1 John 3:1-3
On this, the Third Sunday of Advent in the Second Advent of Pandemic, I want to suggest that the most important question is not whether we are feeling joyful. God knows there is plenty about which to feel anything but joyful; indeed, there is so much about which to feel other-than-joyful that I will spare you the recitation of a partial list.
You know what stands between you and joy, and I am not about to get up into your personal situation except to say this: I hope and pray you know in your heart of hearts that you absolutely deserve to know the deepest joy; that God intends for you to know more joy than you can even imagine.
Furthermore, to the extent that you are not feeling joyful this morning, I hope and pray that you know that this situation has absolutely no bearing on how precious and lovable you are—not only in God’s sight but in objective, human terms. I hope and pray that you know that whatever you are feeling in this moment, in this season, in this chapter of your life is true, valid, and worthy of attention and exploration.
I hope and pray you know that there are no “shoulds” when it comes to feelings. I hope and pray you know that God loves you just as you are, whatever you are or are not feeling, whatever you are or are not believing, however you are or are not living in these days.
I hope and pray you know that the God Who Is Love is also the God of infinite possibility. One of my favorite prayers from scripture comes from the 15th chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Right there in a single one-sentence prayer, we’ve got our first three Advent candles and the power of the Holy Spirit, which keeps them burning in our hearts and souls.)
The issue this morning—and, may I suggest, every morning—is not whether we are feeling joyful.
The question is not whether the present circumstances in our lives and in the world bring us joy, but whether our hearts and minds are open to joy. Whether we are willing, despite all the evidence, to bet on joy and to choose it. Whether we will trust that no matter how banged-up our hearts are, no matter how many times we’ve been disappointed in the past, that we are God’s children and that we are made to trust, to follow, to shine, to love, to do justice, to give thanks. Whether we can say, no matter what we feel, that God is good and God’s joy is on the way.
We know not how or when. We do not know what form it will take. Surely, it will surprise us.
But we can be ready to receive it. We can prepare ourselves to recognize it when it arrives. Because it will arrive.
This is not positive thinking talking; this is not optimism. It is, instead, faith—faith in a God who is always and forever surprising us with joy, love, hope, abundance, healing, community, and justice.
Now, I can imagine that some of you might have a hard time believing that. I feel you.
And that is just one of the many, many reasons we were made for community: so that we can tell one another the stories; so we can remind one another of all the times joy did surprise us; so we can sing and teach the songs; so we can pass down from generation to generation our traditions memorializing the many times God delivered God’s people, the many times God surprised them with food and water, home and forgiveness, abundance and healing, presence, and, yes, joy.
We’ve been hearing some of those stories this Advent—just some of the times that, in the words of Brian McLaren, God chose to bring joy and justice through “the creative power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood. The doctrine of the virgin birth,” he says, “isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence.”
In the story of Jesus’ birth, but also in the story of other surprising births thousands of years earlier, “the violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counter-violence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered ‘the weaker sex’ that God’s true power enters and changes the world.”
Over the course of this somewhat experimental, Year W Advent, we have heard some of the stories:
How God’s power and compassion came into the world by Hagar, a slave-woman with no agency, and her son Ishmael.
How God’s covenant and faithfulness were fulfilled in and through Sarah, an old, childless woman who had been exploited by her husband Abraham. How the Faithful One surprised Sarah with a son named Isaac.
How, when the Israelites had done what was evil in God’s sight and found themselves conquered by the Philistines, God’s mercy was embodied in a woman the storytellers couldn’t be bothered to even name, who gave birth to Samson.
Next week we will hear yet another story of how God’s joy surprises and God’s justice is made manifest again and again through the weak, the lowly, the hungry, the powerless, the old, the unnamed, and the so-called barren.
But is there any better story, is there any greater surprise than what God does in and through a young girl named Mary from the backwater town of Nazareth?
When the angel appeared to Mary with the news that she would have a baby named Jesus, whose kingdom would never end, she was surely surprised. And when the baby inside her began to grow, she had every reason to feel confused, anxious, ashamed, and afraid.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is an expression of the joy that justice brings—a justice so clear and strong that governments have banned its reading because they did not want the poor to hear its promise. Mary, who is poor, is overwhelmed with joy—but not only because of the great things God has done for her, not only because all generations will call her blessed. Mary’s deeper joy comes in trusting what mighty things God will do for others.
In joyful praise she sings out the justice God has worked in the past, the justice God is working in the present, and the justice God will work in the future: by bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly, by filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
Mary has discovered what God has known since the time before time: that there is no greater joy than in loving people to fullness, in righting wrongs, in feeding people with life and blessing, in empowering people and all creation, in bringing people and creation together for the good of all.
Some of us discovered this kind of joy when Lucio Perez was in sanctuary here with us. Others of us have known this kind of joy when we see the lightbulb go off in our students’ minds, when our children figure out who they are and begin to make their way in the world, when a tenant wins legal protection from a negligent landlord, when the hungry give thanks for another delicious meal at Not Bread Alone, when a dear one who has struggled marks a milestone, when a patient gets better, when our generosity makes a difference, when those ostracized and judged by some Christians because of who they love find love and belonging in a church.
Some folks might think of social justice work, volunteering, or any of the helping professions as an obligation. But those of us who do it are regularly surprised by joy!
Participating in God’s justice, love, and compassion cannot help but bring us joy. Justice is the stars aligning. Justice is systems and relationships functioning for the well-being of all. Justice is joyful because it helps us become who we are meant to be.
We can get ready for joy, as Mary did, by saying with our lives, “Let God’s love be born in me.”
We can prepare for joy, says Jan Richardson, “but it will still come to [us] by surprise, crossing through [our] doorway, calling [our] name in greeting, turning like a child who quickens suddenly with [us]. It will astonish [us]—how wide [our] heart will open in welcome . . . ”
May it be so.