Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Advebt 3: What is Joy? (John the Baptist, Prophet of Joy)

 Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 2023, at Church of the Redeemer, Addison:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

          Today we light the candle of joy.  Long before there was anything like an Advent wreathe with its one pink candle, “joy” was what characterized this Sunday.  It began with the appointed introit for the Latin Mass, so the first word heard on this Sunday for centuries was Gaudate.

 Gaudate in Domino semper: iterum dico gaudate.

 Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.

                  The words are from the Letter to the Philippians, but the opening of the First Thessalonians’ reading this morning is much the same.

           So, this Advent we have asked: “What is hope?” and “What is peace?” And today we ask, “What is joy?”

           When I spoke of “hope” and “peace,” I said we have to go deeper to get at their true meaning for the Christian.  Hope is not simply optimism. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict.

           So joy is not simply happiness. It is something deeper.

           To get at this deeper sense of joy, I turn to Orthodox Theologian Alexander Schmemann, who wrote

 From its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy, of the only possible joy on earth. . . . Without the proclamation of this joy Christianity is incomprehensible. . . . Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Neitzche when he said that Christians had no joy.

            Christians proclaim, “The only possible joy on earth.”  But what is this joy we proclaim. What is this joy that we are enabled to live?

            I think the answer is in John the Baptist.  Now, no one ever accused John of preaching joy, at least not joy as happiness.  John’s message was a tough one; Repent. End your delusions about yourself. Get right with God.

            But ending our delusions about ourselves may just be the key to the experience of Joy.  We can see this in John’s own understanding of himself.

            John was very clear about who he was not.  And to do that he had to say “no” to other people’s expectations.  No, I am not the Messiah. No, I am not the return of the great prophet Elijah. No, I am not the unnamed prophet who it was believed would inaugurate a new messianic age.

            No, John says, I am not anything you expect me to be.

            I have found my purpose, John says, in words from the prophet Isaiah:  The voice of one crying in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord.

        I have found my purpose, John says, in words from the prophet Isaiah:  The voice of one crying in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord.

           There’s a lot going on in the Greek word translated “straight.”  It has the sense of removing all the obstacles, and John knew this meant not only removing the physical obstacles. It meant removing all the internal ones.  Hence the need for repentance.

            Repentance is the translation of another Greek word that has a lot going on.  Metanoia is the word, and its simplest meaning is “a turning,” or “changing direction.”

            John knew in his own life that his internal sense of direction was critical.  He spent a lot of time telling people to get clear about who they were and where they were headed, because he himself had spent a great deal of time getting clear about who he was and in what direction he was heading.

            So I’ll submit to you the improbable statement:  John the Baptism was and is the prophet of joy.  So here is what John has to teach us about joy.

            Joy comes from a clear sense of self. Joy comes from removing all the obstacles—most of them internal.  Joy comes from knowing who you are and where you are headed.  And by “where you are headed,” I mean “to whom you are headed.”

            Just like in our grasp of what hope means, and what peace means, what joy means is first of all grounded in reality.  I can’t know true joy until I know who I truly am, not divorced from reality, but in the muddy middle of it.

            The Isaiah reading helps us understand this a little better. Isaiah says,

 God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners . . . to comfort all who mourn . . . to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness, instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

            There a great deal of good news in there.  But the good news starts with reality. You cannot, for instance, experience the healing of one’s broken heart if you have not been honest about being broken-hearted in the first place.

            A firm grasp of reality is what is needed to be hopeful, to find the way to peace, or to experience true joy.  The only way to hope, peace, and joy is through reality.

            Which means that joy, like hope and peace, is something to struggle for, and it looks far more like a journey than a destination.

            So back to Schmemann’s rather outlandish claim that Christians proclaim the only joy that is possible on earth. Is that just another exclusivist claim, that if you are not a Christian you cannot experience joy?

            No, I don’t think so.  Schmemann is saying that the joy we proclaim, the way we find joy, is the way Jesus found life.  The only way to life for Jesus was death. He had to go through death in order to find true life.  So the joy we proclaim can only be found when we are willing to go through everything and anything that seems the opposite of joy:  anxiety, doubt, depression, grief, sorrow, the lack of a sense of purpose.

            The Christian proclamation is the only way out is through.

            We can do things that make us happy. We can earn enough money to live well. We can be loved by someone. We can feel we have some control, even power, over our circumstances.  But all those things are ephemeral, they all can so easily change.

            But true joy never changes, because it rests not in what I am able to accomplish, but who I am in the eyes of the One who made me.  It is that sense of the simple but deep confidence of who I am in the midst of the muddle of life, that gives me the chance to, as Paul invites us to do this morning,  rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.

            “Why?” Paul asks. Not because of anything we have done, not because of any success we have made of ourselves, but because that is what God wants for us, that is what is God’s gift to us.  Joy that is dependent on nothing but the love of God.

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