Earlier this week, I had one of those really difficult conversations with a friend, who just needed a sympathetic ear so that she could process some things out loud. She was leaving the funeral of an infant, the only child of a friend from her hometown, and also part of the home day-care group of children to which her youngest daughter belongs. The pain and grief were too much for her to bear alone, so I held the phone and we talked for her hour-long drive home. We talked about how unfair life can be, how it doesn’t make sense that sometimes babies can be healthy one day and die the next, due to no trauma or discernible illness. We talked about how hard it must be for the parents, as well as the daycare provider who found the child unresponsive, to always be wondering if they could have or should have done something differently that would have prevented the tragedy from happening. And that even though there was an investigation and no wrongdoing or injury had taken place, that the parents and extended family seemed to be projecting their grief toward my friend, and others in the same daycare group simply for the fact that their children were perfectly healthy and alive. For the parents of the child who is gone, it is unimaginable grief that has no answers. And for the parents of all the children still here, there is guilt for their survival. Which led us to the question, “How are you supposed to go on with your life now, and enjoy your child’s preschool Christmas program, and have fun and laugh with your family, knowing that a family down the street no longer has a child to watch grow up and play and laugh with?” How can you enjoy the blessings in your own life in the midst of the pain, grief, and struggle around you? Or, if you are the one grieving, or in pain, or suffering in any way, how do you find joy, especially at this time of year when the celebrating and merry-making are all around you?
In our Advent journey toward Christmas, we’ve been reflecting on those times when we do struggle, when we perceive more darkness than light, when we feel conflict, anger, sorrow, or despair. But today, the third Sunday of Advent, is Joy Sunday, so named from the Latin word, “Gaudete,” meaning “Rejoice” – a day when we start to turn our attention to the joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth, and Christ’s kingdom breaking into our world. So today, we’ll be looking for clues in each of our scriptures as to the ways that we as God’s people are meant to rejoice, or find joy, in light of the coming of the One who is the Light of the World.
Our Old Testament Reading today is from Isaiah chapter 61, verses 1-4 and 8-11. These verses are part of Isaiah’s words to God’s people who have returned from exile to find their homes, their city and their temple destroyed. This set of writings began with our scriptures from last week, in which God instructed Isaiah to speak tender words of comfort as the Israelites returned to Jerusalem to find devastation and ruin and loss. Towards the end of this part of Isaiah’s text, he announces to them the Good News of Deliverance, as one translation describes it, or Joyful Proclamations, according to another translation.
Hear now these words from the Prophet:
1 The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and a day of vindication for our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 to provide for Zion’s mourners,
to give them a crown in place of ashes,
oil of joy in place of mourning,
a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.
They will be called Oaks of Righteousness,
planted by the Lord to glorify himself.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins;
they will restore formerly deserted places;
they will renew ruined cities,
places deserted in generations past.
8 I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and dishonesty.
I will faithfully give them their wage,
and make with them an enduring covenant.
9 Their offspring will be known among the nations,
and their descendants among the peoples.
All who see them will recognize
that they are a people blessed by the Lord.
10 I surely rejoice in the Lord;
my heart is joyful because of my God,
because he has clothed me with clothes of victory,
wrapped me in a robe of righteousness
like a bridegroom in a priestly crown,
and like a bride adorned in jewelry.
11 As the earth puts out its growth,
and as a garden grows its seeds,
so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.
Today’s New Testament reading is from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the newly converted Christians, or church, in Thessalonica. This letter is the earliest written part of our New Testament, written around 50 A.D. – written even before the gospels were put down on papyrus. Like Isaiah, Paul is also giving words of encouragement to God’s people – to a new community of faith who were once exiled, or excluded, from the religion practiced by the Israelites. These Gentiles were now being included as an extension of God’s family. But, as they were previously what we would call today the “unchurched,” they were learning how to build a new community as a counter-cultural expression of God’s selfless agape love in the midst of a culture that practiced an “anything-goes” religion with multiple deities, and forms of cult rituals that allowed the worshiper to indulge in practices of self-gratification. In the face of persecution and ridicule from their neighbors, they needed encouragement to live lives that witnessed to the good news of Jesus Christ in the way they cared for and nurtured one another.
Hear now this reading from I Thessalonians 5:16-24:
16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Don’t suppress the Spirit. 20 Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, 21 but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil. 23 Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming. 24 The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.
This is God’s Word for God’s people today. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray:
This is the day that You have made!
This is the day you have called Holy:
Sabbath day, a rest day, a time-out,
out of the world and into the presence of God: a day for rejoicing.
Make us glad this morning in the House of the Lord.
