Zephaniah 3:14-20, First Song of Isaiah, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
In my final year in my third congregation, in Hoboken, my wife Melody developed a Christmas pageant that I was very proud of. It was based on a medieval mystery play and had all these cool parts for the children, from Adam and Eve to Joseph and Mary. (I should credit Gretchen Wolf Pritchard.)
So when I went to my fourth charge, in Grand Rapids, a big church, I was excited to introduce this kind of pageant, especially with the assistance of this big staff under me and lots of resources for music and costumes. But one of the education staff had designed his own Christmas pageant a couple years before I arrived. And the first time I saw it I disliked it very much. It contradicted everything I valued in a pageant.
So over the following months I shared my vision of what a Christmas pageant should be, but my education person was not buying it and neither did the children’s committee. I did not like this resistance. I was the senior pastor, and I was supposed to be the visionary leader. Eventually I realized I was going to have to yield, and I was not happy. And I guess my unhappiness got out.
Because on that next Advent Sunday when I came to church and I stepped inside the door a senior elder came up to me. He had been a pastor once himself. He took my hand and he looked me in the eye and he said, “You will enjoy this pageant and you will show it.” He was right, I knew it right away. He was commanding me to rejoice, and let your gentleness be known to all, just like St. Paul did.
Rejoice. The Latin word is gaudete, the second-person-plural present-active-imperative, which is why the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. You-all–rejoice! It’s a command, do it! But how can joy be commanded? Shouldn’t it be spontaneous, a feeling that rises inside you? How can you command a feeling?
Well, in Christian terms the feeling of joy is only one result of the practice of joy, and the practice of joy may have all different kinds of feelings not typically recognized as joyful, such as very quiet contemplation or even “weeping with them that weep.” In all these feelings you have to choose for joy, but if you pursue it directly it will evade you, you have to get it roundabout.
You can pursue happiness. The pursuit of happiness is your inalienable right. I’m not against happiness, even though I am a Calvinist. But happiness is not the same as joy. Happiness is based on your circumstances, your happenstance. “Life is good, these are the best of times, I wish this could go on forever.” Happiness prefers the status quo, and it is not for living between the times. So happiness can get in the way of joy. Your pursuit of happiness can be an obstacle to your joy. Because what joy looks for is news, news of something coming, news of a change, news of hope. Joy responds to what is outside of your control. Joy gives in.
Which is why the prophets like John the Baptist come along to disrupt your happiness. How disruptive are his words: “You brood of vipers!” Yet the people come out to him anyway, they are drawn to him, even tax collectors and soldiers, who sense the disruption coming, that they are living in between the times. They hear his harsh words as good news. It was good for them because when you repent you disrupt your own happiness in order to give room for joy to come in. You give room and you give in. Like I did on that Advent Sunday in Grand Rapids when that elder admonished me.
Joy is your obligation as a Christian, so when you are commanded to rejoice, how shall you obey the command? The mistake is to try to generate your own joy within yourself. To force yourself to be joyful does not work, and it misses the meaning of joy. When you are commanded to rejoice, the best way to respond is by your belief. Belief is how you obey to the command to rejoice.
You believe it’s true, you believe that there is something outside yourself, you believe that there is something beyond your circumstance and happenstance, beyond your happiness that even judges your pursuit of happiness. When you believe, you open a window, and when the window is open the joy comes in. When you repent you open a crack in yourself, and through the crack the light comes in. Repentance and belief are the roundabout to joy.
This is precisely why that, while sorrow may be the opposite of happiness, it is not the opposite of joy. You can have joy in the midst of loss and sorrow. You can have joy within your grief and pain—because of what you believe, despite your happenstance. The literature of religion has many testimonies of people knowing joy in the midst of their sorrow, and not just only Christian testimonies. You can be in a dark room, but the window can be open. That’s how you know the difference between happiness and joy, because joy is a gift against your circumstances.
In the Christian view, joy is not some general quality or aether or independent energy. Joy comes from God. God is joyful and the source of joy. In our Christmas hymn we sing that Joy is to the world because the Lord is come. Can I say that joy is God’s aroma, the body odor of God, and not a stench but a fragrance? The window is open and it smells like the Holy Spirit in here.
According to the prophet Zephaniah you can have your joy because the Lord God rejoices over you. Can I say that God enjoys you? And the joy of God comes into you inspiring you to your own joy, which you would not have on your own.
I love the picture that Zephaniah gives us of God singing. When I think of all the familiar depictions of God, from Michelangelo to Monty Python, I can’t think any picture of God singing. Or of Jesus either. What if God only sings, what if whenever God speaks it’s always to music? Whatever, by your belief you open your window to the singing of God and the joy of God, who gives that joy to you. Joy is always a gift, and it is God’s gift to you to help you live between the times.
As Christians we say that we are living between the times of his coming once at Bethlehem and his coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But as ordinary citizens we feel that we are living between the time of recent prosperity and the time of looming crisis and disaster from global climate change. The end of our world as we have known it, and not because of God, but because of our mismanagement and greed. It’s not the judgement of God that we fear but the judgment of Nature.
In my sixty-five years I can’t remember such general cultural pessimism. You call up someone on the phone, “How you doing?” “Not bad, considering everything going on.” Of course the people in many parts of the world would say that we are only finally feeling the loss of our privilege and domination, which they have been suffering under for so long. And so we are tempted to be both aggressive and defensive in our pursuit of our happiness. This is America right now.
In the midst of this pessimism some Christians feel that we are called to judgment. Maybe. But if the Lord is near, I say leave the judgment to him. What you are called to is joy. Not to pretend that the pessimism is unreasonable, not to falsify the awful truth of how bad things are, but by your belief to keep that window open to the presence of God, the judgment of God, the grace of God, and the joy of God.
As you walk down this long corridor of time, between the time behind and the time ahead, as you walk you keep on opening the windows. It’s not a tunnel, it’s a cloister walk under the sky, it’s a passage under the stars, a gallery of windows, and you keep opening them to the presence of God till you arrive at the great hall of the feast. You are commanded to rejoice as an invitation to believe, to believe that the Lord is at hand—so close at hand that nature sings, and the fields and the floods repeat the sounding joy.
The joy can be raucous and foot-stomping, or it can be contradictory, like when you hold the precious body of a loved one dying, or it can be quiet and peaceful, like when you hold a newborn baby in your arms. That Christmas memory tells us that the aroma of joy is the fragrance arising from the substance of love, the Spirit of love, and that God is joyful because God is love.
Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.