Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Third Sunday of Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – December 17, 2017
Are we there yet? We’re still in Advent. We’re still in that holy time of waiting, that time of repentance and preparation, before the great celebration of Christmas – Jesus’ coming into our worlds and our lives. And I love the season of Advent. It’s quiet and reflective. It’s a time of listening and learning, of practicing what it is to move slowly. It’s also a time for practicing joy.
This third Sunday in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday – joy or rejoice Sunday! It takes its name from Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice!” In the Middle Ages, Advent was period of fasting and repentance which was later shortened to four weeks. In order to give people a little breather, Gaudete Sunday was included – a reminder that Jesus has already come and that our hearts can rejoice in this good news.
We still celebrate Joy Sunday and I think it’s important to do so. In many ways I think we have neglected talking and teaching about Christian joy. We think about joy and we make it synonymous with happiness, but I think they are too very different things. My understanding, which is totally up for debate, is that joy is deeper – that it’s lasting and abiding, whereas happiness is fleeting feeling dependent on external conditions. I can have joy in the fact that Christ is with me in a difficult situation, but I may not be happy about the situation itself. Take, for example, that Philippians verse I quoted earlier: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice.” These words were written while Paul was sitting in prison. Even so in this very short letter he actually uses the word “rejoice” seventeen times! Sitting in prison, experiencing suffering on behalf of the Gospel, Paul certainly wasn’t happy about his situation, but he was filled with joy being able to bear witness to Christ through his life and circumstances.
Henri Nouwen describes joy as “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” He adds, “I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope … Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It is a fruit borne of abiding in Jesus and in relationship with him. And Advent is the perfect time to practice this. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Advent creates people; new people.” Part of being in relationship with people is sharing stories with each another. It is listening and paying attention to where those stories overlap and how they instruct and inform our lives now and in the future. The books, music, series, and movies we gravitate to are captivating because they tell stories and because they reflect the stories and textures of our own lives.
Which brings us to the other theme of today’s readings. The people in Isaiah, Luke, and John are all telling stories of who God has been for them in their lives and in the world in the past and sharing these stories to proclaim what God is doing in the present.
After the child in her cousin Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, Mary sings her beautiful song of praise. “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: you, the Almighty, have done great things for me and holy is your name.” She recalls how God has done great things for her in her life, but also how God has been there for God’s people and how God’s actions will affect the whole world: God comes to the aid of Israel, remembers God’s promise of mercy in the covenant, scatters the proud, casts down the mighty, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry, and sends the rich away empty. It’s her testimony to God’s goodness in her own life, the life of the community, and the life of the world.
This storytelling about God is witnessing. It’s giving a testimony to who God is, what God has done, and what God is doing. In recalling God’s faithfulness and love in the past, we are given hope, courage, and boldness to act in the future. As Marshall Ganz explains, “Stories not only teach us how to act – they inspire us to act. Stories communicate our values through the language of the heart, our emotions. And it is what we feel — our hopes, our cares, our obligations – not simply what we know, that can inspire us with the courage to act.” They also encourage others and point the way to God – just as John the Baptist wasn’t the light or the Messiah, but pointed to Christ the light and Messiah.
It is in the process of bearing witness, of testifying to God, that we abide in God. That we strengthen our relationship with God. That we learn and grow in Christ, and we discover that deep and abiding joy. It’s the joy that can bear grief, difficulties, challenges, frustration, and even sorrow, all because it is rooted in something greater. It is rooted in the love and promises of God. It is grounded in the trust that has developed over time in having experienced that love and having seen those promises fulfilled. That is the joy that Israel knew from centuries of living in a covenantal relationship with God. It is the joy that Mary knew from worshiping God, even before she gave birth to Jesus. It’s the joy she kept even though she was told a “sword would pierce her heart also” because of all pain her dear son and she would suffer. It is the joy that John knew even while living in the dangerous wilderness and surviving on locusts and honey. And it’s the joy that we as followers of Christ are exhorted to practice so we experience and allow the Holy Spirit to work in and flow through us: “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.”
I said earlier that I love Advent. And that is one thousand percent true. But I have also been feeling the time crunch. I don’t think I have half my shopping done. Every day I receive a plethora of e-mails and flyers telling me to “hurry!” for “last-minute deals!” Our house is a wreck and we’re trying to get the bathroom remodeled before Jeff’s sister arrives on Christmas Eve. We don’t even have a tree up. Instead there is a new toilet in our front room. I won’t put lights around that… And the neighbor’s child, out of pity, offered in a whisper to let us borrow some of their Christmas lights because, as Jeff says, “We’re losing at Christmas!” So, believe me, I, too, am feeling some of the stress.
But it’s helpful for me to remember that we rejoice during this time, not because we spend the most money on presents, or make the perfect meal, or have the most postcard-perfect decorations. We rejoice because Christ has come. He has come into the chaos and the messiness of our lives to declare God’s love, forgiveness and reconciliation for all of us. No matter where we are, what we’ve done, how much is left unaccomplished, or how many times we fall on our faces trying so hard to be all things for all people. We rejoice because he has set us free from sin, death, and the devil, once and for all, and no one can take that from us. He has come in love to be in relationship with each of us – with all of us.
And though we continue to wait for his coming when all things will be made new and all sorrow will cease, we know we can trust the his promises because we continue to recall and bear witness to how he has been at work in our lives in the past. So as we journey through Advent, may this be a wonderful time to practice telling your story about where you have experienced God lately. And in the process, may you find yourself practicing joy, drawing from that deep well that will sustain you throughout your life. Thanks be to God. Amen.