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Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”
Words & Music: Traditional Spiritual
Arr. Jay Althouse
Beth Newell, soloist & Jay Killough, djembe
“Here Mid the Sheep and Oxen Mild”
Words: 13th century French, Tr. Winifred Douglas
Music: 13th century Carol., arr. Matteson
“While Sheperds Watched”
Words: Nathum Tate, 1700
Music: SHERBURNE C.M., Daniel Read, 1783
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”
Words: Edmund H. Sears
Music: Traditional Melody
adapted by Arthur Sullivan
John 1:1-5, 14, 16
“There’s a Light A-Comin”
Words: Herb Frombach
Music: David Lantz III
There is something about the Third Sunday of Advent. It is meant to be about joy; it is meant to give us a holy second wind as we round the last corner on the expectant sprint toward that baby in a manger. In a season of waiting, it is designed to give us both a glimpse of who we’re waiting for and the spiritual strength to hang on just a little bit longer.
And, yet, in recent years Joy Sunday has often been a heavy lift; it has felt almost wrong to consider joy in light of the evil of the world or the pain of our lives. Five years ago Joy Sunday fell just two days after the deadly and heart-rending massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Joy was all but impossible. Last year, found many of us still shaken and distressed by the election results of a month earlier, and so we spoke of defiant joy—spiritual joy as a spiritual state of resistance.
One year on many of us are still not sure about joy—whether to allow it, if we can trust it. Almost every day there is more bad news; almost every day we struggle to walk one fine line between spirited resistance and soul-sapping reactivity and another between our desire to engage with the world and our need to hang on to those we love, hold on to all that is good and true, and keep our eyes on the prize.
It can be hard to consider joy when we are constantly reminded of the reality of evil, when we see the government-induced anguish of our brother Lucio and his family, when the faith-shaped values we hold dear take a beating every day, when the administration seeks to ban the use of certain words in official documents. Talk of joy can feel almost insulting when we are living with depression, struggling with illness, staggering through the fog of grief, or dancing with death.
In my conversations with you, I gather that many of us are feeling worn down, discouraged, and sometimes tempted to despair—by the state of the world or by circumstances in our own lives. We come to Joy Sunday both weary and wary—needing joy like oxygen and yet feeling almost guilty, afraid that rejoicing would somehow betray the world’s suffering, undercut the earnestness of our resistance, or weaken our commitment to working for justice and peace.
Oh, beloveds. Let us be clear: Rejoicing in the good, giving thanks for our lives, enjoying life’s simple pleasures does not betray our resistance of evil. It sustains it.
Joy Sunday invites us to consider that faithful joy is not based on present circumstances but on the long, relentless track record our still-living, ever-loving, justice-working God. Advent calls us to take the long view, to put our trust in the God of the poor, to get our hopes up, and to open our hearts to joy. Advent faith encourages us to remember and retell the stories—the stories of Jesus, yes, but also our own stories: to look back and see how far God’s grace has brought us, all the ways God’s love has healed us, all the times God has been with us, to see more clearly God’s presence with us even in the hard times.
When we do, we are likely to feel an overwhelming gratitude and tap into a deep vein of joy.
I had dinner with some friends recently, and we got to talking about family and religion. They asked me how, given the narrow fundamentalism of my upbringing, I had become who I am.
I shook my head and mumbled something about reading a lot as a child and, unlike anyone else in my family, being deeply affected by the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. I said something about going away to college and encountering new ideas, about going to Nicaragua and discovering a God more real (and a lot poorer) than I had ever imagined.
Finally, I came clean. “This probably sounds weird,” I admitted, “but I don’t really think there is a logical explanation for my life’s journey. I think it was grace; I think it was God.” Not, mind you, that it always felt that way in the moment; not that there weren’t long stretches when I wondered where God was or wrote God off altogether. But, looking back, I can see that God was always there, that grace was ever present.
I wonder if this is something of what young Mary was feeling when, pregnant with a holy child, she visited her relative Elizabeth, saw another miracle in progress, and began to connect the dots between her story and the story of the people of Israel.
She had known the promises of the prophets. She had heard tell of the good news they proclaimed: that God, even then, was at work in the world: empowering the oppressed, healing the brokenhearted, liberating the captives, vindicating all wrongs, restoring all that has been ruined by human greed and brokenness.
She had heard about it, and then the angel came and said she was to be a part of it—a big part. And she said, Yes. Let it be. Still, it was confusing, and shocking, so hard to get her head around. Even as she felt her body changing, even as she became more aware of the new life growing within her, it was hard to understand. And then her story intersected with Elizabeth’s story, and it began to make sense—in an utterly illogical, God-thing, joy-filled way.
And so she sang.
To use, oh, some recently banned words: “As the vulnerable fetus stirred within her, Mary’s evidence-based song recalled God’s work through the ages, casting a vision of the end of entitlement for the wealthy, the end of the diversity of oppressions visited on people of color, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender people, and a shift toward care for environment that is science-based.” 1
Or, to stick with the words of Mary’s story: Her song praised God for turning the world around—for scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty-handed. She was filled with joy not only for God’s work in the world but also for her part in it.
Where is the glue in your story? What are the graces that connect the dots and help you make sense of it all?
Just as important as inviting Jesus into our stories—our relationships and vocations, our families and jobs and passions—is realizing that God’s love has always been in them, from the rock-bottom chapters to the dramatic turn-arounds. Our stories and our lives become take on deeper meaning and greater joy when we take time to discern the ways Spirit power has always lived within us, healing and transforming us in ways we couldn’t predict or imagine. Our stories and our lives become sacred when we understand that Christ has always been and will always be walking beside us, whether or not we’re aware of it at the time.
And that’s the thing: Why wait? Why not open ourselves to the joy right now? Why not search for God’s fingerprints in every situation and place? Inviting Jesus into our stories is sometimes less about waiting for him to come than noticing where he already is, where he has been, and where he’s going.
The poet Denise Levertov wrote of a thread that had been guiding, sometimes pulling her, through life. “A stirring of wonder makes me catch my breath when I feel the tug of it when I thought it had loosened itself and gone,” 2 she said.
What is the thread in your life? Could it be grace? Might it be God? Where might it lead you? Are you still hanging on?
Yes, even now, God offers us joy: The joy of knowing who God is and trusting that God is at work in the world, in spite of the evidence. The joy of knowing God is with us, even in the darkness. The joy of knowing that God is doing a new thing, in us and through us, even now. The joy of knowing that we are children of God, and we are made to trust, to follow, to love, to give thanks, to resist, to restore, to liberate, and to shine—even in the darkness.
So let us rejoice in all that is good. Let us sing the turning of the world.
1 By Deb Avery, on Facebook.
2 You can find Denise Levertov’s poem “The Thread” here: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-thread/