Thursday, December 22, 2022

Choose joy!

 Christ Church, St. Joseph, La., Advent 3

Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the “Joy” Sunday. We celebrate this departure from the solemnity of Advent with a pink candle.


But for John the Baptizer in today’s Gospel story, “joy” is most likely not what he is experiencing. He is in prison. His preaching has gotten him there. You will recall from other readings of his story other Advent Sundays that even though he preached hellfire and brimstone to the religious elite of his day and called everyone to repentance, people flocked to him to be baptized—people, including Jesus himself.


At the time of today’s Gospel account, John did not know yet what we know—that he would not leave that prison alive. Nevertheless, I must believe he was anxious, perhaps a bit fearful. I must believe he knew his prospects were not good.


Because.. as he faces an uncertain future, he needs to know one thing—one thing… for certain. And so he sends his followers to ask Jesus for a definitive answer: Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?


Before we look at Jesus’ answer, we need to consider the nature of joy. We humans have a strong tendency to think of emotions—like joy, happiness, contentment—as things we experience in response to… well, other things. Our lives are going well, so we are content. Our grandchildren are born; we experience joy. Our families gather for the holidays, and we are happy.


Moreover, we come to depend on these other things to bring us joy or happiness or contentment. We look to the world around us and wait for the feelings to happen.



Brothers and sisters, consider the possibility that joy is something we must choose, and we have good reason to choose it—regardless of what’s happening in the world around us.


Here’s how I came to that realization. A number of years ago—probably at least 17 years ago—I went on a mission trip with a small group of Episcopalians to the Dominican Republic. We met a woman missionary there who had arranged for us to work for most of a week cleaning and painting and getting an Episcopal day school ready for the school year.


Toward the end of the week, after we had finished our work for the day, our host took us to tour the community. And she took us to the most utterly poverty-stricken neighborhood I had ever seen, and to this day have ever seen. We drove down dirt streets. Trash was everywhere. Children played in the dirt and trash and weeds in front of houses built of scrap wood, rusty sheet metal, cardboard. Emaciated dogs scavenged for food. Open doorways and windows but no doors, no screens, no window panes.


I was haunted by what I had seen. We finished our work in the next day or two and caught our flight back to the U.S. But I couldn’t get that neighborhood out of my mind. I had not the slightest idea how to help, and I still don’t!


Oddly enough, very shortly after getting home, I was asked to speak at a “praise service” over at St. Thomas’. A group of lay folks were, at that time, meeting Sunday evenings for an informal worship of singing, prayer, and sharing experiences of God in our lives.


And within days of getting back from that mission trip, I was asked to speak at that service. I did not know what to say. I was still haunted by the utter poverty of that neighborhood. It weighed on me. I did not feel like singing. I did not feel like praising God. If anything, I wanted to chew God out for letting that happen—even though I fully understand that God is not responsible for the messes created by human societies.


I did not feel joy. And so, I told the story, and then I said what I am saying to you today: We must choose joy. Joy is not a feeling we get when good things happen, when the stars align, when our children behave and our spouse gives us just what we wanted for Christmas. Joy is a choice we make. Regardless of what is going on in the world, we must choose joy.


And why? Why must we choose joy?


Well, consider that Jesus’ response to John gives us a clue. His answer is classic Hebrew Scripture code: Look at the signs: People are healed. Their eyes and ears are opened. Good news has come to poor people.


In other words, Messiah is here. God is with you.


We choose joy because God is with us in this troubled and troubling world. We choose joy because no mess we humans have ever made is beneath God’s presence. We choose joy because we know that God has never and will never give up on us. We choose joy because we are God’s beloved, and that is enough.


Does that mean we are always going to feel joyful? Of course not. Does choosing joy let us off the hook of caring about a hurting world? Relieve us of responsibility for cleaning up the horrific messes we humans have created? Of course not. I’m not preaching this sermon to let us off the hook!


So here’s where I want to look back at the good news in John the Baptizer’s sermons. He preached repentance in no uncertain terms, and indeed people repented. In Luke’s account, the people then say to John, What should we do?


And John answers: If you have two coats, give one to your neighbor who has none. Share the food you have. He does NOT say, go create world peace. Solve the problem of hunger. Fix the broken political system.


See, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the troubles of the world. It is possible to be frozen in our tracks by seemingly insurmountable problems. It is tempting to do nothing because we know we can’t do everything. Sometimes we decide that we didn’t cause a situation therefore it’s not our job to fix it.


But where is God in that? Where is God in those truly human—but truly joyless responses to a hurting world and to our hurting neighbors? We are Christ’s body in this world. We must be the agents of the good news.


Choosing joy is choosing something deeper than the transitory emotions that come from those external events and situations. It’s remembering who we are and who we belong to—in spite of what is going on around us, and then sharing that good news in whatever ways we, individually and corporately, can. Choosing joy is making God’s love known to our neighbor however we can—remembering what Jesus taught us: That of those who have much, more is expected.


Brothers and sisters, do not sit around waiting for the feels. Choose joy, for the Lord our God is in our midst.

  In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

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