That Your Joy May Be Made Complete
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In a world where we can buy Advent Cheese Calendars and NHL Advent Calendars, we do well to know about the meaning of some of the symbols the church uses around this season. This is the third Sunday of Advent – the coming into being, the arrival of Christ. This is the Sunday of joy. Have you ever wondered why the Advent Candle of Joy is pink? Take a look at how it stands out in the Advent candle wreath.
The official liturgical reason is this – “Advent is a season of penitence, but there is an inherent incompatibility between an attitude of penitence and an expression of joy, so we lighten the candle of joy to rose or pink.” You may or may not agree with this statement, but we’ll come back to it.
It has been suggested that we think of the pink Candle of Joy as blushing. I wonder if you’re prone to blushing. I’ve been known to be actually. It’s been suggested that the candle might even be seen to be blushing in a bit of a sheepish way. Does it even have any right to be there? How is it that we’re able to talk about joy at the end of 2020 and all that this year has brought? The last bit of bad news I received I thought to myself “Well isn’t 2020 the year that just keeps on giving?” Even the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree’s branches were looking pretty sparse when it arrived in Manhattan from upstate New York. What are we to make of this Sunday of Joy, of this blushing pink candle of joy?
Staying with the blushing though first of all for a few moments, it’s an interesting physiological phenomenon. It’s a result of adrenaline that widens the capillaries close to the surface of the skin. It’s most often seen in the face, which has been described as the prime source of communication and emotion – yes that makes sense. We may blush because we’ve committed some sort of social transgression. We may blush because we’re ashamed, embarrassed, or regretful. We may blush because we’re excited or attracted to someone. No matter why we’re blushing, however, there is one thing that drives it – a heightened self-consciousness.
I wonder what it might mean for us this Advent to have a heightened state of, not so much self-consciousness but rather what you might think of as God-consciousness. What might it mean for us to live in the joy of God? Much is being said about this year and what it means to live in the “midst of a pandemic.” We’ve talked about unexpected blessings. I’ve said that while Advent is different this year there’s no reason it can’t be good and meaningful. What might make it so?
One thing about this year is the things that have been stripped away. If we think about joy as a feeling we soon come to realize that there is a lot of manufactured joy. Happy hours. Holidays to the “best place on earth.” Buy this and you will be happy. Christmas can become a time that is consumed with buying and preparing and trying to figure out how to make all our social engagements and fighting over the last Turbo Man action figure or what have you. It’s a time that a lot of people who are outside family gatherings and numerous social engagements and obligations can feel very much outside of things. I came across this quote about manufactured illusory joy - “Christmas has become a time when companies send elaborate gifts to their clients to thank them for their business when post offices work overtime to process an overload of greeting cards when immense amounts of money are spent on food and drink and socializing becomes a full-time activity. There are trees, decorated streets, sweet tunes in the supermarket, and children saying to their parents ‘I want this and I want that.’ The shallow happiness of busy people often fills the place meant to experience the deep, lasting joy of Emmanuel, God-with-us.”
Our joy is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Could the stripping away of many of the things that we are missing this year, the things that we are grieving because we are missing them lead to a deeper joy? Are joy and grief incompatible? Should it make me blush to even mention them in the same sentence?
If you’re sharing this worship time with us you have some interest in knowing what it means or at least knowing what it might mean to know the joy of God with us. We start with the prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah was a penitent prophet in Jerusalem, speaking out with words like “Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord, it has not drawn near to God (and if we are not hearing ourselves addressed in these words we should be). The officials within it are roaring lions, its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning, its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.” (Zeph 3:1-4)
And well we may blush for shame.
This is not the end of the story, however. Zephaniah might have blushed too at the seeming incompatibility between shame and praise and rejoicing. He knew, as someone has said, that changing shame into praise is what God does. How? Simply God’s presence. I say simply but there is nothing simple about it, it’s the most profound thing in the world. V 14 - “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” How can he have gone from “Ah soiled, defiled, oppressing city” to talk of singing and shouting and rejoicing and exulting? “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: do not fear, O Zion: do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst…”
What would make us sing aloud and shout? What would make us rejoice with all our hearts this Christmas?
Fast forwards a few hundred years. Two women meet. One from a little town up north. With child before she expected to be. Another from a town in the hill country of Judea. With child much later than she ever expected to be. We find joy in the most unexpected places, and joy enters this scene even at the moment of greeting. Even little John knows what’s going on. When God’s salvation is at hand, things tend to get jumping. There are these great lines in Psalm 114. The Psalm is all about deliverance. It’s about Israel’s deliverance from Egypt – God’s proleptic saving act. It goes like this “When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.” (Ps 114:1-4)
And so John skips and he’s not even born. Elizabeth exclaims to her cousin “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Elizabeth is shouting. She’s exclaiming with a loud cry. John is jumping for joy. Mary starts to sing and the words of Zephaniah return to us. Sing aloud O daughter Zion! Shout O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!
