Zephanaiah 3:14-20, First Song of Isaiah, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
I spent the better part of Monday as a guest of the Police Department. So did 900 other clergy from all denominations and religions. We were assembled at 1 Police Plaza in Manhattan and we heard speeches from Commissioner Bratton and from deputy commissioners and chiefs and deputy chiefs and Mayor DeBlasio we saw videos on various topics. The two main themes were how clergy could help the cops improve their relationship with the community, and how to deal with local acts of terrorism, as they kept saying, “God forbid it should happen to you.”
I learned a lot. I know the definitions of “soft target” and “active shooter.” I learned the stages of police response to an active shooter. I learned the three-point strategy of “run, hide, fight.” Did you know that Old First is a soft target which would attract an active shooter? The precinct wants to schedule a security assessment of Old First. Did you know that Congregation Beth Elohim regularly employs security guards and that we even had extra cops on hand for the Jingle Bell Jamboree?
Terrorism. Terrorists. Terror has become a thing, a cultural and political phenomenon. Donald Trump says, “Nobody knows what’s going on.” So it’s not like the fear of what you can see, like when it was Communism that we feared, which we could see, but the fear of the unknowable that is among us, hiding in plain sight, that you cannot guard against, that you can’t prevent, and certainly not reason with. And when you have terror, you have a negative condition for joy.
The Third Sunday of Advent is the Joy Sunday, so I’ve been thinking about the obstacles to joy. What prevents your joy. Terror. Misery. Depression. Grief. Worry. Rage. Resentment. Lust. Greed. Arrogance. Pride. Achievement. Great success, perhaps. Joy is not the same as pleasure, and it goes beyond happiness and feeling good. You can have pain and still have joy. One of my nieces has a debilitating illness and she’s a hero of mine because of how joyful she remains. I think you can know sorrow in your life and still have joy.
I don’t think anger is the opposite of joy. More the repression of anger, anger hidden and held. There’s open anger in the words of the prophets like John the Baptist. You’ve got to let your anger out, and feel it. But don’t let its pleasure seduce you, for if you enjoy your anger you won’t have joy.
Joy is hard to define. It’s one of those things that you know it when you feel it. Not all joy is the same. It has its textures and flavors. Joy can be sudden and unexpected, but also constant and calm. One of the experts on joy is C. S. Lewis. In his book The Great Divorce he wrote of joy as the constant state of eternal life, and that to live within it you have to surrender both your ego and your substitute satisfactions.
He also wrote that you can be Surprised by Joy. In either case, joy is something objectively outside of you. You can have it in you but yet you can never possess it as your own. You can only keep receiving it. And that’s because, according to C. S. Lewis, joy belongs to God. You can receive it but you can’t achieve it.
And yet St. Paul instructs us to rejoice. Again, I say, rejoice. Well, how can you just decide to start being joyful? You can’t. You can’t get at joy directly. If you aim for it, you will not get it. But at the same time, if you’re a Christian and you’re not joyful, then you have a problem. And you need to examine yourself for what is keeping you from joy. What are your obstacles to joy?
The paradoxical insight of the gospel is that repentance is the way to joy. That’s why we get John the Baptist on this Third Sunday of Advent, because his exhortation to repentance is the “good news of salvation!”
Repentance is the way to joy, repentance as both negative and positive. As negative in your self-examination and acknowledgment of your sins. As positive in real actions, as bearing fruits worthy of repentance, like sharing your second coat with someone who has none, and like tax collectors taking only the cash they are due, and soldiers not using their power for gain.
Your obstacles to joy are probably your substitutes for joy. Cheaper pleasures. Pain avoidances. Mental medicines. Indulgences. Repentance is how you clear away your substitutes for joy. But repentance is not like physical exercise to make you better on your own. Repentance opens you to the joy that comes from beyond you. No matter how righteous you become, you cannot generate your own joy. The most important repentance is not your purging but your receiving.
What I’m asking you to believe today is that joy comes with God. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” That’s the message of the prophet Zephaniah. It is God who comes rejoicing over you. I am inviting you to believe that the God you want is a joyful God, and that your own joy comes from sharing the joy of God. But so much gets in the way. It’s not just your obstacles and substitutes that you repent of. It’s also real doubt, real distraction, real questions, real grief, real hunger, the silence of God when a declaration is needed, the silence of God when evil is racking up the points.
What I do is set myself a discipline. You know that discipline is not an obstacle to joy. Let me tell you my discipline. I repeat the canticle, every morning.
Last Sunday I was inaccurate. I told you that every morning I recite the canticle of Zechariah. Actually not so. I mix it up. On weekday mornings in the summer, instead of the song of Zechariah, I recite this first song of Isaiah. At sunrise, down by the lake, on my little wooden prayer deck. It puts me in a different place, a sanctuary of the open air.
I do it kind of sing-song.
“Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. The Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my savior. Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation, and on that day you will say, Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name. Make his deeds known among the nations, see that they remember that his name is exalted. Sing the praises of the Lord for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world. Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
Can I tell you that repeating this is my cognitive behavioral therapy? It forms me. It forms me from outside me. It affects my mind and how I live the day. It changes my mind and converts my soul again each day.
You know I disagree with many Protestants that the best words to pray are your own words. Yes, I do pray my own words too every morning, but most of my prayers are in the words that I receive instead of generate myself, and I receive them by reciting them. It’s a kind of listening while speaking. I find this to be a relief and a lifting of the burden of myself. It is a gift that does not depend on me. That in itself is the pattern of joy. So in the pattern of joy I pray this song of joy. You can do this. If you’re having trouble being joyful, then try this discipline.
Your joy is all about God, and that God is your stronghold and defense. It is God’s water that you draw. It’s God’s deeds that you praise, and God’s name you exalt. It’s because God is great in you that your joy rings out. So the strategy of joy is your objective praise. You repeat it and you begin to know it, you repeat and you begin to discover it, you repeat it and you begin to see it, you repeat it and you begin to feel it. Honest, that is how it works. It’s not just a reminder, it’s a retrieval.
I know you want joy to be spontaneous, to be surprised by it. Like when you get good news. But you can discipline your mind and soul to hear the news you were deaf to and to notice the spontaneity that was always all around you. The news that the Holy One of Israel is great in your midst.
It’s paradoxical. The Holy One of Israel was great in her midst by getting very small. A fetus in her body. An infant in her arms. A little child, listening to his parents to learn how to speak and how to think and how to pray. You keep hearing that as news, a distant story of what God did once, far off, once for all. But that news tells you what God is like and what to look for of God’s presence, and what your joy might feel like.
And that news helps you discern the presence of God all around you and in the stories of the people that you know. You rejoice in each other. You rejoice in what each other tells. Your broken and halting voices come together to make a song. This joy is something you can learn. Learn it. Listen to it. Desire it. Sing it or say it but keep repeating it. And the joy within it gets born in you and reveals itself to you. And you recognize the wonders of his love.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.