Have you heard of Marie Kondo? She’s a young Japanese woman who started her own consulting business at the age of 19, while she was still in college. Since then, she’s written nine books. The first one has been translated into 44 languages and sold more than 13 million copies. A few years ago, she had the #1 non-fiction series on Netflix, and it was nominated for a bunch of awards, including a couple of Emmys. She’s been featured in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Vogue Magazine, made the rounds of late-night television, and Time Magazine named her as one of 2015’s 100 most influential people.
What is this multi-media star’s claim to fame? Tidying up. Decluttering. Figuring out what you need and what you don’t. She came up with a plan that her web site describes as “a simple but effective tidying method, ensuring you will never again relapse to clutter.”
This method is based on six rules that help people decide what to keep and what to discard. Even if you’ve never heard of Marie Kondo or the KonMarie method of tidying, you may have heard someone quote her 6th rule—the question that determines whether you should hold on to something or put it in the Goodwill box. That question is, “Does this spark joy?”
For Christians, Advent is a season of spiritual tidying up. It’s a time when we prepare our spirits to celebrate God’s kingdom coming near in Jesus and its completion when he returns. We examine our lives and decide what attitudes and practices we should keep and what we should discard. Advent is a season of penitence, much like Lent, when we tidy our spiritual houses through repentance and turning in a new direction.
But, today, we step out of the spirit of penitence and step into a spirit of joy at the nearness of Christ’s coming. This Sunday has a name that marks its purpose: Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for the word “rejoice.” The scripture readings focus on joy. The candle that we lit on our wreath is the pink candle of joy. “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,” we sing.
The word “joy” means different things to different people. To many people, it simply means a heightened degree of happiness and merriment; in fact, most of us probably use it that way in ordinary conversation. Marie Kondo describes it “a little thrill, as if the cells in your body are slowly rising.”
But, for Christians, joy is much more than that. It’s deeper and, often, quieter—more the steady warmth of a fire’s glowing embers than a brilliant shower of sparks. Joy doesn’t depend on external events, like finding that gift you’ve always wanted under the tree. Joy is rooted in our connection with God and our awareness of God’s presence—in our lives and in all of creation. The theologian Henri Nouwen described it this way: “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.”
If joy comes from knowing that we are loved by God, we find expressions of God’s love in all that exists around us. I think we can say that the emotions we feel when we experience those expressions are “sparks of joy.” Our burdens are lifted, our hearts are lightened, our smiles are widened, and our eyes are brightened. Joy isn’t dependent on external things, but external things can call forth joyful recognition of God’s greatness and mercy and love—for us.
That’s what we hear in the poetry of Isaiah. It’s a joyful response to the God’s presence and God’s promise to save God’s people. The coming of the Lord will cause the barren places of the world to be glad, and why not? Water—that precious resource so necessary for all of life—will flow everywhere, and it will be abundant. There will be burbling streams in the desert, cool and inviting pools in the burning sand, and sparkling springs bursting out in the wilderness. Flowers will bloom in profusion. Trees will sprout full-grown. The formerly barren places and the beauty that springs up there won’t be able to contain themselves. They will rejoice with joy and singing. Wouldn’t that be something to see and hear—the glory of these newly verdant places alive with the songs of a choir of flowers and trees? The glories of nature will be a testimony to God’s creative genius and generous heart.
Humanity will respond with the same abandon. When the Lord comes, those whose spiritual eyes are unable to see God’s presence will have their blind eyes opened. Those whose ears are muffled by the noise of the world will clearly hear the good news of God’s steadfast love and salvation. Those who are powerless in the world—as powerless as the lame in that time and place—will be empowered to leap up from what holds them down. Those who are at a loss for words, or who whose words are ignored, won’t just speak, they’ll sing! And they won’t just sing, they’ll sing for joy! All of God’s people will live in the security of God’s love and presence—no ravenous beasts will threaten them. The promised return to Zion will be a return to a faithful and loving relationship with God.
Our passage concludes with these beautiful words: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Do these words spark joy for you?
The coming of the Lord, which was a promise in Isaiah, was an accomplished fact for Mary. Her baby had not yet been born, but she knew that the Lord had already come. The kingdom had already come near. God had already broken into the world, and she was overwhelmed with the joy of that knowledge. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she sings. Do her words spark joy in you?
What about the words that follow? “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Do those words spark joy in you? It’s easy to say “Yes, of course!” because it’s scripture, after all. It’s Mary singing, and we’ve been told that what she proclaims is the source of joy. The angel confirmed it at Jesus’ birth: “I am bringing you good news of great joy!” Our default position is to assume that these words should spark joy.
But, Mary’s words may cause sparks of another kind. Maybe the idea of the proud being taken down a notch or the powerful knocked out of their privileged positions sounds pretty good. But does that spark joy, or rather a self-satisfied smugness? And what about Mary’s words about how the tables will be turned on the poor and the rich? It sounds good in theory, when we hear them spilling from the lips of Mary. But, seriously, if you heard those words from a Bernie Saunders or a civil rights activist, how would you respond? In your heart of hearts, does Mary’s proclamation really spark joy in you?
What about the words buried in the beautiful poetry of Isaiah—the words we might want to skip over? “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” The prophet spoke to a people whose nation was characterized by injustice to the poor. Corruption and the wanton disregard of the needs of the poor were its hallmarks. Isaiah may have spoken in warning to its kings, but he also spoke of hope and joy to the people—the poor people, the disenfranchised people, the people who struggled to feed and house their families. Isaiah’s words may have sparked joy for the poor, but maybe not so much for those who had ignored them or used them.
