Sunday, December 15

Third Sunday of Advent

Tonight we are halfway through the season of Advent. Being just a month, it feels like a pretty quick sprint.

Two weeks ago we lit the first candle, the Prophet's Candle or the Candle of Hope and we considered how even just a little light chases away the darkness.  How we, like the prophets, sit in this middle space between what God has done in sending Christ the first time and what he will do in sending him again.

As we relight the first candle we read another prophecy of Jesus spoken of in Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Last Sunday we lit the second candle, the Bethlehem Candle or the Candle of Promise and we considered how God's promises were kept in the coming baby in Bethlehem -- the ruler over Israel, the shepherd of his flock, strong and majestic who secures life for us. (Micah 5)

Prophecies aren't just predictions, they're promises from God himself. Jeremiah 3 tells us of one such promise:

5“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
and he shall reign as king and deal wisely,
and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.
And this is the name by which he will be called:‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

And now, already, we're halfway through.  In this season when we all have pushed through our own stories -- the end of semesters, the frigid cold, the shock in these last days -- have we also been pushing into the hope and the promises of God in this season? The year is ending and celebrations are impending.  Are we just pushing through, or pushing into?

It's a bit of a balancing act to walk through a season in both a state of reflection and celebration. And we feel that tension tonight. We've had food and drink and conversation. The white elephant gifts and the cookies and desserts are patiently waiting. But first we're reflecting, because without the reflection, the celebration is shallow. We don't do the reception without the wedding; the wedding gives us the substance for the reception. The reflection gives us the reason for the party.

So it seems to be the perfect night to talk about joy and, traditionally, this third candle is the Shepherd's Candle or the Candle of Joy.

Joy is a bit of an unnatural thing. We know the state of our world, of the hearts of people. We see what we do to one another -- and sometimes it seems there's no good reason to feel joy. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the slaughter of the children in Connecticut. It's only been a year. Friday was the shooting at Arapahoe High School.  In our neighborhood. We are not far from darkness. 

Somehow in order to breathe, to persevere, through the darkness we live in we need something to be the guide. And that's what I think joy is for us. I don't think it ever strays too far beyond reach. In the middle of contentment joy is there out loud, like paint on the walls. But in the middle of trial, it's there, hidden, padding the floor where we lie down in grief. Deep and steady and settled.

Having a sense of joy is somehow attached to our sense of something greater than ourselves. In short, joy is the steady push toward trust in God. Which means that it doesn't always have to be happy, just thankful or hopeful. It isn't something we reasoned into being, it is something we express through faith.

I looked to the scriptures to ask, "Am I far off? Does it seem to say that joy is not happiness, that it is more present than we acknowledge?" And here is what the scriptures told me: Joy is our strength (Neh 8:10), it is God's presence with us (Ps. 16:11), it is an apt answer (Pr. 15:23), it is justice done (Pr. 21:15), it is a gift from God (Ecc 2:26), it is the perfection of beauty (in the city of Jerusalem) (Lam 2:15), it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22).

My definition came a little clearer and a little wider.  Yes, it is a steady push toward trust in God, that is our action in pursuing it.  But in feeling joy I have to say that it is a finely sharpened pleasure or trust. I feel joy when I sense that what is right is what is happening.

The shepherds experienced this joy. Luke 2:8-20:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
The two hours I had to wait on Friday was long. My son called me from inside his school. He was the first to tell me of the shooting, my son who was in a neighboring school now in lock out. While we talked, I was first alarmed and then calmed that I would have all three of them back that day. But I had to wait to make the family right again.

Imagine waiting hundreds of years before things would be made right, before a promise would be fulfilled. Before a voice would be heard crying in a stable. Before my sons were present with me again. When we finally get what we're waiting for, we hug it so tightly and cry tears of joy. Tears of joy is an appropriate response when in a moment of tension, things are made right.

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
Glorifiying and praising God for making good on a promise that had been repeated for centuries is an appropriate response. The singing and the shouts are a fitting reply. The receiving of guests and gifts and banquets and dinners and celebrations are how we welcome that which is now our right reality.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Contemplation is an appropriate response to joy. When that which you've trusted in guides you into fulfillment, stepping back and considering how that story emerged is right. And the shepherds' final response was to take their experience back to their home and share their joy with others, because joy isn't something that happens to us but something we carry with us.  And, in the darkness, maybe it's the something greater that actually carries us and tells us that all things will be made right.

But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.  - 1 Peter 4:13

His glory came in that newborn baby. It's time for Joy.

Blessing:May the God who gives you a hope and a promise, give you joy as you follow him in ever brightening days and may you seek to join him in making all things right and spread his joy in strength and justice and beauty.