Sunday, December 13, 2015


Our Gospel lesson (John the Baptist] berating and threatening) 
          is ironic because we know what John didn’t know.
He expected Jesus to be like himself,
         lambasting sinners and bringing miscreants to justice.
Instead, Jesus was in the line of the prophet Zephaniah
         who gives us our Old Testament lesson.
Zephaniah said,
         “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
                  shout, O Israel!
         Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
                  O daughter Jerusalem!
         the Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . . .”

Not as John the Baptist says, “You brood of vipers,
         who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
         – but “Sing aloud . . . . . Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
         . . . . the Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . . .”

Jesus followed Zephaniah,
         and his greatest follower, St. Paul,
         gave us our Epistle lesson:
         “Rejoice in the Lord always.
          Again I say ‘Rejoice.’
         The Lord is near. So don’t worry about anything.”

The voice of John the Baptist has continued to echo
         down through the centuries.
It’s a good text for those who want to use fear
         as a tool for power.
But orthodox Christianity isn’t a religion of fear.
It’s a religion of hope and joy.

That’s why our year begins with Advent.
Advent spirituality casts off gloom and despair
         to open our hearts for Christ.

On Advent I our lessons were about the future.
We heard about how hope sustains us
         through the hard times.
Trusting in God means hoping
         for a better day coming.

On Advent II our lessons were about the past.
We were invited to “take off the garment of sorrow,”
         to let go of our habitual misery
         our old ways of looking at the world and ourselves.

Now, on Advent III, Joy Sunday,
         the lessons are about the present.
They call us not just to forget the past
         and hope for the future,
         but to rejoice right now today.
They invite us to celebrate and delight
         in the day we have been given.

Who knew the Apostle Paul would be bopping around
         like Bob Marley to a reggae beat, singing,
         “Don’t worry. Be happy.”
I said exactly that on Joy Sunday several years ago;
         so I’m not just quoting our new Presiding Bishop.
But he wasn’t quoting me either.
He was paraphrasing Paul.
There it is in black and white:
         “Rejoice in the Lord.”
         When? “Always,” signed Paul.

But we are likely to say, in the words of the Virgin Mary,
         when she heard the first good news from the angel Gabriel,
         “How is this possible?”
How can we rejoice in the midst of . . . .
         fill in the blank with your own particular hardships.
How can I rejoice when my children are troubled,
         when my marriage is troubled,
         when my parents are sick,
         when I am staggering under guilt and shame
                  for the things I’ve done or failed to do?

Or fill in the blank with the sufferings of the world.
How can I rejoice
      with strife in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Nigeria,
Kenya, and Ukraine                          
-- street violence in Chicago, L A, and Ferguson
-- with 355 mass shooting in the United States this year so far
– with poverty and sickness all around.

How can we rejoice?
The idea of rejoicing always is absurd
         until we understand what it means to rejoice,
                  until we get a better understanding of joy.

Christian joy is not a limited conditional happiness,
         celebrating because something has worked out well.
It runs deeper than our emotions.
It is a fundamental yes to life itself.
         A yes to reality.
                  A yes to God.

Joy that depends on the absence of suffering
         is always a nervous sort of gladness.
It knows how contingent it is. .

If we start with the attitude, 
         “I will be happy only if this happens or that doesn’t happen,”
then any relative well being we feel will be fraught with anxiety.
Our happiness will always be set on shifting sand.

Our joy isn’t conditional.  The prophet Habakkuk said,

                  Though the fig trees do not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
                           I will joy in the God of my salvation.

So what is Habakkuk celebrating?
He doesn’t rejoice that his crops have failed
         or that his flocks are lost.

But when calamities happen,
         he rejoices in God.
He rejoices in the God of his salvation,
         the God who will get him through this.

It is, in fact, in the midst of disasters,
         that we rejoice the most that God is God,
         that God is bigger than anything that can happen to us,
         and that God loves and creates,
                  God heals and restores,
                  God forgives and redeems.

St. Paul doesn’t say to rejoice about everything that happens.
He says “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
If joy depends on our circumstances,
         it will be a flimsy kind of joy.
But we can always rejoice in God,
         because God is always the God of joy, hope, and salvation.

God is the one who invites us to cast off
         the garment of sorrow.
God liberates us from old misery.
So, maybe we have troubles today,
         but we had troubles yesterday and they are over.
We can rejoice that they don’t just pile up.
Sorrow is not indelible.
It fades. It washes away in the rain of a new day.

And even if things are hard,
         we can rejoice that we have hope right now
                  of a better tomorrow.
Pain is still pain.
But pain without hope is unbearable.
So if we have hope – and we do have hope –
         then we rejoice that we have hope.

And this isn’t just about situations and circumstances.
It’s about who we are.
Very few of us are really satisfied with ourselves.
A lot of us are painfully dissatisfied with ourselves.
We are ashamed or guilty or disappointed in who we are.
The most chronic obstacle to happiness
         is usually dissatisfaction with who we are.

Even here, there is space for rejoicing.
We are already free of our old identities.
Zephaniah says,
         “the Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . . .”

All those judgments the world laid on us are overturned.
90% of them were wrong to begin with,
         but right or wrong doesn’t matter.
They are over and we are free to become new.
The old judgments are ripped in two,
         shredded, up the chimney in smoke.

1st John says,
         “We are God’s children now.
          It does not yet appear what we shall be.
         But when (Christ) appears, we shall be like him.”

Flower seeds and bulbs usually aren’t much to look at.
But we know what they will become.
Caterpillars aren’t much to look at.
But we know what they will become.
So even when we aren’t satisfied with ourselves,
         we rejoice at who we are going to become.

Advent III is called Joy Sunday,
         even though it comes at the darkest time of year,
         when the days are short and cold,
         the traffic is heavy, and the lines are long.

There’s a lot of stress and bother,
         there are a lot of family tensions.
But in the midst of it all,
         God is still the God of our salvation.
God comes to heal us a little every day,
         and he is coming soon to heal us
                  completely and forever.