We don’t think of ourselves as rich but, compared to many in the world, we are. We may not own a private plane or occupy a penthouse or hang priceless art on our walls, but, compared to most of the world, we are very rich. Last year, the median annual income in the Democratic Republic of Congo was just over one international dollar a day. That means that that one dollar would buy the same amount of goods—the same amount of bread or clothing or medicine as it would in ours. 2.5 million children have been homeless in our country this year. If think we’re not rich, we’re comparing ourselves to the wrong people.
We don’t think of ourselves as powerful but, compared to many in the world, we are. We may not have seat in a board room or hobnob with the rich and famous. But, if we’re cheated in a financial transaction, we confront the cheater, maybe through legal proceedings, with every expectation that we’ll be taken seriously. If we choose to, we can make our views known to our elected representatives and expect to have considered. If we go to the emergency room, we’re likely to be treated with more respect than the person who arrives in dirty clothes, with unkempt hair, and smelling as though a bath were a distant memory. If we think we are without power, we’re comparing ourselves to the wrong people.
We certainly don’t think of ourselves as people who oppress the poor. Look at all the good things we do! We may not choose to ignore a panhandler or cheat someone out of their pay, but our lifestyle choices depend on a lot of people who are badly paid, poorly housed, and left to fall through the cracks of our social systems. Climate change which is the result of willful neglect and misuse of the natural world is already disproportionately affecting poor nations. Our discarded electronic devices are exported to developing nations, where the poor are exposed to the toxic materials inside. Our new clothes may have been made by children in foreign—or even domestic—sweat shops. If we think that our lifestyles have no effect on the poor of the world, we’re comparing ourselves to the wrong people.
Mary’s song and Isaiah’s words should spark something in us. But, sparks can be either positive or negative. Seeing sparks might indicate that the wood in a fireplace will soon be a warm and inviting fire. But they can also mean danger—that a wildfire is about to consume everything in its path. The “spark” of a spark plug gets our cars going, but sparks from an electrical appliance mean something is very wrong. Words that spark joy in some can cause fear in others.
What kind of sparks do we experience when we hear Mary’s song and Isaiah’s prophecy? are they sparks of joy from knowing that God will make things right for the poor of this world? Or, are they sparks that ignite a twinge of conscience and tell us we are more like the full, the proud, and the powerful than the poor, the powerless, the lowly, and the hungry whom God clearly favors? If Mary’s words and Isaiah’s prophecy don’t spark joy in us, where can we find sparks of joy on the Gaudete Sunday?
First of all, we can be assured that these aren’t words of condemnation but invitation. They’re an invitation to tidy up our lives. Isaiah assures us that “the wilderness and the dry land…will see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” With the coming of the Lord, what is barren will be transformed. The barren places in our lives, where compassion and mercy have dried up, can be transformed as well.
All it takes is some tidying up, Marie Kondo-style, which is essentially the repentance that John the Baptist calls us to. We take a hard look at our habits and attitudes and decide what needs to be discarded. But we don’t do this with despair. We do it with hope.
Marie Kondo says that, as we discard something, we should think deeply about it and be grateful for what it taught us. Maybe it taught us about who we thought we wanted to be, but aren’t. Maybe it taught us about what we thought we needed, but don’t. By contrast, Kondo says, “Thinking deeply about each thing we discard will affect how we live and what we acquire moving forward.” During Advent, as we let go of the desires and habits that can’t fulfill our deepest longings, we can adopt or recover what enables us to feel the sparks of God-given joy.
Second, we can take comfort in Mary’s assurance that God’s mercy is for all those who fear him. God’s mercy, and the joy it produces, is available to everyone. We all fall short of the glory of God. We are not yet perfected in love. Yet, even while we were yet sinners, the baby whose birth we celebrate grew up to die for us, so that we might have eternal life. This is cause for joy indeed. If you ever wonder if your mistakes and failings put you beyond the reach of God’s mercy, just remember the Chrismon that represents joy. It’s in the form of a lyre, the instrument that King David so famously played. David also committed some pretty despicable acts yet, in spite of his sin, David was not beyond God’s mercy and blessing, and neither are we.
Finally, whatever kind of sparks we experience, I believe they are sign that the Holy Spirit is present and active in our lives. As I thought about Marie Kondo’s sparks of joy, I started wondering what sparks are actually made of. I learned that sparks like those from a grinding wheel, a flint, or a fire, are bits of the material that have been heated and knocked loose. We see them as glowing sparks. The presence of sparks indicates that something is moving, that one force is acting upon another, that power is being unleashed.
The Holy Spirit works in our spirits, unleashing the power to discard what needs to be thrown off. The process of repentance throws of glowing sparks marking the changes that bring us closer to God and the kingdom that came near in Jesus. The Spirit helps us to see and treasure what we need to keep and honor: God’s steadfast love for us, God’s inbreaking presence and the nearness of God’s kingdom, and God’s gracious gift of a Savior, whose Spirit resides in our hearts. These are what cause the sparks of joy we celebrate today.
On Marie Kondo’s web site, she explains the purpose of tidying up. She says, “The true goal of tidying is to clear away clutter so you can live the life you want. When you put your house in order, you have no choice but to listen to your inner voice – because the question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life. When you reassess your belongings and organize your home, you set the stage for a huge transformation.”
What KonMarie does for the secular world, Advent does for Christians. We refocus our attention on how we want to live our lives. We put our spiritual houses in order, so that we have room we need to hear the still, small voice of God. We discard what keeps us from fully living into our identities as citizens of God’s kingdom. We keep what sparks joy in us: knowing that we are God’s beloved children, knowing that God is with us always. The tidying we do at Advent sets the stage for our own transformations into people who are ready to welcome our king into our hearts today and into the world when he comes again. And from this, my friends, spring sparks of joy. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young