First United Methodist Church
December 17, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Our Fierce Joy
If you are experiencing a bit of déjà vu with today’s reading, it’s understandable. We’re still waiting. It’s the third week of Advent, we continue to sing Christmas Carols, and yet we are still out in the dessert with John the Baptist, anticipating Christ’s birth, but chronologically, Christ is already born – if John is an adult, then so is Jesus.
But John approaches his subject in a much different fashion than Mark. In the midst of the poetic start to John’s gospel, there is a pause on the cosmic description of Jesus for a short description of John’s role as witness to it all. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”
John is said to have been sent as a witness to testify to the light, with the goal of everyone believing in the light. While the light mentioned here is a clear reference to Jesus, more specifically this light is the life of all people. One might think of it as life force, the animating power of our lives, and the darkness cannot extinguish this light. John is a witness to this light, to life, to Jesus the Christ who came to give us life, and life more abundantly.
During Advent we pick up John’s mantle and proclaim light and life in our community, as we celebrate the inextinguishable light available to us. We build excitement for a light that can’t go out. Like the burning bush that was on fire but did not burn, Jesus is the light that the darkness of death cannot extinguish. And this is good news! It’s joyful news. In a sense, Advent is a time of rehearsal to practice living with fierce joy in the midst of the tension of the now and the not yet.
And so, on this third Sunday of Advent, we explore the idea of joy. And we have to ask ourselves the question, “What is joy?”
Ask ten different people and you'll get ten different answers. I’ll admit, I struggled to answer this question this week. If you Google it you get the basic answer: “A feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” But the true definition of joy goes beyond the limited explanation presented in the dictionary. True joy is a limitless, life-defining, transformative reservoir waiting to be tapped into. It requires the utmost surrender and, like love, is a choice to be made.
Think for a moment about the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. The “Beast” is actually a man who is under a spell that can only be broken if he learned to love someone who would love him back. As Belle slowly learns to love him, she realizes that loving him takes not only a change of heart to want to love him, but also a change from within to be able to love him. First she had to accept him. After that, she could begin to get to know him. And when this happens she begins to experience joy when they are together.
When you think about it, this fairy tale is not so different from our own journeys. We often encounter things that cause us to stumble into darkness. And we are held there as if by a spell, unable to experience joy or to see any hope. And so we wait for our hero or heroine to arrive. We wait for that voice to call out to us from the dessert. We wait or God’s comforting words, for the Good News that Isaiah proclaims: God is here. God is present, and God is reality in this life.
The ancient Jews believed that God created the world in goodness and that it was Adam and Eve who broke the relationship when they yielded to temptation and looked for happiness from the world, instead of looking to God. When they broke the covenant, the present age began. The present age, as the Jews saw it, is defined by misery, suffering, injustice and oppression. As we read their story through the Hebrew Scriptures, we read about a people who faithfully pursue a right relationship with God, but continue to fall short as their leadership draws them into false treaties with false Gods, and they lose sight of the God with whom they live in covenant.
The world betrays the Israelites over and over again. God rescues the Israelites over and over again. They live in hope for the next age, which is coming. This is an age in which God will make everything right and reality will be as it should be. God will rescue his people from the evil that they have suffered. This sounds a little like our fairy tale, doesn’t it?
But God does rescue his people, and he does it through a little child named Jesus. This is the world that Joseph lived in. Joseph, a devout Jew, expected to be married and to start a family. His family would bring hope to Israel because it would create another generation who would secure the future of the Hebrew people as they waited for the future age to come. This is what the ancient Jews believed. And so no matter how difficult their lives became, they continued to have faith in a God who would one day come to their rescue and initiate a future age which would be defined by life and a right relationship with their Lord God.
Being a Christian means much more than choosing a particular set of doctrines and moral teachings and faithfully following them – it literally means drawing our life from Jesus. As Paul states in Galatians 2:20, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” We conform everything about us to our Lord. His joy, therefore, is our joy.
Because we Christians draw our lives from Jesus, then of course his emotions are intertwined with ours, and that includes his joy. Jesus’ joy – a vastly fuller, purer joy than any we could cook up on our own – comes as a result of being in right relationship with him. It is by doing the Lord’s will that we experience joy – doing and not just saying.
In John 15, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:10-11)
Divine joy is the logical result of faithfully living the life of Christ. It blossoms like a fruit. That is why Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, calls it a fruit of the Holy Spirit. He lists several, although it is not meant to be a complete list. They all come about as a result of having the Holy Spirit within you and living in harmony with God’s will.
To do this involves a very purposeful, very personal “yes” from you to him, every day, and every single minute of every day. But it isn’t just that – it isn’t just a matter of holding on to the hand of the Creator and letting him lead you. It means becoming mystically one with Jesus and drawing our life from him. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” he says in John 15, but through him, and in him, our “yes” to God becomes more than just a temporary choice – it becomes our defining feature.
Active, faithful waiting doesn’t postpone joy until the end of the story. Isaiah calls his people to live, even in desperate times, by a different standard. To embrace the fierce joy of living as the people of God, no matter what the circumstance in which they find themselves. John shouts in the wilderness and points people to Christ. When we shout, when we decorate our homes and our churches, we are not saying that we are unaware of difficulties, that we are oblivious to bad news. We are saying instead that we choose to live by good news. We are saying that we choose to live by hope and not despair.
But what keeps this from becoming a rose-colored glasses scenario is the prophetic call to act in hope. Look back at Isaiah’s words. The Lord brings the good news; the Lord, through the prophet, proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. But then we are the ones who bind up hearts, who set people free, who rebuild. We work because we believe. We build because we hope. And because we hope, we are blessed. And that blessing is lived out in a fierce joy, an in-your-face kind of joy that says, “No matter what might happen to me, I choose to trust in God.” The fierce joy that says, ”No matter what my individual feelings and inclinations might be, I am going to join with the community that is doing good in the world.” We light our lights and put up the garland not to just look pretty or to win a neighborhood contest, but also so that we can declare that the darkness is not the final answer. It is the fierce joy that sustains us. No, wait! It is the fierce joy in community – the shared fierce joy that enables us to bring light to a world needing to learn to see again.
Invitation to Discipleship:
We are called to exercise fierce joy now, to witness to the Light now. So go home, celebrate, decorate, and spread the comfort and hope of God with others. Go in peace.