12/16/18 – Thinking of Joy

THINKING OF JOY

December 16, 2018
3rd Sunday of Advent
Zeph. 3:14-20; Isa. 12:2-6; Phil. 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

Today we lit the candle of Joy. In much earlier times, this Sunday was known as “Gaudete Sunday” – “Gaudete” being the Latin word for “rejoice.” In early Christianity, this third Sunday of Advent marked a major turn in focus of preparation. Added to the need to prepare to meet our Lord at our end-times is the quality of joy that is the good fruit of our labor of repentance. The prophets encourage us to seek joy in our lives as we look forward to “Joy to the World” given to us with the Incarnation.

It is important to know that the Latin word, “Gaudete,” is in the imperative case. If you have forgotten the finer points of your high school English classes, the imperative case issues a command. There is a lot of emphasis in our current social and political climate to rely on feeling or “gut instinct.” That somehow feeling without thinking is superior to engaging in learning and discerning. John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul tell us that our life of faith is also dependent on thinking and our wills – our divinely bestowed “willpower.”

So today we have heard two seemingly discordant words from the prophets – repent and rejoice. Not two words we often include in the same sentence. When we think of prophets, we think of those harbingers of doom that that tell us what bad things will happen in the future if we don’t change our ways – international and civil wars, terrorist attacks, economic collapse, climate change induced natural disasters and more. In our society, we hear a mixed message. We are told by scientists, economists, as well as some theologians and some clergy and political leaders, that the world will be destroyed if we don’t change. On the other hand, we also hear from some clergy and political figures that the world will be destroyed if we do change. Their persuasive tools are fear and anxiety. The prophetic message in our readings for today is to “just say no” to fear and anxiety and seek peace and joy in salvation.

The biblical prophets are on the side of changing our ways when we have strayed from God’s good intentions for creation.  The prophets we hear from today did convey God’s message that there would be dire consequences for turning away from God; but they did not only use the proverbial stick to induce our turning back to God, repentance. The prophets also offered the “carrot.” Repentance will bring the joy of danger averted. For this comforting assurance, we rejoice.

Zephaniah rejoices in God’s fulfillment of the promise to return the people of Israel from exile. They have reason to hope there will be no more disaster, violence or oppression. God is in their midst. Justice will prevail and the vulnerable and marginalized will be welcome and nurtured. Rejoice!

In the place of our usual response to our Old Testament reading, a psalm, we have a song from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah leads the congregation in singing praise and joy to God. The prophet proclaims God’s salvation because God’s presence has been made known to them. When the people trust in God’s presence, they draw deeply from the fountainhead of salvation and faith.

In his letter to the Philippian congregation, why is does Paul issue a command? “Rejoice in the Lord always,” is again in the imperative case. I would suggest that this is because we tend to focus more on what makes us unhappy and take for granted the things that could give us joy. We imagine joy will be the result when we obtain something that something we don’t have now. Once we have it, we are joyful. There are plenty of voices in society telling us what we can buy that will bring joy. But joy can be fleeting if it doesn’t reach deep down inside of us. We can see what could have made us joyful with 20-20 hindsight, but we have poor vision for the sources of joy that are presently in our grasp.

Paul’s command informs the congregation that being joyful requires an act of will. If you were a first century Christian in the Roman Empire, you had to reach for the joy because it wasn’t going to fall in your lap. Even though Paul is in prison, Paul rejoices in the good works of the people of Philippi and the way they have loved and put their trust in God. With this trust and rejoicing comes “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Yes, there are some surprising moments of joy that come to us without anticipation. But most of the time joy is a deliberate act of human will. We must allow it to happen. Paul tells us that we can condition ourselves to experience joy more easily by focusing more deliberately on our relationship with God. Or, as Zephaniah and Isaiah describe it, recognizing that God is in our midst.

Paul offers the congregation some practical ideas for finding the joy of salvation or as I heard in my grandparents’ Southern Baptist church: “being right with God.” Paul tells them to be gentle with others and to pray to God and for one another. He also advises the Philippians to think – to think about what is “honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, what is excellent.” He tells them to think of these to prepare oneself to act in ways that are pleasing to God and loving and just toward ones’ neighbors.

John the Baptist also offers practical advice. Yes, in typical John fashion he casts a cloud of doom starting with words of condemnation: “You brood of vipers.” Who wants to be referred to as that? Unlike in Matthew, where John delivers these words to the Scribes and the Pharisees, Luke puts this event in the context of speaking to “a crowd.” Meaning, Jesus is not just speaking to the maligned “others,” he is speaking to everyone — all of us. He warns them they cannot just assume because they claim their identity through a particular faith, attend worship, and follow the prescribed rituals, they are “right with God.” This crowd is receptive. The response: “What should we do?”

They are thinking, not just reacting to John’s warnings, which would induce feelings of anxiety and shame or anger. They want a plan of action to make the future better. John gives them clear commands to follow: If you have more than you need, share with those who have less than they need. He tells those who were in commerce or taxation: do not charge more than is fair. To those with the power he says: do not abuse your power to the detriment of those whose welfare you are responsible to protect and insure. He finishes with: be honest and do not grasp for higher wages than you deserve while leaving others to toil for far less. This mini-sermon ends with: “he proclaimed the good news to the people.” For people who are more privileged and powerful than most, this probably will not be good news and change in the status quo resisted.

The Gospels tell us this is, indeed, good news. John tells us what we need to do to be reconciled with God and all of these are not impossible, they are things we can do! John is not telling us we need to impoverish ourselves, he tells us we just need to be fair, to treat others as we would want to be treated, to be just. We just need to be kind and compassionate in our interactions with others. These actions are the visible marks of a person who lives the life of salvation. To be saved is nothing less than to be transformed in our thinking and willing.

This is what we need to do to be truly prepared for the coming of our Lord. We may even be more than prepared. We may even discover that Christ has become incarnate in us. Then we will truly rejoice in the Lord always and find that peace that passes all understanding, and which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
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