Sunday, December 11, 2011

When Jesus Comes: We Are Gathered Home—to Rejoice!

(A sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent based on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28; and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)

Put yourself in their place.

Decades ago their nation had been devastated by an invading army and many of their people had been carried off to live in a foreign land where many of their descendants yet remained. A few years ago some of those exiles began to return which led to problems between them and the people who had remained behind. Now, seventy or so years after their towns and cities had been destroyed, most of them still lay in ruins. Their economy was virtually non-existent; they were under pressure from surrounding rival groups. It was not a situation that bred much joy.

Into that depressed and depressing reality came a prophet who, speaking in the tradition of Isaiah, said that the Lord had anointed him “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1) and “to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (v. 3). The prophet went on to say, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…” (v. 10abc).

Picture the prophet—standing in the ruins—looking into the eyes of the depressed people—proclaiming the joy of the Lord. From where does such joy come? It comes from knowing that God can be trusted to bring about justice and salvation, even when it looks impossible.

But still…they had to wonder—when would it come? When would God fulfill God’s promise?

Let’s move forward about 500 years. Once again, put yourself in their place. They have been living under the thumb of an occupying imperial army for decades. They have no say-so over the way their country will be run. Taxation is burdensome and enforced by crooks. Some of their religious leaders set impossibly high standards while others cooperate with the occupying force.

One day a young teacher went to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and answered that question of “When?” He read from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

The young teacher was Jesus; he affirmed that in his coming into the world the promise of God to bring about freedom from oppression and to bring the blessings of God to human life had been fulfilled.

As followers of Jesus and as people of the Book we affirm our faith that Jesus was of course correct about who he was and about what he came to do. The angel had said on the night he was born, after all, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.”

But still, we can understand if the people listening to him that day, even as Jesus said that very day was the day of the prophecy’s fulfillment, wondered when it would all come to pass—when would people be free; when would they be free? When would they have real joy?

Now let’s move forward about 2000 years; this time we don’t have to use our imaginations. We live in world in which many nations are war-torn, many groups are oppressed, and many people are impoverished. We live in a nation in which the economy is tottering, divisions are deepening, and humanity is lessening. People wonder—perhaps we wonder—when will God keep God’s promises? When will joy be found?

Well, we know that God will ultimately and finally keep God’s promises when Jesus returns. But Jesus said that the promises had already been fulfilled in him. How is that so? How can that be so? Let’s think about how we can know joy now and how we can spread joy now. After all, as much as we trust in what God is going to do, if we aren’t careful we’ll fail to see what God is doing now and what God wants us to do now.

I ask you to remember that the Church is the Body of Christ in the world today. In Jesus Christ joy became embodied; the joy of the Lord was enfleshed in Jesus. The joy of the Lord is in us; we spread the joy of the Lord when that joy becomes embodied in us.

Do we reflect the joy of the Lord?

Do we reflect it in our attitudes? Don’t we sometimes wonder, “If Christianity is true, why on earth don’t we act like it?” [A paraphrase of Annie Dillard in Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 239]. Well, why don’t we? Annie Dillard has noted the practices of Benedictine monks who worship seven times a day; she observed that “in between the monks spend an inordinate amount of time laughing. They laugh at anything. They don’t talk much, but they do laugh” [Yancey again paraphrasing Dillard, p. 239].

The Apostle Paul offered valuable guidance when he said, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). It is no accident that he joins “rejoice always” to “pray without ceasing.”

But we have to learn to pray that way. How can we do that?

We can follow the guidance of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk who lived in a monastery in France where he was assigned to work in the kitchen. Brother Lawrence said that he practiced every day turning his thoughts toward God. When he failed he asked for forgiveness and tried again. He said, “Thus by rising after my falls, and by frequently renewed acts of faith and love, I am come to a state wherein it would be as difficult for me not to think of God as it was at first to accustom myself to it” [Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God with Spiritual Maxims (Grand Rapids: Spire, 1958), p. 30]. We can work at making it our practice to turn to God and to think of God at all times and in all things.

From such practice, from such prayer, will come great joy.

It is good to remember, though, so as to avoid frustration, that great joy is not necessarily full joy. But that full joy will come, brothers and sisters, it will come—some day.

Do we reflect joy in our actions? John’s Gospel teaches us that Jesus came as the Light of the world and that John the Baptist was a witness to that Light even before it arrived. We are to reflect the light of Jesus as well; we are to spread the joy of Jesus in the world. We do that by becoming, by grace and the Holy Spirit, the people that we are in Christ meant to be.

To reflect joy the joy of Christ is to spread the joy of Christ; it is to care about what he cares about and especially to care about those about whom he cares. Our joy can never be full until all know joy any more than his joy can ever be full until all know joy.

So this Advent season, as we move toward Christmas, with whom are we sharing the joy of Christ? Are we giving our attention mainly to what we want and to how much we can give to our loved ones who already have more than they need? Or are we giving our attention and sharing our blessings with those who have little or nothing?

Let’s drop money—and not just pocket change—in those Salvation Army buckets. Let’s give to Toys for Tots and the Christian Kitchen and our International Missions offerings and others who are trying to share some joy with hurting people. Let’s commit during this Advent season to volunteer beginning in January through Communities in Schools to read once a week with a child.

Let’s change the holiday motto of “Shop ‘til you drop” to one that befits followers of Jesus Christ, namely, “Give ‘til you live!”

Let’s spread the joy!

There is more to spreading the joy than giving money and time, however. Let’s take some times this Advent to consider how we contribute to the problem or to the solution. In our nation and in our world there is a growing disparity between those who have and those who don’t. We who are Christians need to conduct our business in ways that reflect Jesus Christ and that show that our priorities are his priorities.

A friend of mine told me of how during the Great Depression she and other children in her Sunday School class took some food and clothing to a poor family in Macon. She was deeply moved by the deplorable conditions in which that family was living. But, she said, she was upset even more when she later discovered that the sorry housing in which that family was living was owned and supposedly maintained by one of the leading members of her church. Christian landlords should reflect the love and joy of Christ in the ways they function as landlords; Christian businesspeople should reflect the love of Christ in the ways they function as businesspeople; Christian teachers should reflect the love of Christ in the ways they function as teachers; Christian pastors should reflect the love of Christ in the ways they function as pastors—and so on.

It’s dangerous to talk that way and it’s dangerous to live that way, but so be it.

It is as the prophet Jackson Browne put it in his song The Rebel Jesus:

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus.

Jesus came as the Light of the world. Do we as his followers bear witness to the light or to the darkness? Jesus came as the Joy of the world. Do we as his followers share the joy or contribute to the sorrow?

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