Sunday, December 11, 2011
We Are Glad Indeed!
Gaudete Sunday, as this third Sunday in Advent is called, was designed by the early Church as a “breather” during the four weeks before Christmas. Though this period had a mildly penitential character early on, that idea has been somewhat modified over the centuries. The Church chose texts for this Sunday pointing to the joy of anticipation of Jesus’ coming, and changed the penitential purple or violet vestments to rose-colored ones.
The Scriptures today summon each of us to joy. Psalm 126 sets the tone: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed...Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24) puts an exclamation mark to that by shouting: “Rejoice always!...” But what does it mean to truly rejoice? That’s not always easily answered in this often hassled and harried time of the Christmas holiday season when we sing a lot about joy, while many people, particularly this year, face staggering depths of anxiety and depression.
The joy to which the Scriptures refer isn’t the same as pleasure or satiation, nor even the emotional high which we call happiness. This kind of joy is the steady assurance that our life’s inconsistencies and incongruities can and will be resolved: an assurance that what has already happened and is about to happen enables you and me to sort out life’s conditions. This kind of joy isn’t delight in possessing something, but delight in the intense reality of being oned with God and of sharing God’s love with one another.
I think it can be safely said that our society today can’t be characterized as a joyful society. You can figure that out simply by observing people during this season, in the pushing and shoving of the shopping malls or in any other place where people’s guards are down. There are a lot of bored, distracted, tired people wandering around the malls and streets: certainly not a good advertisement for joy.
You and I, as a community of faith, though we live as a minority in a primarily joyless culture, are invited to participate in the scandalous, subversive activity of joy. We’re authorized to do what the society around us is unable or unwilling to do in its sorry weariness. Genuine Christian joy undermines frantic activity. It shakes us free from a world that controls us in keeping us constantly fatigued and joyless. The basis of this alternative activity of rejoicing is the conviction that something special, not yet widely known and/or acknowledged in the world, has been and is being disclosed to us through God’s graciousness. The good news of God’s Word in Jesus to us, a community of hurt and hope, is that the Promised One has come and is coming: to transform us and our world from the bottom up. “...He will do it,” says Paul!
Scripture articulates this promised change in concrete terms, proclaiming that a “new heavens and a new earth” will be created; that rejoicing will prevail over weeping and distress; that people’s need will be met; that things will endure; that people’s efforts will bear fruit, not frustration; that they won’t fear violence, for there’ll be harmony and peace. In a passage which Jesus himself used in the synagogue in Nazareth, Isaiah’s words today (Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11) speak of healing for those crushed or oppressed or despairing; of the cancelling of debts; and of release for prisoners: of general amnesty for all. He foresees a total transformation, a newness over which all will rejoice. Such change and transformation, Scripture says, is the work of “the Spirit of the Lord” who initiates the moves leading to comfort, to resoration, to righteousness, to rejoicing. It’s the Spirit who brings newness to all those places where everything is hopeless.
Paul is clear in his direction to the Thessalonian Christians: “Do not quench the Spirit.” This becomes more understandable as you look throughout the whole epistle where the Holy Spirit is seen as the power forming and continuing to transform God’s people. The Spirit has made the Thessalonian church exceptional and noteworthy in the midst of a world which is dispirited. Paul, therefore, advises them (and us) not to resist or squelch the Spirit in the times of our challenges and suffering. It’s this “Force”, this resilient free power of God the Holy Spirit who will work an utter newness in us and in a world so closed to God’s breaking through. As in Genesis, the Spirit blows upon darkness and chaos to make a new creation. This same holy Spirit now comes to blow upon our hearts and to usher in a new world, a new creation, in us. This Spirit speaks of newness from God, a newness not at all derived from anything presently available in the world.
In Advent, you and I wait each day for this transforming Spirit whom we, in the tired, bored, joyless, and closed corners of our hearts, finally won’t be able to resist. The decisive change wrought by God’s Spirit isn’t done in some nebulous heaven. The Holy Spirit works, here and now, up close and personal, through an identifiable, historical agent: Jesus of Nazareth, confessed to be the Lord who comes.
There’s a remarkable famous painting of the Crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald in the Museum of Unterlinden in Colmar, Germany. It has a fascinating history, both as to its creation and to its preservation during World War II. The particular thing I want to point out, though, is the figure of John the Baptizer on the right hand side, poised in a dramatic gesture, pointing his ascetic, bony finger directly at the figure of the suffering Jesus.
I see that as a sort of icon of what John the Baptizer does in John’s Gospel (John 1:6-8; 19-28) as he identifies Jesus, for the Jerusalem leaders, as “the One whom you do not know.” The question which we usually focus on (and preach on) in this Gospel is “Who are you?”, asked twice of John the Baptizer. The leaders of Jerusalem want to find a label for John, to categorize him. If they name him, they can dismiss him. But John refuses to play their game. Deeply aware that “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease”, John, in essence, tells the leaders (and us) that we’re asking the entirely wrong question. The real question for them and for us is: “Who is Jesus?”, and John’s gesture in the Grunewald painting eloquently reminds us of the answer. Jesus is the One who has come and given everything he has for us, in love. The One who, in dying, sets loose the Spirit of God on us and on the world. The One who calls us, invites us, to show that same kind of giving love to one another. The One who will, in the end, draw us all into the completeness of God’s being, which is love.
These last two weeks of the season of Advent might be thought of as the gracious gift of the Spirit of having not only our hopes and expectations, but even the questions which nag us, reframed and reformed. The Christ is the One among us whom we don’t know, an unseen, unknown Power which disturbs our sense of control and predictability. He, the Powerful One, won’t fit into the neat boxes that we’ve built for him. He’s always beyond our comprehension. We can’t label what God in Christ is doing in our joyless lives so that they can be safely contained, so that we don’t actually have to repent. The One whom we do not know is already among us through His Spirit, meeting us, inviting us to be one with Him. He calls us to share John the Baptizer’s role of pointing to the Christ who is the source of our true joy, to embrace the Christ in one another, our neighbor: in compassion, in justice, in love, and, above all, in joy.