Texts: Psalm 126; John 1:6-8, 19-28
God, you who is always with us, guide our thoughts, enliven our hearts, draw us to yourself . . .
Our theme today, on this third Sunday of Advent, is joy. My initial response to this assigned theme, in this particular year, is not positive. So let me begin by quoting a few lines from those who have something better to say. Here’s the New Testament writer John. This is II John 1:2 “Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” John didn’t have access to Zoom, maybe that would have been good enough.
Here’s a second quotation. This one comes from the TV character Dwight Shrute. “I never smile if I can help it. Showing one’s teeth is a sign of submission in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life.”
And here’s a third: the contemporary theologian Willie Jennings says that joy is an “act of resistance against despair and its forces.” Jennings is speaking there self-consciously as a person of color in the United States. Joy, he says again, is an “act of resistance against despair.”
Let’s talk about this “act of resistance.” The words “joy” and “rejoice” show up quite frequently in the Bible. More than you would suspect given the reputation of some Bible readers. In the NRSV translation the word “joy” is used 267 times, “rejoice” 227 times. In addition there are words like glad and gladness and sing and laugh.
There’s an old rabbinic tradition suggesting that when we meet God in heaven we will have to provide an explanation for every good pleasure that we did not enjoy. Note the important qualifier there of good pleasure or pleasure that falls within the way of life outlined in the Torah. But still . . . there is the idea that we might have to explain to the creator why we did not take joy in the goodness that surrounds us.
One of the texts many congregations will be contemplating today is from I Thessalonians 5, where we read this: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In Galatians 5 joy is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit. There are a number of valuable virtues on that list, but joy is the second. Joy is one of the things produced by our attention to God’s Spirit.
Now, from this initial survey, we could get the impression that joy is yet another thing that we should conjure up or work on. Joy seems like it might be yet another self-improvement project. We could see confirmation here of the harmful assumption that mental health challenges should be pushed aside, stuffed down, or ignored. We could get the impression that joy is a part of the mask of faith that we put on like the clown’s painted-on smile.
Yet the biblical reality is a bit different. For all the Bible has to say about joy, it also gives ample attention to sorrow and sadness. There’s an entire book called “lament” and many psalms expressing frustration and fear. The God who loves us, loves the real us, not the pretend us.
Throughout the scriptures, genuine joy is usually the result of a gift. Joy is a response to something God has done. One famous example is Mary’s song. Right in the beginning of the gospel of Luke she sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary goes on to describe how the child within her womb will be part of a holy disruption of the status quo. God has done something and there’s promise of more. Mary is full of joy.
And yet joy is elusive. In our psalm today, we notice that joy shows up in two tenses. The poem is structured a bit like a walnut. It separates neatly into two halves. The first half is reflective. It looks backward. The second is anticipatory. It looks forward. The poet is in the middle. The joyful events are in the past and the future. The poet is in the present.
Joy is elusive for us as well, and not just because this is a unique year. There’s a short scene in a novel by David Foster Wallace that shows something of our modern situation.
An IRS employee (US tax service) is looking out the window of a small commuter plane. He’s flying from Chicago to Peoria, or the other way around. He notices that above the exit hatch in the airplane there are both instructions for opening the door and a command to not open the door. He thinks about what it will take for him to get a promotion. He notices the wealthy woman next to him stash a bag of airline snacks in her purse. He thinks about features of the tax code. Out the window he sees six lanes of traffic, crawling along—hundreds, thousands of people going somewhere, their brains sloshing with frustration and anxiety. He thinks about the various reporting lines on tax forms. The airplane lands. He gets out and stands obediently with the other passengers in the rain waiting for the checked bags to be placed on the tarmac.
If that scene makes you feel bored and sad, I think you’ve got it. As much as our separation from loved-ones is joy’s adversary, so is boredom mundane sadness.
One of the reasons that joy is elusive is the persistent gap that exists between what we want and what we have. The Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek points out that this is even true in the Garden of Eden. Despite the goodness all around them, Adam and Eve desired something they didn’t have. So they ate the fateful fruit.
This gap between what we have and what we desire runs through just about every domain of our lives. It’s the engine of the modern economy. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. When John the Baptist told his countrymen to get ready, to prepare the “way of the Lord,” he did so because the way things were wasn’t what the people desired.
I forget which comedian it was that used to do a popular bit about how absurd it is for us to get bent out of shape about the poor service we get on commercial flights. Turn back the clock a hundred years and people would have been amazed at how easy it is for us to sit on chairs moving through the clouds. The same thing could probably be said about our annoyance at having to wait a few days for packages to be delivered from the other side of the world. Times change and expectations shift. What stays the same is the gap between the way things are and the way we wish they were. Our integrity hangs on our response to this disparity.
Our quest for joy reveals our character. So often when we try to secure joy in the present it slips away. So often when we try to make joy happen for ourselves, the result is bitter.
Let me point out a couple of things about Psalm 126. Here’s the first half of the poem again:
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Notice two things here. First, the source of the joy was a gift from God. The experience is not one of self-satisfaction, but of reception. Second, notice that, even though the event that brought joy is in the past, there remains a sense of satisfaction flowing from it. The act of reflection brings real joy. In fact, the poet realizes that there would be no current sense of loss without that prior sense of joy.
It would seem that if our present situation is dominated by despair, we need not be ashamed to take joy in memory. There is nothing wrong with excavating our situation to find the joy that lies at the root of our sadness. We cannot be with those we love, but we did love them, we do love them! There is joy at the root of our sadness.
Now here’s the second half of the walnut. The poet looks at the present, with the clear disparity between what is and what should be, and hopes for the future. Here’s that half of the poem:
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
I think the economist is right. The gap between what we want and what we have is terribly persistent. Yet, how else would we know satisfaction, if there was never any longing, if there was never any hope yet to be fulfilled? It is the empty watercourse that can take up the rain. It is the dry seed that can be sown. Without the barrenness of the empty field there is no fullness of harvest.
This biblical poet may be in a situation like our own in some ways. The events that bring joy, those tangible gifts of God, may be mostly in the past or in the future. But being stuck in the present doesn’t mean those gifts don’t exist. Held by God’s Spirit, we have the joy of memory and the hope of anticipation.
Let’s end with this blessing, the words of another biblical writer: “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.” Amen.