Remove from us our distractions, our heart-worries,
our to-dos and should-haves and all the constant stress & strain.
And in its place, O God, give us more of You.
Here in your House, our hearts are filled with peace
our mouths with laughter,
our tongues with shouts of joy.
Fill us to brimming and overflowing with the joy of the Lord:
A good measure of God, pressed down,
shaken together and running over.
We are glad, yes, we are glad indeed,
to be together in the House of the Lord!
~ posted on Literature & Liturgy.
Our passage from Isaiah today may seem familiar – not just because it is one of those advent readings we have come to recognize every three years; but because these are some of the very words that Jesus himself read when he had the opportunity to preach in his hometown synagogue. Luke tells us in chapter 4 of his gospel:
17 The synagogue assistant gave [Jesus] the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
When Isaiah delivered this good news, it was to those who had been exiled; those who had been captive and oppressed, those who were returning poor and empty-handed. And he delivered this message in the midst of a time when God’s people saw their captivity and the desolation of their city as a consequence of the time before, when they let their acrimony cause divisions, let their leaders pay for privilege, and ignored the poor and oppressed among them; a way of living which they believed was a direct cause of the fall of their nation! It must have been difficult for them to hear these words from the prophet and find reasons to rejoice. They were coming face to face with the total devastation they believed was their own doing. So how could they hear any news as good news? What would make this seem like a joyous proclamation? In other words, is it possible for them, or for us, to experience joy in the midst of sorrows?
We seem to always be living in the “in between” times – the time between the way things are now and the way things should be. Think for a moment about how things are now… there’s certainly a fair share of acrimony in our society and political landscape today; people have responded to research polls saying that they feel more divided as a country today than every before. If you’ve seen any news headlines recently, you see that there is corruption in leadership and a blind eye for the poor, the oppressed, those in prisons, those who are homeless, and those who are strangers in our midst. People we know and love are grieving losses, are suffering illness or addictions, are loosing their jobs, their marriages, or their homes, or are just loosing their sense of worth, their sense of belonging, and their sense of purpose. Our world, our community, even our homes are not always what they should be. We long for God’s justice to put these situations right; to bring good news, to bring freedom, to bring wholeness.
The joy that is promised in the words of Isaiah is the joy of everything being as it should be, of ‘shalom,’ of the world restored to the way it was intended. This is the joy of salvation that God offers, and that comes in Jesus – Jesus, whose very names means ‘God Saves.’ This salvation is not limited to an escape plan at the end of life in this world, but gives us a quality of life that comes with the reign of God in the here and now, through the advent, or coming, of Jesus Christ. In Isaiah 61, salvation looks like a restored city, and a thriving garden. It looks like good news, liberty, healing, release, and comfort. Those who live in the kingdom, or reign of God, live differently because of their response to God’s reign and rule in their lives. Isaiah says that the nations of the world will see what God has done for Israel and will know “that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.” God’s salvation is real, tangible and visible in the here and now. To live with this kind of joy means that we understand the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God, when God favors those who are sick, excluded, poor, weak, grieving and suffering. When Jesus notices and has compassion – not for the haughty and self-righteous and power-hungry, but for the outcasts, the sinners, the tax collectors, the adulterers, and the demon-possessed.
If Jesus were walking through the rural towns and suburban neighborhoods of Iowa today, who would Jesus notice and be drawn to? The poor, rural farmers? The unwed mothers on Medicaid and Snap? The heroin- and meth-possessed? The undocumented immigrants? The LGBTQ community? The chronically ill with little to no healthcare? The aged and elderly, lost and forgotten? The bullied? The sexually assaulted college student? The battered and bruised at home? And can you imagine what it might mean to one of these to hear a word of God for them? That Jesus is coming to bring them freedom and release from their addictions, oppressors and assailants? To bring healing and comfort for the injured, the ill, the lonely, the ignored; those who have been tossed out or locked up? Would that news give them reason to rejoice?
If we as God’s people have the capacity to be joyful in the midst of the shadows of our own sorrows, then how much more joy could we experience by bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to those who do not know him, by living a life that shares the good news of God’s care for others in the way that we ourselves offer welcome, compassion, healing, comfort, kindness and freedom from judgement to those living on the margins today?
Participating in God’s kingdom means living out God’s salvation in ways that show the nations God’s good news, liberation, justice, healing and comfort, and which creates a longing for them to draw near to God who longs to draw near to them. This is the mission of God – that through us, others would come to know Jesus, and would be willing to change their lives in order to live together in God’s kingdom, until the whole world is restored back to its intended wholeness, the way it should be. Our church’s mission statement echoes this same idea: the mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Being a disciple, or follower of the way of Jesus, is supposed to change us and the way we live. And our living in a way that is different than the world around us, is supposed to change the way the world is – it is supposed to transform the world.
