Sermons

Joy Juxtaposed

The poet, Mary Oliver, wrote:

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it…life has some possibility left… Joy is not made to be a crumb.”

Mary Oliver

Of the four promises of God we live into during Advent, I believe joy is the most difficult. After reading a book on the subject of joy, Girl-talk God-talk leader, Renee, began signing her notes and emails with that very phrase. Indeed, she looks for joy in nearly everything. Paul commands us to rejoice always – and if that’s not enough, he says “again, I say, rejoice!”

Still, when I have a sense of being overjoyed by something or someone, often lingering behind my thoughts is a distrust of it. I might be tempted to ask myself, How long will it last? How will so-and-so react to my joyfulness when she is so stricken? Do I deserve to feel such joy?

There are enough research studies that show how significantly my mood influences yours, or your attitude toward a situation impacts mine. How much different a community might appear if when feeling some measure of joy, I don’t hesitate, give in to it, live into it as if it is an enormous celebratory cake rather than the crumb of attention I often give it?!

Messenger of Peace

Luke 2:27-32 Simeon: guided by the Spirit, upon seeing the baby Jesus at the temple “now, God, I can die in peace because I have seen your salvation, a light and your glory.”

Messenger of Hope

Luke 3:4-6  John: “prepare the way of the Lord . . . every valley will be filled, every mountain, leveled; the way straight and smooth, everyone will see God’s salvation.”

Messenger of Joy

(from today’s text) Luke 3:7,  John, again: “you brood of vipers! Who warned you to repent, but still not show that which results from true repentance? Act like it! share, conduct fair business practices, be fair and generous and merciful. Jesus is here and will make you pure and holy, will make all things right!” What joy! What rapture! So Harod throws him in prison!

Joy is very complex.

From John 1:1-3

            In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 

In this third week of Advent we are reminded of the joy that comes with understanding the significance of Jesus’ birth. It is with a fair bit of disorientation, however, that I approach this meditation as the week has issued circumstances that are far from joyful: An Aunt who is close to death; a beautiful, young woman who grew under our youth ministry, at 24, diagnosed with breast cancer; a young mother-pastor in our denomination gave birth to a second child last week, and due to complications has left this world for Another.

How does one meet joy amid such grief? How does a 7-year-old boy appreciate the coming celebration and welcome a sweet baby sister upon hearing that his mother will no longer be there? My brothers who were 3, 4, and 9, and myself 11 when our father died have some experience in wrestling with this. And, while each person will deal with and measure grief in unique ways, it seems joy can only come out of some miracle that is hope. And then these weeks of anticipating Christ’s birth begin to make sense, because out of that hope that by Jesus—through whom all things were made and by whom everything is held together—we can be held together. And, in that sure embrace, and only there, really, is some sense of peace—a peace that is well beyond comprehension. That peace issued in the assurance that ultimately Christ has conquered death and that the only way to perceive this is to acknowledge the starting point originates outside space-time (remember the amplituhedron?)

John, the messenger of hope and joy proclaims: Prepare the way of the Lord?

What does that mean? What is the way of the Lord?

The way is straight, level, smooth – and it is the Lord’s doing. So how do we prepare it?

The way is straight, level, smooth – so that God’s salvation will be seen. By everyone. So how are we to prepare the way? Might it have something todo with being able to see?

When there are hills, we can’t see over it – particularly when there is a super thick fog like there was on Friday! What might those hills be in our lives that keep us from seeing the path clearly? And the fog, for that matter –not only do I often create my own impediments to graced living, I will also construct an elaborate narrative about them!

So it is an internal work of faith.

But this is also meant for everyone. Do we not also create impediments for others to see God’s salvation? Complex doctrines, elaborate rituals, specific wording so that we are “right” and “correct” about that certain way to be saved?! And then the fog – that debilitating shame that surrounds these mountains of our own making.

So it is a communal work of grace and mercy – that often circles back to an internal acceptance of mercy and grace.

You brood of vipers! Why do you speak of repentance but show nothing of its fruit? be fair and generous and merciful. Jesus is here and Jesus will make you pure and holy, Jesus will make all things right! It isn’t by your complex rituals and beautifully constructed liturgies that all will be right and good. You have not done it! Jesus has accomplished it!

What joy! What rapture!

Still, you might be thrown into prison, as it were! You will have more trouble in this world – but, Jesus says, I have overcome!

