A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Advent III
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, John 1:6-8, 19-28
The first Christmas card Malcolm and I sent as parents was in the infancy of the now-common practice of sending custom photo cards pre-printed with greetings that you could choose from a menu of options: Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Greetings of the Season! etc. Our card displayed a snapshot of our first child, four months old and dressed in a pale green Winnie-the-Pooh onesie, grinning from ear to ear; that toothless smile just melting your heart. Nobody, but nobody could resist that face.
And from the menu of greetings, we chose a single word: Joy!
Of course, we did. The photo expressed a child’s joy as well as the great happiness she brought to all who had eagerly awaited her arrival.
But as I look back on that Christmas card and its jaunty scripted caption almost exactly 29 years later, I realize that the joy we felt at that time was just the beginning. The joy of new parenthood wasn’t just the delight our daughter (and five years later, her younger brother) brought us each day as she grew and developed. This joy was more–a sign of the inexorable movement of our identity as a couple transforming into something new. This creature from God was not just a happy short-term event accompanied by our adjustment to sleepless nights, diapers and projectile vomiting. This was a paradigm shift that turned our world around; affecting how we saw the future. We had become parents—a permanent identity change. The decisions we would make and the actions that we would take would now ripple forward in a way that they hadn’t before—into a new generation. This joy was much deeper than the moment, and it enfolded us (and still does) throughout the journey of raising first one, and then two, children.
This, then, is the kind of joy that rocks the world in ways we only understand dimly at first but, as we move with it into the future, we realize it is a joy that is inextricably woven with challenge, and with hope.
This is the joy symbolized by the pink candle on the Advent wreath, marking what the church calls Gaudete Sunday. We always think of Advent as a season of anticipation, but actually, Advent is also a season of penitence, and we observe it as a ‘little Lent’. And like Lent, whose fourth Sunday, Laetare Sunday, is a kind of joyful respite from the austere season in anticipation of the Resurrection, Gaudete Sunday with its pink candle, expectant lessons, and in some churches rose-colored vestments and hangings, serves to spike our awareness of the approaching Incarnation as we enter the final stretch of the season. Traditionally the liturgy includes an introit that begins with words from Philippians: “Gaudete” “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice.” The Gospel lesson for this day in the past has included Mary’s stirring Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…he has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted the humble and meek…” This is powerful joy. There is a beautiful musical adaptation of this in which Mary exultantly declares, “My heart cries out with a joyful shout…the world is about to turn.”* That phrase perfectly expresses the deep foundational joy that goes beyond platitude and enters the realm of the existential. This is joy that reaches the core of our identity.
And though today’s lessons are different from what the church has offered in other years, we still hear in them the overarching theme of a world about to turn.
Our passage from Isaiah may sound familiar: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed… to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…” These are the verses that Jesus will read in Luke’s Gospel when he opens the scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth; an act that nearly gets him killed when he’s barely begun his ministry. Written early in the 6th century BCE as the exiles were returning from Babylon, Third Isaiah’s words reflect the optimism of those who recognize that they are in a whole new post-exile world; that God has done great things for them by bringing them home. Israel will be renewed and she will be a light to the nations. As in Mary’s Magnificat, this is an expression of renewed identity and purpose.
This is Joy springing from the ruins of the Temple: joy seeping through the broken places and watering the seeds of hope.
Isaiah makes a lot of Gospel appearances. It is most cited by the evangelists as foretelling the life and significance of Jesus as Messiah. John’s Gospel refers to the earlier, Second, Isaiah this time—very early in the narrative, as we just heard. A man named John says that he is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord’”
Who is this man?
The interesting thing is that John is identified as who he is not. “He was not the Light.” He says, “I am not the Messiah.” Elijah? Nope. The prophet? Unh-uh. Even as compared to the other Gospel writers, who identify him as the Baptist or The Baptizer, the Evangelist here simply tells us that this is a man named John. That is all we really need to know.
He is who he is not and, as shadow brings out highlights in a picture, his function—his vocation—is to illumine the one who comes after him. He testifies—he is witness to the Light coming into the world; witness to hope; witness to the world about to turn.
So while at first blush this may not seem like an overtly joyous passage, it really is. This is whispered joy; the joy of a candle in the darkness; the light of healing in a wilderness of anxiety and pain.
And John’s news of the one whose sandals he was not fit to untie caused people to rethink the decisions they would make; the actions they would take. “Make straight the way of the Lord, ” he says. How would the baptism of this man John, and the one who came after, affect their identity as children of God? What would the world look like now that the promised Light was now among them? What would the future hold?
Whispered joy. Powerful joy. They didn’t know it at that time, but they were embarking on an unknown road into a new world— following the Light that was now somewhere among them. It did not mean that their troubles were over. The road ahead was rutted with challenge and difficulty. But hope beckoned them on—a joyful expectation of God’s promised Messiah.
As in first century Palestine, Emmanuel comes to us in a world in the wilderness. And accessing this thing called Joy is not always easy. For those who suffer; for the vulnerable, anxious, and fearful, to speak of joy without also speaking of hope is a mere platitude. Offering platitudes to someone in pain is like blowing dandelion fluff at them. You can’t offer joy effectively without also offering hope—the two are conjoined. And as Christians, we are all about hope: the seed that sprouts when it is buried in the darkness.
On Thursday evening at 5:30 we will have a service here that seeks to offer comfort to those who struggle to find hopeful joy in this season. Our third annual Blue Christmas liturgy is a quiet prayer service that is held each year on December 21, the winter solstice and the darkest day of the year. The important thing about the timing of this service is that this shortest day and longest night means that on the very next day the light will begin to return—the days will lengthen into summer, just as they always have, and will continue to do—and there’s not a thing we can do for good or ill that will stop it. Blue Christmas is a service perfectly timed to celebrate, quietly and contemplatively, the joy of a world always about to turn. Of a world into which God comes steadily, constantly, faithfully and inexorably; present with us in all of our suffering and brokenness.
I hope you will try and join us on Thursday. Even if you are at a place in your life where you are able to connect with the Joy of Gaudete, I’ll wager that has not always been the case. I’ll wager that you have learned something about hope and how you can walk with someone who suffers. Because I deeply, deeply believe, and I cannot say it enough—God does not give us suffering. God gives us each other. And that’s not dandelion fluff—it’s what we are called to as the Body of Christ.
On a cold morning a while ago a priest entered a church early, turned on the lights and went about the business of unlocking and getting ready for the day. He entered the sacristy and found a person sleeping there on the floor, peacefully bundled up in robes from the closet. Upon waking him, the priest found the young man groggy and disoriented—a lost soul carrying a load of God only knew what kind of troubles. When asked how he got in, he simply said, “I came to the door, and the light came on.”
In the cold light of day, this is a story about motion sensors and building security—I get that. But in the world of metaphor, this is eloquent. A troubled world is out there looking for a place to rest its head—a place to be enfolded and comforted and healed. It is a world seeking light— the light of joy conjoined with hope in a way that transforms all of us—those who struggle and those who walk the road with them. We are called to be that light, and in that may we Rejoice…again I say, Rejoice! Amen.
* Canticle of the Turning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXyGh1MW2OM