For some, this is the purpose for their life.

But the real question is: Are you happy? Because the world certainly isn't. 

Depressive disorders affect approximately 10% of American adults. At some point in their lifetimes, the average American will probably suffer from some sort of depression, and we have lots of different names for them, such as Post-partum depression, bipolar, post traumatic disorder. 

But less severely, there are also just times when we are just sad, or when we're grieving, or when there is simply an absence of happiness. There is so much stress in our lives, from an overabundant of choices that there may not be “the right choice.” We become a generation of confused choosers. Especially for a young person, life is difficult.  1 in 10 teens try to commit suicide. This has become such a problem that Harvard University offers a class that is supposed to teach college students how to be happy.  

But, Isn't happiness supposed to be second nature to us? 

We all have happy moments, spurts of happiness, if you will, times when we're genuinely happy. But it may be fleeting. Sometimes, we even give up on the possibility of becoming happy. Over the summer, a friend wrote on her internet journal that she's decided that “Happiness Is not a place I can get to. I just don't think it's possible anymore.”

In today's reading, the Psalmist is praying to the Lord for joy. The Psalmist is looking back at all that God has done for God's chosen people, restoring Zion after it was destroyed and the Jews were exiled. The Psalmist believed that once Zion and their fortunes are restored, they can be joyous, once again.  

So, basically, the question that comes to my mind is: does joy happen when we get what we want or what we work for? Or does it just make us want the next thing on the agenda? Is happiness a pursuit rather than something static? 

Let's face it. We live in a consumer culture, where we are bombarded with ads that don't just portray what things are being sold, but they're trying to sell us on particular lifestyles. Recently, I've been thinking about getting a new computer because my absolutely functional computer is not really up to speed. It boots up incredibly slowly and my hard drive is tiny, and it crashes ALL the time. I'm not always happy with it. Everyone knows that to be truly happy with something, it's got to be the best, the fastest, and the most useful. And my computer? It doesn't really meet those criteria. So I thought about trying a Mac. Everyone I know who owns one loves it. I want something that I can love too! So I check the Apple website. Apparently, if I want a 15” laptop, it would cost me over $2000. Now, I'm not exactly a computer person, but I know a computer over $2000 may be crossing some sort of line in terms of expense. I checked the other websites. I wondered what Dells and other PCs would go for. Turns out, I could save myself about $1000 for essentially the same thing if I just went PC. 

What is the difference between the two then? Everyone knows Macs are pretty. They're not merely functional, but really, really cute machines. But is that worth the extra grand?

I just had to find out, so I emailed my brother to see what he can tell me about the differences.  

It's a status symbol, he replied.  

I didn't get it. It's a computer. Lots of people make computers. Lots of people own laptops. How does the Mac become a status symbol?  

When you walk into Starbucks and see a whole line of Mac users sipping their'll understand why Macs are status symbols. then they will pack up plug in their ipods and drive away on their Prius,” he wrote back. 

How did we get to this place?

I love television. Every time we watch a show, we are bombarded in between with commercials, and we are all susceptible to advertisement on some levels.  

Maybe, just maybe if I have what is being advertised, I'll be happy. Maybe, if I had a new computer, I will be happier with my life. Maybe my grades will improve and maybe I will find a new insight into my papers and readings.

Or maybe not.

In fact, probably not.

Happiness, I've decided, is not a place, just as my friend says. But I do believe that happiness is something tangible that we can have. We will not get it in the things that we buy, not from that shiny new computer or the adorable new shoes, despite what the commercials or pop culture will have you believe. I'm sure we've all tried it. The things we have don't last. That euphoria that you get? It also does not last. 

What about achievements? Achieving something must bring happiness, right?

 We live in a society of overachievers. We strive to become renaissance men and women so we can get into the best colleges so we can get the best jobs to make the most money and have the perfect spouse and family. Many of the students from Taiwan have told me that in Taiwan, they only care about how famous your school is. They care less about your intelligence and what you can actually do. This dream of happiness and other pursuits lead us to a life of pressure, which manifests itself in many different ways.  We are continually achieving for more. We, too, must be the best and the brightest. Our worth is now tied in with our function. 

A few months ago, news broke about the Harvard sophomore authoress who had plagiarized parts of someone else's book. Sure, she was probably a talented story teller and could have eventually written a terrific book. Her parents had bought her a college coach, who would help her get into Harvard. As part of the package to stand out, she got her own book deal while in high school. Under this pressure to stand out, she took someone else's work and made it her own, probably because she did not have the time or the option of taking more time or backing out.  

We live like hamsters running in a wheel. We keep running, but we don't really get anywhere. In fact, there are times when we don't know where we are going.  

So what's really important in our lives? We're always trying to get to happiness, even though we don't quite know what it is we're looking for. And even when we get what we really, REALLY want, it can be anti-climatic. 

Just look at those Red Sox fans.

For 86 years, they were doomed to be losers. Curse of the Bambino, they called it. And they all just_wanted_to_win, but all they had were years and years of horrible, heartbreaking losses. And then, then it happened. On October 27 at 10:37 p.m., 2004, the Red Sox finally did it. They won the World Series. Nobody could believe it, but it was true.And everyone rejoiced. Fans celebrated, the city celebrated; there were parades and parties into the night. Then, 2005 rolled around. Things were different. The atmosphere was different. There was a certain loss; a question of “what now?” The Red Sox broke the curse. They had won. They were now winners.  

So…What do we do now that we have achieved the ultimate goal?

The Psalmist knew that it wasn't about getting what they wanted. They weren't asking God to restore Zion because they wanted something from God. They weren't going to be overjoyed because they were gaining land. The particular use of joy here came under the circumstances of oppression. This Psalm was probably composed when the Israelites were returning from the Babylonian exile, the deportation and exile of the Jews to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in year 597 BCE.

The mood here was more anticipatory as Israel is looking ahead to the joy that would accompany their future. God's own joy over this is also anticipated, and thus joy emerges as a dominant aspect of Israel's hope. So you see, restoring Zion was a witness to their covenant with God and not just a recovery of their property. By restoring Zion, God is telling them that they are back in God's good graces. God was with them and God would bless them. It wasn't just a piece of land they were gaining, but the presence and love of God.  

In the Old Testament, Joy is a quality of the prosperous national life. 

As God blesses his people, there is joy. When the prophets proclaim God's judgment and withdrawal of himself and of his blessing, there is a loss of joy. Joy and gladness are inspired not only by God's activity in the nation of Israel but also by his very being. Of course, this understanding of joy isn't limited to the Old Testament. To the Church in Philippi, St. Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. The Lord is near. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”Perhaps we ought to take this message and observe it in our own lives. I know that there are days that I am definitely not happy. We all have those days. But we get through those days. And it is after the day is over that I can look back and say, “I got through it with God's help.”

God may not be actively doing anything, for example, taking away that project or that assignment. But it's like the footsteps in the sand. God is with us through the hard times and lets us know that we are not alone. God carries us through life, and for that I am not only grateful, but I rejoice. In other words, happiness is a fortune that God bestows upon us. We are restored in God. It is when we recognize this that we know we can experience true joy. God's love brings us true joy. That is why the Psalmist rejoice. And that is why we should rejoice.