Cheer up! Haven’t you heard cheery people tell you that, hoping that it will help you feel better. Except sometimes it doesn’t.
In my moody periods as a teen-ager or in what I call my times of funk as an adult, telling me to cheer up is the best and worst thing you can tell me. In those dark times I know I need to look on the bright side. I know reaching out to someone else in need would be good for my soul. I know there are deep truths in St. Paul’s words: Rejoice in the Lord. Have no anxiety. The peace of God passes all understanding.
But sometimes there is a “dark night of the soul,” as our spiritual tradition calls it. Sometimes the loneliness, the pain, or the isolation overwhelm us. And the cheery person with the cheery Merry Christmas. Stop.
When we were in New York over Thanksgiving, we saw the Broadway hit musical Dear Evan Hansen (opening in Chicago next month). It’s one of those shows like Wicked and Hamilton that touch us deeply. And one that brings tears like no other. One reviewer heard more sniffles in this show than any other. And when something gets through our hard shells, it’s a good thing.
Evan Hansen is a teenager who suffers from social anxiety disorder. And he has no friends. His therapist asks him to write letters to himself to help him cheer up, to help him feel better. The assignment seems stupid to Evan, but he does it anyway. The first letter begins: "Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why. Because – because today, um, all you have to do is just, be yourself."
Well, not so simple. Evan has a chance encounter with Connor Murphy, another loner at school. Evan is printing out another letter to himself, this one more troubled, with these words: "Turns out today wasn’t an amazing day at all . . . I wish I were part of something. I wish that I mattered to anyone. I mean, face it, would anyone notice if I disappeared tomorrow?" Connor grabs the letter and runs off. Later, Evan learns that Connor had taken his life, and the letter addressed to Evan was in his pocket. Everyone assumes that Evan’s letter to himself is actually Connor’s suicide note to his only friend, Evan,—though no one knew about the friendship before. As the whole community cheers up Evan, he suddenly has friends and community. But like life, things are complicated, and thus the plot of this amazing, honest, yet hopeful show.
Churches that still use penitential purple Advent candles use a cheery pink one on the Third Sunday in Advent. To some, this Sunday is known as Gaudete or Joy Sunday. And there are enough cheery joy words in our scriptures today to give you a sugar high. Sing aloud. Rejoice and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. Shout aloud and sing for joy. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. How amazing that Paul could be so cheery while in prison, or the prophet Zephaniah could beam even though Israel had suffered shame on the world stage.
In an effort to find some cheer for this sermon, I turned to the The Book of Joy by Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama. They remind us that most of us believe we will find joy on the outside—from money, power, and possessions.
Yet true joy and peace can only be known on the inside, the wise authors remind us. We could say that spirituality is developing a rich inner life that can be a source of deep and lasting joy.
It’s no surprise that one definition of “Christmas cheer” is the alcoholic drinks many of us will share this holiday season. Think: spiked egg nog, glogg, gluhwein, and such delights. Yet we know all too well, that some will drink to excess to mask the pain and isolation on the inside.
No wonder some churches offer Blue Christmas services this time of year. Actually, there is a blue Christmas service at HTLoop next week. It’s for people dealing with pain and loss, which is probably all of us in some way. Loss of loved ones. Loss of health. Divorce, separation, unemployment, depression, addiction. Loss of direction in our lives. Rather than tinsel and shiny lights, sometimes we feel blue, or even gray, like the December skies on many a day.
When John the Baptist appears during Advent, he seems like a grinch. We don’t think of him as a joyful or cheery dude. Until we remember he leapt for joy in the presence of the pregnant Mary. He rejoiced at the sound of his bridegroom’s voice. His joy was full as he decreased in order that that the light of Christ could increase.
There is no cheer in his memorable line: you brood of vipers. John does call us to repent, to change direction. In other words, to prune our lives of power, wealth, and consumption at the expense of others.
As Evan Hanson revels in community and the plot unfolds, it leads to one of the most moving songs in Dear Evan Hansen—at the end of Act I. It’s called “You Will Be Found.” I’ve never heard a Broadway song so Lutheran, or so perfect for Joy Sunday. Here are a few of the lyrics:
Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like could you fall, and no one would hear?
And oh, someone will come running
And I know, they’ll take you home.
So let the sun come streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
Lift up your head and look around
You will be found
After the shadows
The morning is breaking
And all is new, all is new.
You are not alone.
You will be found.
In the midst of your darkness, God runs to find you. Then sits with you and shares your pain. So, do not worry. The Lord is near. The peace of God passes all understanding. The Lord God is in your midst—in sadness and joy, in silence and song, in the bread of life and the cup of Advent cheer.
And God rejoices—did you hear it—God rejoices over you. God renews you in love and brings you home—to the place deep inside that is true and lasting peace. You are not alone. Even when there are still tears on your face, you faintly hear a voice saying: Cheer up, child of God, cheer up.