Preparing the (Happy?) Way: An Advent Devotional by Cynthia Holder Rich

“You don’t seem happy here, and we know that God wants you to be happy.”

In the midst of a difficult church meeting, this statement inspired an oft-amusing-but-sometimes-unfortunate predilection of mine for unexpectedly loud bursts of laughter in response to the absurd or ridiculous, one that has gotten me into trouble more than once. Swallowing hard rather than let the giggles, which were threatening to undo any semblance of sanity, out into the room, I asked, as quietly as I could, “Where did you get that idea?”

I don’t recall the answer to my question; it matters not, as we all knew that the outcome of our meeting was not destined for anyone to leave happy. While much happened that evening that isn’t worth recalling, that exchange has stuck with me through the years. I thought about it again as I reflected on Advent, on preparing the way and making paths straight, and on what we know about God and God’s view of divine-human relationships.

Truly, it’s a common-enough, and, unsurprisingly, wildly-popular theory: God desires and plans for our happiness. Frederick Buechner’s 1993 book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC includes his oft-quoted definition of vocation, “the place were your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”. Joel Osteen, whose writing is categorized as “inspirational”, publishes titles like Every Day a Friday: How to be Happier 7 Days a Week to wide acclaim, sales in the millions, and (I have no doubt) great amounts of inspiration for all his readers.

But then there’s the leaders we meet in the Bible – Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Moses, Deborah, Job, Jonah and Esther – to name just a few – who to a person are not a group marked by happiness. No matter how faithful their lives, no matter how much they relied on the Almighty for guidance and help, no matter how much they accomplished in the mission of God, all of that didn’t seem to make the quintessential happy difference. There is little – like, no – biblical evidence of a clear connection between a relationship with God and personal happiness.

In Mark’s Gospel, the text those in lectionary-based worship hear so often in this Advent season, the pattern continues. In just the first 15 verses, we hear from Isaiah about crying in the wilderness. Then we meet a man, weirdly dressed and supping on wild things, living in the wilderness and baptizing people in the river as they confess sins – perhaps the one who is crying? Then Jesus appears and is baptized, during which the heavens are torn open – a scene which is followed immediately by the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. Then we hear that John has been arrested and Jesus proclaims the good news that the time is fulfilled and God’s realm has come near.

For the life of me I don’t see one piece of human happiness in all of that.

Mark is known for being sparse on words. He’s the introvert of the Gospel writers, it seems. He works to get as many scenes in in as few verses and chapters as possible, and his narrative is generally light on details. He did figure out how to pack a punch, to provoke thought, to evoke reflection on the images in his rhetoric.

So much happens in those first verses, it can make your head spin.

The good news that Jesus came to bring – the good news that drove weird, wild and wooly old John the Baptizer out into the wilderness – this good news is a thing of power. It inspired, and inspires, wonder and awe. People are attracted to it – as it attracted those who came from the whole Judean countryside and even Jerusalem to hear what John was saying. They were so attracted, so energized, so full of hope – the force that all tyrants know must be quashed – that the Roman authorities knew that John had shifted from being just an odd, nuisance-provoking wild man to someone who represented risk – someone who had to be silenced and taken off the stage.

Whatever you think about John, it’s clear that “happiness” didn’t figure much in his persona, nor in his motivation to do what he did.

Then we come to Jesus, who, in typical Markan fashion, appears out of nowhere with little introduction. He came, he was baptized, the heavens were torn, he was driven into the wilderness, he was tempted for forty days, he was with the wild beasts and angels, and after John was arrested he came to Galilee proclaiming.

Was Jesus happy? We can’t tell from these verses.

But I doubt that that was the point.

This text, and many others in scripture, suggest that faithfulness, not happiness, is that which God desires from people. John is out in the wilderness because God sent him there. Jesus appears for the same reason, and begins proclamation, inspired by the same good news – which is good because it is of God. It’s good because it is the best news that was ever shared. It’s good because it is the one thing that offers life, and health, and truth, and peace, and hope.

It’s good, really good, even though it often will not result in us being happy.

I learned a song when I was a child – perhaps you learned it too.


I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.

I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.

Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin,

I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.


I loved singing this song – it had motions and clapping and it was fun to sing.

But it isn’t true. It isn’t true for me now that I am happy all the time; and if I am being exceedingly honest, I can tell you that I wasn’t happy all the time even as a child. The song’s lyric taught that knowing Jesus made one happy – all the time, one would be happy! But that doesn’t actually happen, and if we are judging our lives with Jesus by just how happy we are, it might make continuing to follow Jesus challenging. The fact is, happiness in one’s walk of faith is a sometime-thing. Particularly if we try to make big decisions on the basis of whether we are happy or not, we just might find ourselves tossed about on every wind of doctrine, running after every new trend, wandering away from responsibilities that are tedious, looking for a new relationship when one in which we have invested becomes hard…you get the picture. And as we are called to make big decisions, stay faithful when it is hard, be constant when it is boring, and continue the walk of faith, Jesus will match us toe to toe, yea, overmatch us every day. Jesus’ faithfulness, constancy, presence and grace is undeniably great, a rock on which we can rest in a weary land, a force of good offering blessed assurance in days both good and hard, leading us onward as we, God’s gentle angry people, continue singing for our lives. Jesus’ good news gives us power, strength and wisdom to continue in the struggle – yes, the struggle – no matter how many tyrants occupy seats of power; no matter how many powerful people harass and assault the vulnerable; no matter how many fools believe that their decisions are the last word.

In reflection about an un-happy exchange in that church meeting so long ago, I have come to realize that encouragements to be happy – to lighten up – to not be so serious among we who follow Jesus can arise from an understandable desire for the walk of faith to be easy. It would be great if discipleship was, for the most part, painless and straightforward. The truth is, I wasn’t unhappy there; I tried, in flawed and broken ways, to be faithful, which, at times, didn’t create happiness for me (or, it must be said, for those with whom I served). Every Advent, we in the church begin a new year, and each new year is a new chance, a new opportunity, a new dawn breaking from on high in which to follow Jesus from the manger to the cross. This year, as we listen to Mark’s sparse, activity-laden text, may we hear and join in John’s wonder at the knowledge of the One who is to come, in Jesus’ call to repent and believe, and may we know power, strength, and hope sufficient to join Jesus on the road.


Cynthia Holder Rich serves as Lecturer in Practical Theology at Tumaini University Makumira, near Arusha, Tanzania. She has served in parish ministry, on the faculty of theological seminaries in the US and Madagascar, and serves as the founding director of She holds degrees from the University of Dubuque, McCormick Theological Seminary, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is grateful to God for the call to serve, for her marriage to the Rev. Dr. Mark Rich, and for the great and awesome privilege to parent three wonderful young adult children, all of whom bring her comfort and joy!