“Wells of joy” - December 16, 2012 - Robin Wardlaw
Advent , Year C
Readings: (Zephaniah 3:14–20); Isaiah 12:2–6; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:7–18
Joy. The theme of the third Sunday of Advent. Joy when the events of this week have changed the channel. Another young man with some kind of agenda using a weapon to express himself at the expense of a crowd of innocent people, in this case, children and their teachers. And his mother. It’s not as if mass death is rare these days. Between violence and weather and accidents, every week brings news of tens or hundreds dying suddenly. But a Grade One classroom? With his mother’s guns? In a quiet community far from war and wild weather. Six months ago the shooting took place in a theatre in Colorado, at the premier of a blockbuster movie featuring a troubled hero who uses violence to make things better.
We don’t lift up joy during Advent because we’re feeling particularly peppy, though, because everything is right with the world. We lift it up as a solemn act of defiance, a daring display of confidence in a deeper reality. Social conditions change over the generations and centuries. Churches and people of faith respond to very different circumstances. We go to our story and our tradition for answers, and questions, that last.
Joy is not as simple as lighting a pink candle. If only. Or maybe not. What if were that simple to feel joy? Would it still be as joyful? If it’s more elusive, perhaps we treasure it more when it appears. Even as our hearts break for families devastated by this recent loss, we turn to a Word with staying power for support and meaning.
Joy comes when a community that has been flooded out of their reserve gets to return. Joy is when a child or grandchild lights up a stage, or plays well, in the band, on the ice or with other children at the playground. Joy is when society makes life more fair for those who are marginalized, when nations decide to lay down deadly weapons and cooperate for mutual security. Joy is when we set ourselves a big challenge, and somehow, working together, with each other and with the Spirit, achieve it. And you have your own examples.
Joy is deeper than happiness. Joy is bone deep. From the bible we get the sense that the goal is more than coping, getting by. The goal is joy. We can’t buy it. We can’t earn it. The goal might not be all-the-time joy, but access to it from time to time. Joy as a destination.
Last week we explored John’s message, John’s warning. He sounds angry, angry with people who take too much for granted, angry with a society veering away from its own ideals, its own standards of fairness. Did he speak loudly, the way we often do when we’re angry, or did he murmur his sermon, whisper it? Did he smile when he called people vipers, and demand they repent, was he sarcastic, or was he stern, intimidating? A prophet does not come, does not preach, so that people learn to fear, or re-learn it. The path that is to be cleared, the way that is to be made straight is not for a puritanical, terrifying theocracy. It is for a new way of being together that is so much better than what we have gotten use to.
To hear the Gospels tell it, the path is for a saviour. And the saviour gets an opening act. John is but the prelude to Jesus. In actual fact, many people followed John the Baptist, and considered him the Messiah. He was not the lead-up to anyone. He had disciples, and some of them became followers of Jesus. According to one of my professors, this faith in John as the Anointed One lasted into the 20th century, still with loyal followers in a region of Israel. In John’s gospel, Jesus calls John "a burning and shining lamp,” and says, “you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light" (John 5:35). We look at John the Baptist through the lens of Christianity. He’s just the announcer for the real hero. But to many people of his day, he had a true message of hope. People rejoiced in him. Got joy from his strong message.
The thing about a saviour is that a person needs saving. Repent? Of what? Give up lesser goals, lesser answers to get a greater one. Let go of that which only seems to give life to receive that which really gives life. What is getting in the way of your deep joy? What needs letting go? What is the saviour offering, to you?
Some times we feel like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. We know exactly what are the barriers we have carefully built to keep from becoming a beautiful, gracious person. Our saviour is the person who will hear our dreadful secret, our shame, our brokenness, and love us back into wholeness and self-acceptance. Other times we are like the man who knelt at Jesus’ feet and explained how he kept all the commandments and still felt as something were missing. We’re puzzled, since we seem to be following directions, but still not in touch with the joy. Our saviour is the person who can name the barrier that has become invisible to us, and challenge us to let go even of our last crutch. We rejoice, then, in such a one.
For many people, the barrier is class or race privilege. Their personal lives are fine. They respect others, give, help, forgive. But they have not faced the profound biases at the core of their being. Or if they have, they have decided to protect what they have. Continue a system of inequality in the world because it benefits them. Us. Remember that terrible fire in a clothing factory in Bangladesh last month, where a hundred and twelve people died, trapped in their workplace. Turns out that Walmart and the other major retailers in the West didn’t know their products were coming from that plant. There are rules for suppliers. The garment industry has worked to clean up its act, trying to avoid exactly this kind of tragedy. But if the lowest price is the law, love is not. If we try to get others to subsidize our lifestyle with their health or safety or their poverty, disaster will follow–economic, environmental, every kind.
I suspect joy has always been elusive. Today we know a great deal about the damage we have done and are doing to the planet. We know about the life-draining gap between rich and poor, and how it is widening. We know how others, millions of them, are suffering in different parts of the world. And we have our own woes, the same as every generation: disappointments, pain, losses, frustrations. Perhaps it was simple to be filled with joy in the days of Jesus’ life, or the years immediately after his death, when the community gathered back together to await his imminent return. Perhaps.
The message today is one of vast reassurance. Joy is not only possible, it is right here, for you, for us, for everyone. “Rejoice in Christ always,” says Paul to the very young church at Philippi, “again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Christ is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
The reading for today we did not hear is from Zephaniah, a very short book of prophecy. Listen to this love letter to a hurting people:
“Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
Your God is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
God will rejoice over you with gladness,
will renew you in his love;
she will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home...”
Isaiah offers a similar theme:
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for God is my strength and my might;
she has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Just good poetry, or are they on to something? We are capable of such great evil, and such great good. We love to compete with one another, but we are really best when we work together. Fear can disable us, and so over and over we hear, “Do not be afraid.” This pink candle is easy to extinguish. It represents a light, a power, a movement of the Spirit that is persistent, never extinguished. We may not feel like skipping every day. We may not have a cheery song on our lips at all times. But the joy that inspires us, restores us, keeps us, lasts for more than a day, more than a season. It allows us to respond to the grief and despair of others, to be with them in their bleakest times. Get to know those wells of salvation. Read your bible, pray, gather together to appreciate what is always coming toward us. We will need to dip into the waters of joy again and again in the years and decades to come.