Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
God has become my salvation.
3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on God’s name;
make known God’s deeds among the nations;
proclaim that God’s name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for God has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Joy! The third Sunday of Advent, our third candle gives us the word Joy. Joy is defined as follows:
: a feeling of great happiness
: a source or cause of great happiness : something or someone that gives joy to someone
: success in doing, finding, or getting something
That last definition seems to fit this season of “giving”. We fritter about doing things, looking for gifts to give, and we receive gifts from others.
Yet, do we experience joy? It seems to me that oftentimes when we look for joy or think that things will bring us joy. We are disappointed or disillusioned.
In Scripture and even in the world around us, we find that there is great joy in announcing the coming of Jesus. Jesus is coming to bring restoration, wholeness, justice, peace, forgiveness. The very meaning of the word Advent is “appearance,” “arrival,” “dawn,” and “return”.
Most in this culture know that Christmas has something to do with the arrival of Jesus. Yet, we can’t seem to remember why we should have joy. We are reminded often in this culture with clever phrases like “Jesus is the reason for the season”. Sometimes commentators on some channels or so called news outlets will talk about a “war on Christmas”. Based on the amount of spending and consumerism…and the number of times of I’ve Christmas movies reappearing, I’m not exactly sure what war is being fought and who’s winning.
All of this to say, it is oftentimes hard to find joy when we are being pushed so many messages trying to break through to us. We are busy, we have things to do, we can’t slow down and expect everything to be done by December 24.
We have expectations of what Christmas joy should be, yet we may not always experience it. We need time to slow down and experience joy. It takes making space in the midst of craziness to be still. That can be hard, but it’s so necessary. When we slow down though, we often are faced to sake some hard questions around life.
In our passage this morning from Luke, John the Baptist is announcing the arrival of Jesus with some harsh words. He’s calling many in the crowd, a brood of vipers. He’s talking the crowds that the system, their way of being, all of it, was being struck down. They ask John what they should do. John gives them a response that they may like. That deep change, a change for the better, was on it’s way…he goes on to tell them to get rid of things, to get to your core of who you are…that this change will be hard, but you’ll be better off for it.
And, I’m not sure what John was expecting, or what joy he was experiencing…and I’m sure he didn’t know that he was about to face a horrendous death at the hands of King Herod just a short time afterwards. Later, when he was sitting in a jail cell, waiting for death, he had some hard questions to face. I wonder, did John, in the midst of his expectations being dashed, in the midst of his sorrow, did he find joy? It seems like he certainly found some courage, but, i have to admit, I don’t know how I’d feel in the place of John.
When we read the Isaiah passage, we hear a reminder that does give us joy in the midst of so much change that is surely coming, not only to the people of John’s time with the arrival of Jesus’ public ministry, but also to us today as we live into this advent season. That God is with us, that God will not let go of us, that God is in the midst of all of the change calling us towards the best version of ourselves…and that growth, or repentance, which, again, simply means a changing of one’s mind, of understanding what is deep within your heart that God dwells in, is upon us. How we respond to God’s Presence within and around us is up to us.
I believe that the message of Jesus bringing freedom does give me joy. How? Because Jesus demonstrates to me a God who isn’t far off, isn’t affected by what we experience. The words of Isaiah ring loud within my being because God just isn’t saying words, God knows what it’s like to be oppressed, to be captive, to be overwhelmed, to be in season of life that is foggy, uncertain, to be brokenhearted. God has experienced all that we experience. God has experienced sorrow, deep sorrow. Yet, God still came to us, God listened to us, God demonstrates throughout history and through Jesus, and even now through God’s Presence and Spirit, in and through our communities and each other, that we are not alone.
Jesus did come, he did arrive. And, he did also die and have many of his expectations shattered. Yet, there was something deeper. Something more beautiful than we could ever imagine. This Jesus’ power was not found in conquering Rome or forcing himself over us, his power was loving deeply. Loving to the very core of all of us. Not giving up on us, even in death. This love that God has for us and that we can share in does lead to sorrow, but sorrow always gives way to joy, a deeper joy than simply a song or words can describe.
I don’t always get it, but, at times I catch glimpses of this joy. It can come in the midst of a run, or in the gift of listening. Listening, however, can be hard. Yet, it’s so important if we are to experience joy. When we listen to deeply to our hearts, try to live in a deeper awareness, it can be scary at first, but then freedom comes to live as we were intended to live as we look deep into our lives and find God, in the midst of our sorrow, and moving us towards joy even in that sorrow.
Christmas celebrates the birth of a child. Childbirth, and I’ve said this before as I’ve been told, can be painful. When McKenzie and Brennan made their appearance, out of hours of labor and pain, there was so much joy! Life is also filled with sorrow, but the joy of their presence is so much more. Being a parent has brought change, I’ve changed, I continue to change. I have to listen a lot…and, sometimes, I think others in my family actually listen to me.
A few years ago, in a different church that I served as a pastor, we went on a journey together to listen to our community, I remember visiting with a new friend who lived near the church He’s Jewish. But, he said our church was is his church because he lives in the neighborhood and he wants it be vibrant and good for others.
Friends, there are so many people in our community hoping to see a new story emerge within the church, and in our church in particular I believe. That new story starts with commitment. And, just like being a parent, we don’t know how things will turn out, but, as we listen to one another, to our community, and to a God who has entered into our experience and calls us into experiencing life together. At times it will be painful, filled with sorrow, yet there is a deeper joy welling up within us as we listen, work towards justice and forgiveness, and actively expect God’s Presence to come to us now and in the future when everything is restored to what it should be.
So, I’m in and willing to take that risk. And, I believe we all are as well! Amen?