When Paul wrote to the new Christian community in Thessalonica, he was making this very point. He urges them to be ready for Christ’s coming, to be ready for this transformation. For us today, that is what the season of Advent is all about – making our spiritual selves ready for Christ’s coming to transform us and our world, once again! He gives them three practical ways to engage in a spiritual preparation. He tells them: “Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation.”
We’ve already asked, how can we be joyful always, even in the midst of sorrow and despair. Author and theologian Henri Nouwen puts it this way: while happiness usually depends on circumstances, joy runs deeper. “Joy," he writes, "is 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.” Being loved unconditionally is really good news! It’s the sort of good news that can transform a person’s life when they are accepted, when they belong, when they are beloved. It gives them a reason to love themselves, which opens the door to being more loving toward others, and before you know it, you’ve changed one little corner of someone’s world.
I read once that the way that Christians rejoice and the way that Christians give thanks is by praying. Put the other way around, constant rejoicing and regular thanksgiving are themselves perpetual prayer. Praying continually is one of the ways that our transformation serves as a witness to the culture around us. It keeps us connected to the saving graces of God, which gives us reason to rejoice and give thanks, which changes the way we treat others. It grows agape love within us, a love that reaches out to those we’ve already mentioned as being on the margins.
One of my favorite contemporary Christian writers is Anne Lamott. She recently wrote a book about her own experiences with prayer titled, “Help. Thanks. Wow.” In it she says,
“Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy—all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. Or maybe, miraculously, we just release our grip slightly. Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray.) Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape. So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.”
She goes on to explain that in their simplest forms, her three forms of prayer are: “Help.” “Thanks.” and “Wow.” “Help” is the first prayer we learn to pray on our own, the prayer that pleads for God’s mercy or forgiveness, or for the puppy we really want our parents to let us have, or for the cancer to go away, or for someone to come home. As we mature in our faith, we begin to notice more and more the ways that God’s help is present in our lives, and the way that God is present, and God is Love, and God is Light and Goodness, and we begin to say, “Thanks.”
Lamott says, “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back." (Lamott, Anne. Help, Thanks, Wow. Penguin Publishing Group.)
She says her third great prayer is “Wow.” Wow, look at that sunset, or wow, listen to that glorious music, or wow, I never expected that. We say, “wow” when the heavens open and the glory of God is revealed – to us! When we realize that heaven is breaking into our world, that God is Emmanuel – with us; when the world seems just a little more like the way it should be. That’s the miracle of Christmas, when the angels sang their tidings of great joy which were for all people, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
Living between the way things are and the way things should be, the already but the not yet, can be a challenge. It can be hard for us to wait for Christmas, to wait for God’s reign, to wait for the world to change. But it begins in small ways. An unwed teen says yes to becoming a mother; a baby is born in a stable; a rabbi reads a scripture in his hometown which begins a movement for a new world order. Today, someone is grieving, someone is barely making ends meet, someone is running out of options, someone is running out of time, or patience, or lies. How can we share the good news so that that person’s life becomes a little brighter, a little more hopeful, a little more joyful?
I want to challenge you this week to practice at least one intentional act of kindness each day from now until Christmas. And maybe by Christmas, we will have committed ourselves to this way of finding and spreading joy. And maybe by Christmas, we will have found that this way of living changes us and a small part of the world around us. Maybe we will find it easier to do this in the name of Jesus, and even to share the good news that this kindness and compassion comes from the unconditional love of God that is for everyone, yes everyone.
I’m using an Advent devotional this year called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas by Quinn Caldwell, and among its descriptions, it says, “These daily readings offer the skeptic, the over-committed the opportunity to make room-perhaps just enough room for God to show up.” I’m going to close with one of Quinn’s prayers – a prayer that offers a joyful response to the challenges of today – a song.
Come, Loneliness, and we will sing to you of Emanuel, God with us. Come, Death, for Hark, the Herald Angels sing that Christ is risen with healing in his wings. Come, Depression, and we will sing “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” and we will hold that long o until you are no more. Come, Power, and we will sing to you that the first Noel was to poor shepherds. Come, Despair, and we will sing joy to your world. Come, Racism. Come, homophobia. Come sexism. For tonight is your silent night. Come, War, and we will sing you to sleep. Come, all ye faithful, and sing. Lord, we may not be able to read music, or carry a tune in a bucket. But we’re going to sing your praises anyway. Amen. (Caldwell, Quinn G.. All I Really Want . Abingdon Press.)