What would make us shout for joy or jump for joy or sing for joy or all three this Christmas? The promise of God with us? The fulfillment of God with us? The looking forward to God with us? This is the thing about Mary’s song. We’re not going to spend a lot of time on it now but Beatrice is going to sing it – He has looked with mercy on my loneliness. He has cast down the mighty in their arrogance. He has lifted up the meek and lowly. We might say that work is not finished, but note that Mary is talking about God’s saving acts, God’s turning things upside down acts as if they had already happened. With God, there’s really no difference you see.
Elizabeth might have been blushing too. Elizabeth wonders at the unlikelihood of it all. “Why has this happened to me,” she asks “That the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Do you ever ask that? How can it be that I can know the love and grace and mercy and presence of God? Kris Kristofferson wrote a whole song about it after Christ found him at the Evangel Temple in Nashville. Why me Lord? What have I ever done, to deserve even one, of the pleasures I’ve known. The unlikeliness of it all. May this be something that causes us with gratitude to wonder this Christmas friends. The wonder of living in the joy of God.
Because ultimately this is where joy finds us. In God with us. There’s much talk about finding your joy and how to do this. The truth is that in Christ the joy of God finds us. Elizabeth and Mary are still living under an oppressive foreign regime. Is there an inherent incompatibility between this situation and joy? Mary sings that her spirit rejoices in God my saviour. Circumstances in her life will be trying. For many people, living through this past year has thrown into sharp relief the truth that circumstances in life will be trying. She will lose her son for three days in Jerusalem when he’s 12. Twenty some-odd years later she will again lose him for three days in Jerusalem. That will not be, of course, the end of the story.
The kind of joy we’re talking about is not dependent on circumstances. It’s solely dependent on the saving birth, death, resurrection, and promised return of Emmanuel – God with us. We’ve talked about the audacity of hope, the impertinence of peace. Someone has written about the embarrassment of joy in the face of challenging circumstances, like we might feel bad about expressing it or even trying to articulate it in the midst of, say a pandemic. The kind of joy that we’re talking about has been described like this – “Joyful persons do not necessarily make jokes, laugh, or even smile. They are not people with an optimistic outlook on life who always relativize the seriousness of a moment or event. No, joyful persons see with open eyes the hard reality of human existence and at the same time are not imprisoned by it… they know that death has no final power. They suffer with those who suffer, yet they do not hold on to suffering; they point beyond it to an everlasting peace.”
Sometimes we laugh too. At this time of year, I think, particularly of my father. He died on December 12th, 16 years ago. It was sudden and hit my family hard. We were grieving hard and the day of his funeral was a heavy day. At the same time, we were reminded of an everlasting hope and peace and joy and love that day. Six of us were carrying his casket out of Kincardine Baptist Church, all his sons, and two grandsons. It was hard. I mean physically hard, it was heavy and we had to negotiate it down some twisting steps at the back of the church. Our dad had always told us when doing manual work to watch our hands, wear gloves. He was big into safety and we need our hands for guitar and piano and drums. Someone said “Watch your hands” and I said, “Are you not wearing gloves son??” We all started to laugh. The funeral director was looking at us and I may have even blushed. Not really though because I knew even at that age that in Christ, sorrow and joy can exist quite comfortably.
Is there an inherent incompatibility between sorrow and joy? Is there an inherent incompatibility between penitence and joy? Is there an inherent incompatibility between imprisonment and joy? Not when we are seeing everything in the light of Christ. Paul did not find any such incompatibility. He wrote to the people of Philippi while he was in prison. He had of course been imprisoned in Philippi and we know how that went – singing hymns with Silas until an earthquake hit and they were freed. He wrote to the people of Philippi and he told them “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God.” Such a famous passage! Look at this declarative little phrase nestled in the midst of all these imperatives like the joy candle is nestled in the midst of our advent wreath – “The Lord is near.”
I was talking about the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree earlier. Someone wrote in the poor tree’s defense – “…who among us doesn’t look a bit haggard and defeated after the year we’ve had? This tree, despite all of her damage and defects, showed up anyway, and so to her, we say: shine on.” Last week we talked about lighting a candle against the darkness in holy defiance. This week, let us sing and shout our joy against the darkness in holy defiance. The Lord is near. Our Emmanuel has come, our Emmanuel is coming, our Emmanuel will come. May each and every one of us find our joy in him, now and always. Amen.