And when we prepare by allowing the hills and mountains and fog to be dismantled and see God’s salvation – grace, mercy, righteousness – Perhaps, it is possible to recognize a current of joy that life is much more than life. To live is to perceive and believe (hope) that fullness of life extends farther than that which we notice even with our five senses. To live is to rest (peace) in the assurance of the One who exists outside space-time, while with us—Emmanuel. To live is to move through the grief while in it, with this One, and celebrate those who have gone before us, those who are with us, and the ones we have not yet been blessed to know.

George Herbert expresses far more eloquently the reality of God’s presence in grief in his, Affliction, part 3:

George Herbert

MY heart did heave, and there came forth, O God!
By that I knew that thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief,
        Making a scepter of the rod:
     Hadst thou not had thy part,
Sure the unruly sigh had broke my heart. 
But since thy breath gave me both life and shape,
Thou knowst my tallies; and when there’s assign’d
So much breath to a sigh, what’s then behinde?
    Or if some yeares with it escape,
          The sigh then onely is
A gale to bring me sooner to my blisse.
    Thy life on earth was grief, and thou art still
Constant unto it, making it to be
A point of honour, now to grieve in me,
              and in thy members suffer ill.
           They who lament one crosse,
Thou dying dayly,
praise thee to thy losse.

Fleming Rutledge, “violent episodes . . . are [often] invasions of
God’s grace. This present age pushes against us so hard that we cannot resist unless there is some sort of divine raid on our defenses. We are so bent upon having things our own way, the world’s way, that we are likely to experience the drastic love of God as foreign.” [FR, 326, Advent]

Sometimes these shocking griefs and hardnesses in my life are come to usher in grace – like a lightening bolt, jolting my core being, my very soul with the profound grace of God that I could not see for the mountains and fog I’ve created. I so much want to have my own way that I’ve moved so far from God’s way to miss the experience of God’s incomprehensible, ferocious love.

Still, as one botanist observes, versus mountains and boulders, “Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.

“Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.” Radiant.

Look to God and be radiant. The Dark Night of the Soul, the love poem of St. John of the Cross, beautifully describes an encounter with Jesus at a most dark moment in his life. It was only in the darkest place that the light ofGod’s love became visible, with more radiance than he could have ever before perceived—and it changed him, transformed him:

O guiding night!

O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united

the Lover with his beloved,

transforming the beloved in her Lover.

But, in the seventh stanza, John of the Cross discovers that all his other senses muddied and dulled his ability to know the touch of Jesus, the joy of God’s embrace, even if, at first contact, it seems painful:

it wounded my neck

with its gentle hand,

suspending all my senses.

Just as peace is known only when time and space are suspended, when I can stand outside time in the presence of a timeless God in order to truly be within it, so is joy only known when all my senses are suspended. That is, when I am no longer encumbered by the shame and anxiety, weighted down by expectations (real or imagined),insecurities and arrogance—when all these no longer encase me, I am free to know the gentle caress of Love, I can understand what it means to know joy—real joy.

messenger of death

Lysander had a project for one of his English classes wherein he was tasked to present the John Donne poem, “Death Be Not Proud.” It speaks to the power– or rather, the lack of it – that death has over us. In fact, death itself will die. Audrey Assad wrote this beautiful rendition of the poem. I invite you to watch, listen – listen to how Jesus is speaking to you about being part of preparing the way – in your own spirit and as a community.

I will ask you then, when you are ready, come forward with your pledge card and talents survey. If you have no idea of what I’m talking about, or did not bring yours, or did yours on-line or for whatever reason do not have it with you, Would you please write a word or phrase that comes to mind as you hear Jesus speak. Perhaps you are offering your shame and leaving it up here at the alter. Perhaps you want to offer yourself in a different way to the community – something you’ve been holding back. You don’t need to write your name on it – or you can.

This week of Advent, meditate on the joy that the birth of Jesus recalls. In the Jewish tradition, the prayers remembered on the first of Chanukah remind us of all that we are given for which we can be joyful. Recited only on the first night is this third prayer, “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.”

My prayer is that the light that miraculously sustained the Jews for eight nights, and the third Advent light of Joy, will keep us mindful of what this season is about: standing outside time and space, free from the senses that threaten to dull us to the touch of Jesus’ gentle hand, and know the Joy of truly living! Amen.