When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

How many of you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by this Christmas season?  A season so full of activity, expectation, stress, and anticipation.  Planning, shopping, worrying, always moving.  Amidst this flurry, how many times have you been told, or told yourself, to slow down, relax and take time to enjoy the season?  Have you heard reminders not to do too much, not to eat too much, and to remember what Christmas is all about?  This is the season to give thanks and enjoy!

This morning we light our Advent candle of joy, and we rejoice – to be joyful again and again.  Joy is one of the best words of the season.  Rejoicing – not partying, not just celebrating, but rejoicing in a spiritual sense, rejoicing in the real meaning of Christmas and what its message means for all of us.

Our scripture reading today, from the book of Psalms, talks about joy – “shouts of joy.”  Psalm 126 is one of the “psalms of ascent,” or a musical piece that the Israelites would sing on their pilgrimage up to Jerusalem.  This psalm offers an analogy between their pilgrimage and the modern preparations that we Christians make during Advent.  Today’s psalm is about joy:  Joy remembered – joy for all the great things God has done.  And joy anticipated – for all that God will do.

We know the basic story of Christmas – a baby named Jesus was born in Bethlehem, who showed us the message of God’s love for the world and its people.  We rejoice that love pops up in this world in spite of hate and violence and sadness and despair.  Jesus is the “joy to the world” – that regardless of the death and destruction we encounter, there’s a redemptive force in this world, stronger than anything else, an underlying hope that sustains and encourages us.

The psalmist declares, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”

As we grow ever nearer to Christmas, to the birth of Jesus, will you move through these days with words of praise on your lips?  Is your attitude one of rejoicing?

For many, these are days of challenge.  This sacred celebration comes amidst days that (at least in our hemisphere) are as dark as they’ll be, and we’re hunkering down for bitter weather.  Many people are feeling “blue” and remembering past joys and sorrows.  There are people feeling pressure – stressed by year-end deadlines, as well as other expectations that come with the impending holiday.  Expectations about adequate gift-giving, family relationships and reunions (or a lack of them), as well as the expectation that amidst everything, we must all strive to be “merry!”

Whatever our circumstances during Advent, whatever the expectations, the voice of the psalmist reminds us:  “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  Our attentiveness to God’s coming among us, God’s works and faithfulness, and the redemption that Christ offers us – they give us great cause to rejoice and give praise, no matter what our circumstances.

The Biblical scholar William Barclay once wrote:  “All of us, when really pushed, when really tested, when life demands it, can do as [the prophet] Isaiah suggests and, when the situation calls for it, can ‘mount up with wings as eagles’; or when we have to, when the rigor of life requires, we can even ‘run and not grow weary’;  the real test comes when we are called up to ‘walk and not faint.’  When we are forced to live the day-to-day, monotonous, hum-drum, unexciting lives most of us live every day, and not faint!  That is the real test of our living.”

A surprised mother found her four-year-old son crying as he was tying his shoes.  “Why are you crying?” she asked.  “I have to tie my shoes,” he sobbed.  “But you just learned how.  It isn’t that hard, is it?”  “But I’m gonna have to do it the rest of my life!” he wailed.

How many of us live our lives complaining about our daily routine, about our monotonous and unexciting lives?  On the other hand, there are many whose lives are uncertain, unpredictable, as they struggle to simply get through each day seeking shelter and food for themselves and their families.  Yet in any circumstance, the psalmist reminds us to give “shouts of joy!”

In his book, Come Out of the Wilderness, the author Bruce Kenrick tells of a minister who went to see an old man living by himself in a tenement in New York.  The old man met him on the sidewalk, and together they made their way through the stale stench of a dilapidated building to a small single room at the top that was his home.  The ceiling sagged, and the dark, brown paper hung in shreds from the dirty walls.  They both sat on the bed which took up three-quarters of the space.  Finally the old man brought out his Bible that fell open at the Psalms, many of which he had learned by heart because he was nearly blind.  His favorites were heavily thumbed, the pages were yellow and worn, and when the minister looked at them he saw that they had one thing in common – they were all psalms of joy and praise.  Not psalms of comfort for a man who lived in this grim, grey room, but psalms of thanksgiving to God.

Throughout the Bible, we’re told to rejoice, give praise!  And we see people doing just that, not only through the psalms, but in many Biblical stories.

A Sunday school teacher finished telling the story of the Prodigal Son by describing the wonderful feast the father provided on the return of his boy.  The teacher said, “In the midst of all this rejoicing, there was one to whom the feast brought no joy, one to whom the prodigal’s return brought no happiness, one who did not approve of the feast and refused to attend.  Who was it?”

A small child in the back row piped up, “I think it was the fatted calf.”

Still, the Prodigal Son parable is about rejoicing.  The father insisted that it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice.  In another story, the widow who found her lost coin was delighted.  The man who found a treasure in a field gleefully sells all that he has to get that field.

Joy is at the heart of receiving the Gospel, the Good News.  And it all begins with Christmas, when God joyfully entered the world in the form of a baby.  This time of year can excite us, amaze us, fulfill us, and cause us to laugh and shout with joy.  It can heighten our senses, and make us more aware of life and people around us.

In these remaining days before Christ’s birth, amidst the flurry and activity and busyness that threaten to overwhelm us, may we all rejoice!  Rejoice in knowing Christ and receiving the joy of life, especially life lived in a loving community of faith.  In the Holy Spirit, may we rejoice in knowing that we’re children of God and members one of another.  In the midst of the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows of life, in the midst of even the worst life can do to us, may we praise God continually, for there are always reasons for rejoicing!  Amen.