Sermon for December 16, 2018: Thanks for the Joy (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 10

My Godmother was a stickler for thank you notes. When I got a gift from her, I knew that I wasn’t going to be allowed to go out to play until I had written her a thank you note. I hated it. I didn’t like handwriting things and, sadly, I was often less than grateful for what she gave me. When I was 16, for example, she gave me salad tongs. When my mother, who was as baffled by this gift as I was, gently inquired as to whether there might have been some mix-up, my Godmother said, “Well, she will need them someday.” So, in order to avoid punishment, I wrote my thank you notes – whether I was grateful or not.


Now, there are good reasons for thank you notes. Personally, when I send someone a gift, I am grateful for getting a thank you note because then I know that they got the gift –but I could care less about how I am thanked. The thank-yous I like most are impulsive and incoherent, because those are the most sincere. Maybe God feels the same way.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday. As most of you know, the church calendar is a cycle of seasons, and each season has a color. Lent and Advent, in which we prepare ourselves for Easter and Christmas (respectively) have traditionally been represented by the color purple. These seasons are called “penitential,” because in order to get ready for occasions of great joy we need to understand and apologize for the wrongs we have done so we can celebrate with a clear conscience. Nowadays, people may choose to adopt some form of self-denial and fasting during Penitential seasons, but in the old days the church required self-sacrifice. People fasted for all of Advent – the whole month. So the church fathers, probably to make sure people actually lived through the season, built in a day off for rest and refreshment – a day to “lighten up.” To symbolize this, we lighten our liturgical color from purple to pink, and we hear scripture readings that preview the joy we will experience on Christmas Day, when our hopes will be fulfilled.


Unfortunately, we are not actually very good at hoping. That’s because hope is based on expectation. It’s not just about wanting something to happen; it’s about assuming that it will. Like many ideas in scripture, this is countercultural. In our society, we are taught to pursue what we want. We don’t wait expectantly for a Merry Christmas; we plan for it. But the kind of joy our scripture is talking about cannot be worked for; it is a gift, freely given by God – and in order to understand and appreciate it, we need to stop trying to force it. James Evans suggests that meaning of “joy” and “rejoicing” is different than simple happiness. We work toward happiness, but we long for joy. Happiness gives us energy, but it is fleeting – the caffeine high of emotions. Joy, on the other hand, is a quieter, more enduring emotion. Joy comes only when we put our trust in God.


Like many other prophetic words, this is hard to swallow. Our scripture readings for the season of Advent hum with the voices of prophets telling us what we don't want to hear, attempting to wake us up in time to accept salvation - but today they take a break from their warnings to remind us that God understands and protects us. “Surely it is God who saves me” writes Isaiah, “I will trust in him and not be afraid.” Now that’s a rare quote – a prophet not crying doom and destruction, but instead telling us not to live in fear. This must have seemed bizarre to the people Isaiah prophesied to, as they had much to fear – just as we believe we do. “We who live in these early years of the twenty-first century know something of...a world in which whole cultures of fear have been built around the threats (real and perceived) of terror…We clutch national identities, sustaining a perceived need for enemies…Hospitality disappears, and strangers and foreigners are seen as a threat and not welcomed.”[1] “We fear insignificance…We fear political defeat and natural disaster. We fear shame and reproach….We are afraid that we won’t have enough, won’t be enough.”[2] [We dwell] in the shadow of death.”[3] And yet, Isaiah and the prophet Zephaniah both “join voices in a persistent, insistent biblical refrain. ‘Do not fear.’”[4] They remind us that we can hope for – we can expect- not a Merry Christmas, but a joyful nativity, a gift that brings with it patience, peace and prayer. Grateful prayer.


Today’s readings provide a model not only for how to pray, but how to feel when we pray, and it’s not angry, resentful, envious, or despairing. Listen to the words of Isaiah, “Cry aloud, ring out your joy,” and of Paul, speaking to his beloved in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything,” because God is with us – in all times and in all places, and in all things. That is, if we desire her presence - because one thing God does not do is to force us to accept his love.


It seems like choosing joy and peace would be easy, but for many of us it may feel impossible because of what we are asked to do in exchange. We are the crowd surrounding John the Baptist, demanding to know how we shall be saved, how we shall escape the sorrow of this world. John’s answer does not at first seem to be good news. We are directed to share everything. We are made aware that we must repent in word and action. We are threatened with being thrown into eternal fire. This seems harsh to those of us who have much to lose, but “throughout the Bible, promise does not come separated from judgment and suffering. Biblical writers have not offered comfort to the comfortable.”[5] John was speaking not to the privileged, but to the oppressed people that were drawn to him, and to them the Baptizer’s words were music: “For the dispossessed, gospel joy is liberation. [It is only] for the privileged [that it means] relinquishment.”[6] John the Baptizer answers the questioning of the crowd in the same way the coming Messiah will: In order to know God, you must love and care for one another. For the Baptizer, salvation is not about avoiding punishment. It’s about finding joy – and true joy is sacrificial joy. True joy is grateful joy. True joy is shared joy. AMEN.


[1]Randall R. Mixon, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 59.

[2]Deborah A. Block, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 54.

[3]Randall R. Mixon, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 59.

[4]Deborah A. Block, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 52.

[5]Angela Bauer-Levesque, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 55.

[6]Philip E. Campbell, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 66.