Preparing for Joy (12/11/16)
Hieronymus Bosch, John the Baptist in the Wilderness
On the third Sunday of Advent we considered the difference between happiness and joy, including some images from popular culture such as a song by Joni Mitchell and an episode of Seinfeld.
Good morning! I have to tell you, this has been a challenging week for me. On Thursday I came down with a head cold--I’m sure you can hear it in my voice. That wasn’t my greatest challenge. No. Also on Thursday, my computer died. Now I’ve had that laptop for many years and I knew it was on its last legs. But I had hoped it would last a couple more days, because, well, I hadn’t written my sermon.
There’s a computer in my study here at the church and I used it. I worked on the sermon until the session meeting, but I didn’t finish it that night. So I had a choice. Either I could drive here and use this computer, or I could check with my friends to see if anyone had a computer I could use.
Fortunately, my dear friend Charissa invited me to use one of the computers at her house. Charissa is one of my best friends from seminary and I’m a frequent guest at her house. I wasn’t surprised that she offered to let me use one of their computers. Her husband is a computer engineer and they have several computers at home. However, they also have two young, rambunctious children at home. It’s not a peaceful place to write a sermon. Yet as luck would have it, Charissa and her husband and their kids were invited to a party on Saturday afternoon. I had a quiet place to finish writing this sermon--in peace! But peace was last Sunday.
This morning we lit the Joy candle on the Advent wreath. As I was thinking about what I might say on the theme of joy this morning, two ideas popped into my head. The first was a song by Joni Mitchell called, “River.” Do any of you know the song? It was released in 1971—like me—so some of you might be a little too young to get the reference.
“River” is a really interesting tune. It begins with just the piano playing the melody of “Jingle Bells,” except, she changes the chords. Instead of the happy, peppy tune we’re used to, she plays something that’s tinged with sadness, yet we still recognize the happy melody. The song begins with these lyrics:
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with Joni Mitchell, she’s originally from Western Canada, but she was living in Los Angeles when she wrote this song. It’s a song about a breakup; she’s sad at a time when she should be happy. Instead of singing songs of joy and peace, Mitchell wants to get away—she’s not at peace herself and she wants to get away from people who are filled with joy.
The other idea that popped into my head as I thought about the lighting of the Joy candle was an episode of Seinfeld called, “Serenity Now.” I’m sure many of you’ve seen it. For those of you who haven’t, there’s a character named George Costanza, and he’s very neurotic. George’s father, Frank, tells George if he’s feeling stressed out, he should simply repeat the mantra, “serenity now,” until the stress has passed. Of course when Frank Costanza repeats the mantra, it sounds a little different. Instead of “serenity now,” it’s, “SERENITY NOW!” This works, but only for a little while—eventually George and Frank both go crazy because they’re ignoring their real problems.
The joke works because Jerry Stiller, the actor who played Frank Costanza, is a masterful comic actor. The joke also works because there’s nothing serene about him screaming, “SERENITY NOW!” It’s the comedic equivalent of Joni Mitchell putting sad chords behind the happy melody of “Jingle Bells.” Both of these items from popular culture show us how far away we can be from joy or peace. For many of us, the darkness is never far away.
In this morning’s scriptures, we find lots of joy in our readings from Isaiah and the Psalms, but not so much joy in our gospel lesson. This seems to be the pattern for this year’s Advent readings. Isaiah offers us a vision of renewal: the blind shall see, the deaf shall hear, the lame shall walk, and those who cannot speak shall regain their voices. Likewise, the Psalmist reminds us that the God of Jacob will feed us and grant us justice; God will watch over the stranger and uphold the widow and the orphan. This is great stuff! But our gospel lesson gives us an exchange between Jesus and John the Baptist. The joy in this story, it’s not so clear.
Last Sunday, I said that John the Baptist doesn’t give me a sense of peace. I would add that he doesn’t fill me with joy, either. Last Sunday we heard John calling upon the people of Judea to repent. Today we hear John ask if Jesus really is the Messiah. Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead, he tells John’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus tells John to look at the deeds that have been done. These deeds are the fulfillment that God promised in Isaiah and in the Psalms. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s faithfulness. Now surely, John had already heard the stories of Jesus’ miracles, but he still felt the need to ask the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It seems that John was not feeling the joy or the peace.
Then Jesus addresses the crowd: “What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who are dressed in soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Jesus tells the crowd that John the Baptist is the prophet who was foretold by Isaiah, the messenger who would herald the coming Messiah. Like John, the crowd is uncertain that Jesus is the Messiah, but they know that something’s not right in their world.
