3rd Sunday in Advent
Readings: Zephaniah 3.14-20, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18
The theme of this day is joy and don’t we need a good dose of it when we look at the world around us and perhaps when we reflect of the challenges in our own lives. I was talking with a friend about the value of watching TV news with its images of pain and atrocity brought to us as they happen. Do we really need to know? Does it make any difference? I have the feeling that much of the aggression we witness in our public life may come from the feelings of frustration we experience in knowing so much about what is happening in the world, and being so powerless to do anything about it.
So an emphasis on joy is very welcome. But what exactly is joy? Is it a feeling, like pleasure? Is it an experience, a quality, a mindset, an attitude? For people who are naturally melancholic, a summons to be joyful might be very difficult, whereas for others of a sunnier disposition it comes more easily. And in such a world as ours, can we experience joy only by ignoring the darkness around us?
Today we are focussing on Advent joy, joy which is grounded in the coming of Christ, promised, anticipated and fulfilled in history, amidst the painful realities of human existence. It is joy arising from the Incarnation, God with us.
Zephaniah (and Isaiah) speaks out of the pain of Israel’s exile; John the Baptist speaks out of an environment of Roman occupation, religious compromise and the threat of arrest; and Paul speaks out from prison in the midst of persecution. And yet they speak with joy of the hope that is found in God’s promises of homecoming, freedom and salvation.
It is amazing how, as we read their words, time seems to be transfigured: past, present and future become one in the narrative of God’s salvation, a narrative that we find ourselves part of as we look back and forwards, and as a result also empowered to live in our present with joy and hope.
Advent is a season of waiting – waiting for the coming of Christ. Understood in those terms, Christian life is a continuous Advent season as we wait – wait for God and wait on God. And this involves learning and unlearning. In fact, I think the Christian life is more about unlearning – unlearning the narratives we have been taught by the world, the identities we have been given that lead to death that we might learn to live in God’s narrative, which leads to life. There, according to our readings, is where joy is to be found.
In Zephaniah, Israel is to rejoice because of what God has done. “The Lord has taken away the judgements against you”. Then every sentence has ‘the Lord’ or ‘I’-God speaking- as the subject. “the Lord has…”, “The Lord will…”, “I will”. The people are never the subject; they are simply to respond with joy to what God is doing and will do. God is even described as doing the rejoicing! He rejoices over them. So they are meant to share in God’s joy, which means they need not be afraid. [16-17]
(In Galatians 5, Paul describes joy as one of the fruits of the Spirit – it is an aspect of God’s life before it is shared with us.)
In Luke, we read of John the Baptist announcing the coming judgement and calling the people to good deeds of repentance before baptism. John is the last of the prophets, but the people were waiting expectantly for the Messiah and wondering whether John was the one. Now with his talk of the coming wrath etc., John is not often seen as the bearer of joy. But his preaching is described as “good news” because the coming of the Messiah and judgment would mean liberation for the people of Israel. God would act to save his people once and for all.
And everyone thought they knew what that would look like – even John. And as we know, they were wrong. As the reading makes clear, John the Baptist was not the Messiah, he was not Jesus. And as we read later, John had doubts about whether Jesus was the Messiah because he was not what John expected. The prophet focussed on what the people should do to be saved; the gospel focusses on what God does to save them. Jesus does for humanity what it cannot do for itself. God becomes one of us that we might become like him. Our lives now are a transformation into the image of his Son, in whom we were created, by the power of the Spirit – a transformation from death to life. Here the historical nature of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is central because salvation is first what happens to us, from outside, not what happens in us. It is objective before it is subjective. That is good news!
In Philippians, Paul, writing after Easter and Pentecost, exhorts his readers to rejoice in the Lord. Their joy is to have its source in Christ. There is a new reality in him, new life, new creation; everything is to be seen in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Counsellors often speak of the need for their clients to ‘reframe’ their situation or experience; see it from a different perspective or ‘in a new light’. This is what the coming of Jesus does; places a new frame around our lives and experience – and around history. It is our new narrative – God’s narrative. We find ourselves in his story. That’s why gentleness is possible; because it is no longer MY story which demands to be heard, leading to self-preoccupation, rivalry and aggression, but God’s story of forgiveness, love and grace. We are not in control, God is, and nothing can separate us from his love in Christ.
And that’s why Paul tells his readers to have no anxiety; anxiety is the opposite of joy. Anxiety and fear arise because we feel we are not in control of our lives. ‘Rejoicing in the Lord’ equals letting go of our need to control, and therefore our fear. Our lives are under control, Christ’s control, and he can be trusted because he has defeated sin and death. The best expression of ‘rejoicing in the Lord’ is prayer because it is the most powerful acknowledgement that our lives are not ours. In prayer we come to God with empty hands, simply to receive and trust. Prayer keeps our eyes fixed on Jesus, not on ourselves, our circumstances or our world. And that results in a peace that passes all understanding which keeps “our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Again, Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians is significant here: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.” These are not personal character achievements of ours but the result (fruit) of sharing God’s very life in the Spirit of Christ. It’s who we now are.
Returning to the frustration we feel when we know so much and can do so little, we now see that that is our key problem and one powerfully challenged by the Advent season: our preoccupation with ‘We’, ‘we’, ‘I’, ‘I’. We are upset by our powerlessness, our control and it is a blow to our ego. Advent is the season for de-selfing, putting off the old and putting on the new self grounded in Christ, and waiting with empty hands to receive Christ afresh. Joy is an action, a life lived in response to the coming of Christ and with the grain of the universe, the breathing of new air, and denying anxiety and fear by trusting ourselves to the One in whom we live and move and have our being.