Happy Gaudete Sunday! Today is the third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin imperative for “Rejoice!” You may notice that the Garretts lit a pink candle on the Advent wreath as well as the purple candles from weeks one and two. That pink candle symbolizes joy and so I say to you, “Rejoice!”
In the spirit of keeping it real, however, I will have to confess that birthing a sermon on joy has been quite a challenge. Everywhere I’ve turned of late I’ve been confronted with stories of grief, loss, struggle, and even despair, so I’ve had to go deep into prayer and meditation to be able to speak to you about joy in a way that is faithful and full of integrity. It’s been a painful and beautiful process all at once. In the words of that wonderful NPR project about core values “This I Believe,” let me say, this I believe– joy is not mere seasonal gaiety. It’s not the same thing as conditional happiness. Joy goes much deeper than that because is not dependent on external conditions. To quote my friend and teacher, the late Christian writer Henri Nouwen, joy 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.”
A few years ago a woman I know attended a retreat for breast cancer survivors at the Gathering Place. In this retreat my friend learned that it was okay to shield herself from toxic people and situations whenever possible, and even more important that she take time to honor her feelings and needs as a way of maintaining the health of her heart and spirit.
Like the rhythm of the heart itself which expands and contracts, we are at times very open and at other times very closed. On both a global and personal level, we cannot always shield ourselves from toxic people and situations, but we can honor whatever we are feeling—be that doubt, confusion, fear, anger or deep sorrow. We may even be numb and that’s an honest part of grief. It is in being where we are that we are enabled to move to where we need to be in time. And as a pastor who cares deeply for all of you, I pray that you ultimately will move, like the rhythmically beating heart, through whatever may be weighing you down because you are a greatly loved child of God.
This morning’s reading from Philippians is a powerful reminder of who God calls us to be in challenging times. Paul’s words are more appropriate for our world today than you may realize. Paul wrote them from one of the many jail cells in which he was confined for preaching the good news of God’s love for all people. If he were alive today, you can be sure he would be on somebody’s watch list for such subversive activity. As he penned these lines the possibility of his execution hung in the air like an uncertain diagnosis.
Remember that the culture of Paul’s time was a brutal one where human life was of little to no value. Remember also that Paul was writing to the Philippian church, one he had planted and dearly loved, but which was now seriously threatened by internal power struggles and external opponents. If anyone had cause to feel despair or fear it would be Paul, but there isn’t the slightest hint of discouragement or anxiety in his words. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice!”
And what of our other Scripture reading, Mary’s exultant song of praise we have come to know as “The Magnificat?” What an extraordinary expression of joy it is, especially because, when Mary sings it, she is really quite vulnerable. A young teen of no account from the backwaters of Galilee, she is pregnant with the Holy Spirit’s child. Oh come on now– how’s that going to play in a rigid, patriarchal society where her fiancé could easily divorce her or a bloodthirsty crowd could stone her to death for being pregnant with who knows whose baby? Yet she joyfully sings of a different world, of a world where the powerful are brought down from their seats of power and the lowly are lifted up. Where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. What’s so remarkable about her song is that she sings as if that world has already fully arrived. She lays claim to God’s vision for humankind, a vision her son will embody as he lives out his message of compassion and unconditional love.
It may be tempting to question whether the exact circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy are factually correct. After all, to scientific minds, this may appear implausible, if not impossible. But Christian pastor, author and activist Brain McLaren asks if the purpose of this story is “to challenge us to blur the line between what we think is possible and what we think is impossible? Could we ever come to a time when swords would be beaten into plowshares? When the predatory people in power—the lions—would lie down in peace with the vulnerable and the poor—the lambs? When God’s justice would flow like a river—to the lowest and most god-forsaken places on Earth?” What if the point of Mary’s jubilant song, the Magnificat, is that you and I will experience life in all its fullness as we continue to align our lives with the “impossible” promises of God?”
Theologians have dubbed this time between Jesus’ birth and coming again as “the already and the not yet,” a time in which the reign of God has come among us and is still coming to full fruition. In Jesus we have seen God’s passion for healing, for justice, for confronting the powers of evil and death. In Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, opposition to oppression in every form, and in his call to love God and everyone else—including our enemies— we have seen who God is. God is unconditional love. God is mercy and forgiveness. But make no mistake—God is also fierce –the One who aligns with the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten, the lowliest of people. And God, in Jesus, calls us to align with them as we wait for for all things to be made whole in the fullness of time.
Let’s circle back to Paul, the political prisoner, singing in chains though uncertain of his fate. Why is he so joyful? Well, despite all appearances he proclaims, “The Lord is near.” That’s the whole thing for Paul—the Lord is near, a powerful presence who inspires, guides and guards our hearts and minds. Paul’s sense of God’s nearness may have been twofold—on the one hand an expectation of Christ’s Second Coming, but also a very palpable awareness of God’s Spirit that turned him upside down on the road to Damascus, changing him from a heartless murderer into a fearless follower of Christ.
Paul doesn’t call us to sport a stiff upper lip or practice the power of positive thinking, but rather to take our relationship with God very, very seriously. This relationship is first of all lived out in community where we are to let our gentleness be known to everyone. The Greek word Paul uses for “gentleness” translates as generosity, magnanimity, and consideration for others. So we live in this spirit of magnanimity, shoring each other up, forgiving each other’s failings, and reminding each other of who we really are. The other path to joy for Paul is the practice of prayer. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Prayer isn’t frantic begging. It isn’t insisting on our will or obsessing about outcomes. It’s a conversation that may have some very rough edges if we’re being honest, but a conversation that is heartily flavored with thanksgiving; thanksgiving that reminds us of the many ways God has been faithful in the past. Those memories of the ways God has seen us through life’s many storms are critically important. As we look back on the ways God has graced us we realize that God will continue to be faithful, and will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves—guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus in peace that defies mere human logic.
Does all this sound easier said than done? I think, especially today, that it may to a lot of us. When we are anxious, depressed, and grieving, joy seems the farthest thing from our hearts and minds. But you see, it’s not up to us to manufacture joy—it’s up to us to open ourselves to the Author of Joy, especially at those times when we feel least joyful. It is exactly when we feel like we will never be able to open our hearts again that God invites us to come and make our wants and needs known, bolstered by gratitude for the ways God has shown us mercy throughout our lives.
The Advent of Christ is inextricably linked to the death and resurrection of Christ. Our joy is not only joy at the birth of a sweet little baby, but at the rising of the One who for a brief moment cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This sweet baby became the One who descended into hell on our account and still yearns to companion us through all the turns our lives take. This is the one in whose presence we find courage and strength for service, in whose firm embrace we find peace unlike anything this world can offer.
This is the One in whom we find unshakeable joy, and so, my friends, I say to you in full trust, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!”
In Jesus’ name. Amen.