John the Baptist was not a man who wore the soft robes of royalty. As we heard in last week’s gospel lesson, “John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” In other words, John was neither a member of the royal family, nor a member of the priestly class. He wasn’t rich. He was an outsider.
Judea was a tiny province on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. The Romans took the land from the Greeks, who had conquered most of the Middle East under the leadership of Alexander the Great. The Romans allowed the Greek kings to continue to rule their lands, as long as they paid their taxes to Rome. The Jewish religious leaders were also allowed to maintain their religious authority over the Jewish people. Both the religious and political leaders depended on Roman approval to maintain their positions of power and authority.
Many people in Judea felt that the religious and political leaders had been corrupted by the Romans. The leaders didn’t follow the ancient covenants with the Lord; they didn’t execute justice for the oppressed or feed the hungry; they didn’t uphold the orphan and the widow. The people of Judea wanted leaders who acted in righteousness. Roman rule was a stumbling block.
The people of Judea sought their fulfillment in conventional terms; they wanted to drive the Romans out of Judea. They were seeking what they expected to find in the world as it was. The people expected a military victory; they expected justice and restoration based on a vision of the Israel of their past--a past they never actually knew. In short, the people of Judea wanted a slightly better version of the world as it already was. Jesus offers something completely different: Jesus offers eternal life and also a complete renewal of the created world.
John the Baptist and his disciples question if Jesus is the Messiah; the crowds question whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps we do, too. I think we can all get behind the idea of eternal life, going to heaven, and being reunited with family and friends. But that transformation of the world is a lot harder for me to wrap my head around. Sometimes it seems like we’re not making any progress toward that peaceful kingdom that Isaiah describes. This makes it hard to live into the joy that accompanies the birth of Jesus.
I believe there’s an important distinction to be made between joy and happiness. In our secular world, these two words are interchangeable. But I believe that happiness is a thing of this world; true joy comes from God. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking happiness. Being happy is good, but it doesn’t always last. I’m happy when I eat a good meal. However, my happiness can be disrupted by the things of this world.
Joy is of the Spirit; it comes to us from God. Joy is not so easily disrupted. Joy comes with the knowledge that our true identity is in Christ. Joy comes with the knowledge that God loves us and that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son into the world. Joy comes when we gather together in his name to worship and praise God and the lamb. Joy comes when we recognize God’s presence and love in our lives and joy comes when we share that love with others.
The difficulty comes when we see the world as it is; when we see poverty and violence; when we see leaders who do not act justly, who fail to uphold the widow and the orphan. The difficulty comes when we don’t see any change in this world. Then doubt creeps in, like a thief in the night. Doubt disturbs our happiness and makes us question our joy. In our doubt, we chase material fulfillment; we choose happiness; we choose the things of the world as it is. We draw our identities from the jobs that we hold, rather than the relationships we have--rather than our true identity as beloved children of God. We struggle to recall Jesus’ deeds: the blind who have received sight, the lame who walk, the lepers who are cleansed, the deaf who hear, the dead who have been raised, and the poor who have heard the good news.
To understand this gospel lesson and its claim on our lives, we mustn’t miss the fact that Jesus calls out the crowd. Essentially, he asks them: What were you expecting to see? He calls out John the Baptist: Haven’t you heard about the miracles? And in the same way, Jesus calls us out: Haven’t you heard the story already? Why aren’t you living into the hope and the peace and the love and the joy? This is the grace that Jesus offers. He shakes us out of our slumber! He invites us to look within.
As I said earlier. I’m a frequent dinner guest at the home of my friend Charissa. Having a good meal may make me happy, but that happiness doesn’t always last. Having a good meal with Charissa and her family makes me happy AND it gives me joy. At her table there is a sharing in the Spirit. We all recognize that we are God’s beloved children and we are gathered in His name. It’s more than a good meal; something more profound is going on. It’s a thing of theological importance; the joy is real and it comes from God.
During this season of Advent, I urge you to look within to see the true joy--the joy of our identity in Christ. Seek out those places where you feel that joy. Create those spaces if you need to. Decorate your home to remind yourself of the real gift this season. Share the joy with others who are in Christ. Invite them into your home or any place where you encounter that joy. And then spread the joy and share the love with those who do not yet know Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember seek out the joy of Christ and then share that joy with everyone you meet. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!