We normally light the pink candle and focus on joy on the third Sunday of Advent. We didn’t move the pink candle and Joy Sunday to today simply because I’m feeling particularly joyful this week, as you know I am. Rather, Ron and I chose which topics we’d preach on in advance in order to accommodate my uncertainty about when I’d be taking some time off. Joy was my topic, so here we are, focusing on joy and lighting the pink candle on the second Sunday of Advent. I don’t think God will mind. I hope you don’t either.
Tradition tells us that Joy Sunday is supposed to be a break from what Advent is intended to be. It’s a time of serious contemplation of the coming of the Savior in Bethlehem and a time of preparation for when he returns. On Joy Sunday, we lighten things up by turning our attention to the joy of salvation that the Savior brings.
You’d think that joy would be an easy topic to preach on, especially this time of year with all the pretty lights and ho-ho-hoes around us. Who doesn’t want to think and talk about joy? Forget about your sinfulness for a minute. Take a rest from repentance. Banish the doom and gloom we read in the headlines. Ignore the things in our lives that are weighing on our hearts. Open the shutters, turn our back on the messiness of our lives, and bask in the sunlight. It sure sounds good, doesn’t it?
There’s a name for that, but it isn’t joy. It’s denial. As far as the world outside our doors is concerned, this is a season where everyone is happy, happy, happy all the time. But, the fact is that the world is not a perfect place, and our lives aren’t perfect either. To pretend for even a moment, or a Sunday, or the hour we spend in worship that everything is all sunshine and roses is to deny reality. Joy that can only exist in the absence of sorrow or hardship isn’t joy. It may be pleasure or a giddy happiness, but it’s not joy. The wonder of true joy is that it exists side-by-side with both the good and the-not-so good in our lives and in the world, and it enables us to hope when hope seems far away.
The Gospel of Luke mentions joy and rejoicing more often than any other book in the New Testament, and only Isaiah and the Psalms mention it more than Luke does. I find this interesting, because Luke sets out to be a reporter of sorts. All the gospel writers have a particular theological message they want to share, but Luke at least says that his intention is to set down an orderly account of what those who had witnessed Jesus’ life had testified to. So, you might expect him to stick with simple facts about Jesus’ activities. Yet, Luke thinks that the presence of joy is important enough to repeatedly include in his account.
The gospel begins and ends with joy. Early in the first chapter, an angel appears to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, promising them a son who will bring them joy and gladness, and whose birth will cause many to rejoice, as indeed they did according to Luke. While still in the womb, John leaped for joy when his mother recognized the child that Mary was carrying as the Lord. The angel of the Lord announced tidings of great joy to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth. Later, we hear of Jesus sharing in the joy of his disciples’ ministry. We hear him telling stories about things and people that were lost, and describing the joy that accompanied their being found—not only on earth but also in heaven. We read of the joy of the disciples when Jesus appeared to them in a room in Jerusalem after his resurrection. After describing Jesus’ ascension, Luke closes his gospel with these words: the disciples “worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”
Joy is woven throughout Luke’s gospel. But it’s not divorced from the hard realities of life. We see this in Mary’s song—a song of rejoicing to be sure, but think for a moment about the circumstances she was in. She was a young girl, unwed and pregnant. We know from Matthew that the angel appeared to Joseph and instructed him to go ahead with the wedding, but Luke doesn’t tell us that, and we don’t know the timeline for when the marriage ceremony took place. Mary’s pregnancy may still have been a secret known only to her—a task she had willingly agreed to but one that was fraught with peril for her. She risked the shame of divorce at best and stoning for adultery at worst, since an engagement was legally binding; she would have been considered a widow if Joseph had died.
And yet, she sings a song of rejoicing. And why? Because her joy isn’t rooted in her circumstances or her possessions or the opinion people have of her. Her song of rejoicing is the song of her spirit—the same spirit that said yes to what seemed impossible, yes to what was a holy yet dangerous mission, yes to trusting that God who called her would care for her. In the midst of all her uncertainty and possibly her fear, she is able to sing of God’s promise—a promise that had already been fulfilled, before her baby drew his first breath.
I wonder, though, how many people would have felt like rejoicing with Mary as she sang her song. Those who occupied the lowest rungs of the social and economic ladders would have. The hungry would have, and probably the homeless, the friendless, the prisoners with no one to demand justice for them, the sick with no access to medical care, and everyone without influence over the systems and policies that governed their lives. In the midst of their trials, they would have shared Mary’s joy at the promise of a new way of ordering the world.
