Monday, December 14, 2009
Friday night J. and I went out for dinner. As is our habit, we discuss the readings for the coming Sunday. There is a real plus to living with another preacher. “What are the readings?” she asked. “Two readings on Joy and ‘you brood of vipers’, I said and we both laughed. Sometimes our readings seem to be at real odds with one another. The theme for today is JOY and yet our Gospel reading seems decidedly NOT joyful. So what are we to find in today’s readings, or as Luther would have asked “Was ist das?” or “What does this mean?”
In the Zephaniah reading for today we hear words of pardon and return. The prophecy of Zephaniah was written before the Babylonian Exile and tells of the wrath of God that will come because the people of Judah have strayed from worshipping God. They have not followed the Torah—the teachings of God. Zephaniah prophesies that as the punishment of the people of Judah will be great, so will the joy be great when they return from exile. It is this joy that the people of God celebrate. It is the joy that comes after repentance. It should be noted that joy comes after taking responsibility for their sin against God.
In the reading from Philippians, Paul is writing to a community that has been under persecution. Instead of commiserating or cosseting the people of Philippi, he counsels them to “rejoice in the Lord always.” He calls them to be grateful for the misadventures that have befallen them. Because Paul knows that it is through their joy, the truth of Christ’s sacrifice will be witnessed. The good news of Christ’s resurrection will be proclaimed in their sufferings.
Even in the canticle from Isaiah that we read responsively instead of a psalm this morning, we find joy coming in the face of what should be fear. Confidence in God’s salvation brings forth joy, not fear. So our readings really do have some commonality.
John Baptist comes to the people from the desert in the Gospel to preach to the “riff-raff”, the tax collectors, the Maddoffs and Sillings of his day and the Roman soldiers, the gangbangers and mobsters of society. John Baptist does not say ‘believe in the Messiah who is coming’. He says ‘turn your life around.’ ‘Make changes in what you are doing if you want to know the joy of God.’ John was teaching about the coming new age when God’s teachings, God’s Torah would rule the land. He preached that Israel would return to its former glory and God’s law would be the law of the land once again. No longer would the injustice of Roman law prevail. God’s teaching would call from all those living in Palestine a kind of just living that would demand that the tax collectors be honorable and the police serve all the people, not just the Roman landholders or merchants.
Joy, in the minds of the prophets, was the consequence of living out God’s hope and righteousness in community. Joy was the result of living worthy of one’s calling. This is not just some “happy, happy, joy, joy” passing pleasure. It is what comes to those who live out their faith with intention and commitment. Joy was the gift that comes when Christians act on their faith rather than just believe. Joy is how Christians live when they have little concern about themselves and more concern about others.
Often when the days darken, the cold sets in and the idiocy of a consumerism holiday season takes hold, I tend toward grumpiness. This is not an incipient Scroogism, nor is it some deep-seated dislike of Christmas. From the number of people who talk to me during November and December, it is the complaint of many of us. We often wonder why this depression at a time when everyone is singing about joy. And I think it is because we have lost this biblical understanding of joy. We have opted for “fun” or “pleasure” or some passing FEELING rather than that deeply experienced understanding of God’s gift of joy—of that sense of life is “right”, that there is balance and wholeness to our lives in Christ.
Joy is a type of contentment—not the ‘I have finally arrived and I don’t have to change anymore’ kind of contentment. But the kind of contentment that comes with having lost my own self in the service of others. It is a kind of wholeness that does not rest on our labors, but rests in the understanding that God is in charge of our future. The gift of joy comes to us when we find in our faith not ways of manipulating others to believe the way we do, but by evangelizing by exemplifying the courage to become better persons.
Advent is that time when the Church allows us to embrace that sense of Joy. It is a time when we can provide a community of faith that recognizes that we never can be all we want to be. It is a community of faith that recognizes that we are all trying to be more Christ-like than we were last year. In Advent we as a Church understand that we are all works-in-progress, and our goal is still before us. And in Advent we hear of those attributes that God offers us of Hope, Love and Joy that come when we turn our lives over to Christ.
We need not fear John Baptist facing us with our sinfulness as a “a brood of vipers” because we know that it is in repentance that God’s joy comes upon us. We need not fear persecution because in the sacrifice we find God’s joy in us. We need not fear our mistakes because in God’s mercy we know a joy that passes all words. We need not fear a new age because God’s Torah—God’s way is shown to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We need not fear our grumpiness or depression because it is that abiding gift of wholeness and oneness that God provides us in the midst of our tribulations, our sacrifices and service to others.
In Hebrew there are ten different words that are translated ‘joy.’ In Greek there are at least six. English has several that could be substituted for ‘joy,’ but we are all know what joy means even if we cannot find the word for it.Joy is the result of our dependence upon God alone. And Joy is the result when we have worked hard with the grace of God to transform ourselves into that selfless, Christ-like, whole, person working to bring balance to our world.
In Judaism, our Lord’s faith, the faithful person was one who did “mitzvot”. The word actually means "blessing. But it often conotes an act or deed of goodness or righteousness. We Protestants often get a bit uncomfortable with good acts or works. But a ‘mitzvah’ is the blessing of God putting the world back in balance in the face of human sin through our acts of kindness and fidelity. In John Baptist’s call to baptism, the tax collector and the Centurion ask John Baptist “What can we DO?” John Baptist tells them very succinctly what they are to do: ‘Do not extort’, ‘Do not bully’. ‘Change your life.’ ‘Bring balance back into the community by acting justly.’
Joy, that sense of rightness and balance is there for us when we surrender our lives. For those who know they are saved, hope, love and joy are all part of our daily experience of God. When we do “mitzvot”, those blessings of kindness, those acts of balance, we participate in the God’s reparation of Creation. So I invite you to find things that you can DO to bring about joy in the lives of others. I invite you to do acts of bringing balance into the world, acts of restorative care for others for in it you will find the joy of Christ in them. AMEN