3 Advent B—12/14/14
Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thess. 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.
Well, what do you think? Do these seem like realistic expectations? And yet, St. Paul is clear in his letter to the Thessalonians that this is what Christian faith looks like. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to allow these high standards to guide our thoughts, words and deeds. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Each week of the Advent season has a different focus. The first week of Advent is about hope, the second week is about peace. Today is the third Sunday in the season of Advent and the focus is joy!
We hear the word “joy” a lot this time of year. One of the advertisements in our mail this past week was a postcard with the words “Joyful, Joyful” at the top. And below that it said, “30-40% off at Talbots.” What’s the message? Saving money will lead you to joy!
There’s a lot that passes for joy that isn’t true joy. For disciples of Jesus, the commercial substitutes for joy may not be as powerful an influence as another kind of substitute: Church-going people, for example, can easily convince themselves that being “religious” is sufficient.
Today’s gospel reading is the story of John the Baptist, the same story we heard last week from Mark’s gospel. This account is different, though. John is interrogated by representatives of the Pharisees. Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? Who are you? What do you say about yourself? Why are you baptizing? Relentless questions. Hostile questions.
These people are not interested in learning from John or Jesus. These are people whose first concern is keeping things the way they’ve always been, or, returning to a different time. Their first concern is clinging to their traditions and being right.
Last week I shared with you a question one of you recently asked aloud: Where is joy in the churches? One thing is guaranteed: Where the first concern is being “religious” there’s little chance of joy. Where the most important thing is being right, there’s practically no chance of joy.
In your experience, what does joy look like? What is the key to joy? No doubt there are many answers to that question, but surely the experience of joy has something to do with perspective–with the priorities we set. For example, maybe you’ve heard the old saying that the letters in the word “joy” stand for : Jesus Others You—in that order. J-O-Y spells joy. Put those letters in any other order (YOJ, OJY, etc.) and it’s just nonsense.
Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah seems to say as much. Isaiah proclaims, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus, God, Spirit—that comes first. If that is our first priority then our lives will be devoted to service of others, and not just others who are like us or whom we feel comfortable around: he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn…
J is for Jesus. O is for others, and Y is for you—in that order. The secret to all this is not believing that “You” are unimportant. No–my peace, my fulfillment, my joy depend on being clear about finding my rightful place in relationship to others.
What does joy look like? What does it look like to “rejoice always,” to “give thanks in all circumstances”? Is such a thing even humanly possible?
This past Thursday, you might have noticed, was an amazing day of rainbows. I even got a voicemail from someone who wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing out. Let me play that voicemail for you: “Hey, Pr. Scott, have you seen these rainbows? I think Julia’s starting to practice already. Amazing. It’s amazing! Ya gotta look out your window!”
Now, to receive a message like that from anyone is pretty cool. But did you recognize that voice? That’s Amie, mother of young Julia. Julia is dying; at six years old, she may not live to the end of the year, maybe not even until Christmas. And yet, hear the words of her mother. Here is a woman who has somehow found a way to Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.
Notice that Paul doesn’t say give thanks for all circumstances. Give thanks in all circumstances. For Amie that means connecting the dots between her daughter’s short time on this earth and the eternal hope represented by the awesome power and beauty of nature outside her window.
In this Advent season of hope we give thanks for living witnesses to the power of love, gratitude and joy to heal the world. Let us go and do likewise, as Paul says, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.
But, if this season of your life feels joyless, if joy seems like a remote possibility for you, find someone who can walk with you and be joyful for you and pray with and for you, and smother you with the assurance of God’s grace and love. Someone is calling you to see the rainbows! As Amie knows—as young Julia knows–life is too short to settle for anything less than joy. We are, after all, ambassadors of “joy to the world, for the Lord has come, let earth receive her king…”
(sing “Joy to the World”)