But, what about those who did have power of some kind? Would they have rejoiced at Mary’s song? After all, they wouldn’t necessarily think that the events Mary’s spirit was rejoicing over—a radical re-ordering of the world’s social and economic systems—would work in their favor. This good news that Mary’s baby would preach and teach and live out doesn’t sound so good to people who think they already have everything they need. The good news doesn’t sound so good when it might cost you something.
The angel announced that John’s birth would be the cause of rejoicing as well. But the message he preached was an announcement of judgment and a call for repentance. Where’s the joy in that? In the verses following our passage, we learn that John so convicts the crowds of their need for repentance that they ask what they are to do. His instructions are consistent with Mary’s prophetic song. In a nutshell, they are to do justice. Those who have more than enough are to share what they have. Those with power—whether financial or physical—are not to use it as a weapon or for personal gain.
Luke concludes his account of John’s ministry by saying, “With many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” I imagine there were more than a few who got no joy out of John’s good news—probably the same ones who would have scoffed at Mary’s song. And yet, John is the man whom the angel said would cause many to experience joy.
No one here that I know of would consider themselves fabulously wealthy or powerful and yet, compared to many people throughout the world—indeed, even within our own community—we are. For us, the idea of joy co-existing with social and economic hardship is more theoretical, since we have food on our tables, roofs over our heads, insurance that covers our medical needs, decent-paying jobs and maybe some money in the bank for retirement or a rainy day.
But, there are other times when we may question how we can experience joy—times when our spirits are weighed down with grief and our bodies are wracked with pain. There are times when worry seizes all of our attention, times when uncertainty keeps us feeling like we did when we were children on a old-fashioned teeter-totter, fearing that the person on the other end would jump off and send us crashing to the ground with a bone-crunching thud? Where is the joy then? Can joy co-exist with our pain and our grief and our anxiety?
As I wrestled with these questions, the title of a book by C.S. Lewis came to mind. (You might remember that C.S. Lewis was the author of the Narnia Chronicles.) It’s called Surprised by Joy, and it’s his account of his spiritual journey from his nominal childhood religion through atheism to becoming a follower of Jesus. Lewis has a different take on joy. He says that joy is “a desire that is focused entirely on something other than and outside” ourselves. It’s not a thing that we possess or obtain. It’s not an experience. It’s not a state of mind. It’s a desire.
For a Christian, this desire is for God. What we typically describe as joy—the elation, the awe, the flood of contentment: these are simply the result of joy, or the signs that point to it. They remind us of our joy—the desire for God, the desire for God’s presence, the desire to know God’s love.
We can experience this joy—this desire—in every situation we find ourselves in. In fact, our desire for God may increase when we are swimming in troubled waters. “Count it all joy,” as the apostle James said of trials of any kind, because our trials deepen our desire for our God—deepen the joy that is this desire.
Our desire for God—this true joy—will also lead us to want the justice that Mary sings of and the repentance John calls for. This desire is what moves us to accomplish the work that Isaiah speaks of and John quoted: to prepare the way of the Lord by straightening out what’s out of alignment and filling in the potholes of our souls. We smooth out what is jagged and rough in our words and actions to and about others, and we remove the hills and mountains we stand on when we want to feel superior.
I realized when I was thinking about Isaiah’s words that, when I’ve read them before, I always thought that those road repairs were needed so I could get to God. But it’s not our way we’re preparing; it’s the way of the Lord. The Lord is coming to us! We just need to clear out the obstacles so that nothing impedes his way to us. This is what joy leads us and enables us to do, in good times and in bad. Our desire for our Lord empowers us to clear the way for him.
And isn’t that exactly what Christmas is—the celebration of God coming to us? During Advent, we prepare to celebrate the day when God came to us in Jesus, and we prepare the way for Jesus to come to us again.
On this Joy Sunday, as we worship in the light of the pink candle, we can experience the wonder of the joy of desiring God without having to pretend that reality is anything different than it is. Because joy doesn’t depend on what we have or what we do or who we think we are. It is our desire for our loving God, who is willing to come to us and abide with us—a God we can trust. Joy is what prompts us to sing, “Jesu, joy of our desiring.” It’s the desire that prompts us to sing, in good times and bad, “Come thou long-expected Jesus, joy of every longing heart.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young