Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, a day in the church year that is traditionally known as “Gaudete Sunday” or the Sunday of Joy. And no matter how you might actually be feeling as you come to worship this morning (or whenever you’re watching/reading this!), I think it’s important for us to spend some time lifting up joy this Advent season.
This has been a long and difficult and, for some of us, a deeply painful year; and it’s culminated in a holiday season full of disappointments and a rising death toll. But focusing on joy doesn’t mean we have to paste on a fake smile and try to pretend these things haven’t been happening. Real joy is actually something much deeper. Catholic theologian and author Henri Nouwen describes it well; he writes:
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. Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us.Henri Nouwen
Joy abounds in all of our readings for this morning. Of course, John cries out joyfully with the words of the prophet Isaiah in our gospel reading. In our second reading, Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “rejoice always” because of God’s enduring faithfulness. In our first reading, it feels like Isaiah can hardly contain his joy – he exults, writing:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Isaiah 61:1-2a
And he keeps going, saying:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, God has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.Isaiah 61:10
Likewise in Psalm 126, the psalmist is so overcome by joy that he feels like he must be dreaming. “Our mouth was filled with laughter,” he writes, “and our tongues with shouts of joy… The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”
Last week, if you remember, we talked a little bit about the period known as the Babylonian captivity – way back in the sixth century BCE when Jerusalem was sacked, the temple was destroyed, and many of the Judean people were deported to Babylon. Well, today’s chunk of Isaiah, as well as Psalm 126, were both likely written after the Babylonian captivity ended.
Their captivity ended because the Babylonians were conquered by the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great. And rather than continue to hold the Judeans captive, Cyrus set them free and allowed them to return to their homeland. He even helped them rebuild the temple! You can see why the prophet and the psalmist were so completely beside themselves with joy! God had proven to be faithful yet again. And God accomplished their liberation in a way that none of the Judeans had probably ever imagined would happen – through the actions of a Persian emperor! I mean, who saw that plot twist coming?!
However, there is still some complexity to this joy. Even though the Judeans have returned and they are “building up the ancient ruins,” just like Isaiah writes, the truth is that life for them will never go back to the way it was before their captivity. Almost 50 years have passed between their exile and their return. That means that generations of Judeans were born in Babylon and are now coming ‘back’ to a homeland they have never even seen before – and that’s assuming that they even choose to leave the one place they’ve known their whole lives. And even the elders who lived in Judah before and who have longed to return are coming back changed. They’ve spent most of their life away from their homeland; their lives over the last several decades have been very different from the lives of the people they had to leave behind in Judah – and that difference inevitably leads to conflict. Not to mention the fact that they’re all still living under the thumb of someone else’s empire. In short, to put it in 2020 terms, the Judeans are finding themselves having to adjust to one heck of a “new normal.”
Even so, none of these things in any way diminishes their joy. The Judeans have powerfully experienced God’s faithfulness and love toward them. And even though the words of Isaiah and Psalm 126 speak joyfully about the moment in which they were living, the good news in these texts goes much deeper. God is drawing them continually onward and forward toward the joyful future that God has promised – toward a future of true liberation and salvation and justice. And as they saw with Cyrus the Great, they know they can expect that God’s future will unfold in ways that are surprising and amazing and beyond anything they had imagined.
Now, we haven’t exactly been conquered and held captive by a hostile empire. And as much as it might feel like fifty years have passed since March, we know that’s not actually the case. But this has definitely been a year of exile for us. It has been a year in which we have longed for a return to our life together as we knew it before. And with the news of vaccines starting to become widely available, it’s starting to feel like there’s finally a light at the end of this tunnel. But this time in exile has changed us and it’s changed the world, and the truth is that our “new normal” is going to be different from what we knew before.
And while that fact might make us feel pretty anxious, it doesn’t have to be something to fear. In fact, to be totally honest with you, I’ve been starting to feel hopeful – even joyful! – about what this future new normal might hold for us.
Even as challenging and stressful as this year has been, there have been wonderful gifts in it. Our quick transition into online worship and bible study showed us that we are capable of adapting to doing things in a completely new way. And our online worship has been an unexpected means of reconnecting with beloved members of this community and even with other folks in the state and across the country – what a blessing! Our revamped Holiday Fair showed us that we can be creative and innovative and flexible – and that we have a community of support behind us, even in a difficult year.
And one of the places I actually felt most joyful this week – to my surprise – was in the budget meeting with our finance and stewardship team. Our giving is down a little bit, but for the most part it has held pretty steady – and in a year like this, that is amazing. It speaks volumes about the health and vitality of this congregation that we have continued to give so faithfully. It says that this congregation is more than just a social club, more than our habits and traditions; it says this congregation is a group of people sincerely committed to being followers of Christ for the sake of the world.
The budget that council voted unanimously to recommend at our upcoming annual meeting reflects this same health and vitality. The bottom line is the same as last year, but it includes an increase in our mission share, as well as raises for the folks who work here. And the fact that we are continuing to operate without sacrificing our contributions to the larger church, our evangelism and ministry in our community, or our commitment to paying our workers a living wage is awesome, and it’s something we should feel proud of. To me, it’s clear evidence that this is a congregation where the Spirit is moving and living and active.
I don’t know yet what the future will hold for us – what things we will choose to take forward with us from this pandemic experience, or what curveballs 2021 might have in store for us. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that God will continue to be faithful toward us. God will continue to act toward us and through us with love, calling us onward and forward toward a joyful future – a future that will no doubt unfold in ways that are surprising and amazing and beyond what we have imagined.
So whatever you may have arrived here today feeling, I exhort you: Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say: rejoice.