Thursday, December 14, 2023

Advent 3-B, 2023: Our reason to rejoice

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28 

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Happy Gaudete Sunday! The Latin word 'gaudete' means ‘to be filled with joy.' The form of the word is the imperative. It’s critical – a matter of life and death.

The mandate of Gaudete reminds us that, no matter what has us weighed down, brokenhearted, angry, or hopeless, God is with us. Christ’s spirit is in us, and so, the joy that anticipates the saving action of God who will come with great might and bountiful grace to help us; the joy that trusts that nothing is impossible with God is already ours. We need only claim it.

Joy is different from happiness and one of the best resources I’ve found about this is in the collaborative book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (God rest his soul) and the His Holiness, the Dali Lama, called, “The Book of Joy.” There they discuss 8 Pillars of Joy. I’ve linked a webpage to this sermon that summarizes these well. 

These pillars include: 

  • PERSPECTIVE – a God’s-eye perspective that enables empathy. 
  •  HUMILITY which opens us to right relationships where everyone matters. 
  •  HUMOR which diffuses pain and connects us in our common humanity. 
  •  ACCEPTANCE which frees us from the illusion of our control. 
  •  FORGIVENESS which enables us to take our power and our life back from those who have harmed us and frees us to seek true justice. 
  •  GRATITUDE which opens our hearts to all that connects us, shifting our focus from what we lack to what we have. 
  •  COMPASSION - the unifying force that recognizes we are all one and enables us to love one another and ourselves in all our imperfection. 
  •  GENEROSITY which connects us to abundance - returning more to the one who gives, rather than depleting resources.

The bottom line is this: joy is not attached to circumstances. It is an inner state of being that persists in every circumstance.

One sure sign of joy is in the freedom from jubilee: the ancient Jewish practice of the forgiveness of debts, freedom from slavery, and resetting of access to resources. In the reading from the prophet Isaiah, we are called to proclaim both the year of the Lord’s favor, that is, the time of jubilee, and also the day of vengeance of our God.

The word translated here as “vengeance” also translates as “to be reassigned.” Isaiah is describing a process of divine jubilee by which God restores shalom: the wholeness and completeness of creation as intended by God from the beginning. As God restores shalom, it will be liberating for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, and the captive, but for those who hold and hoard power, privilege, or wealth, it will feel like loss and punishment – at least at first. Once right relationships are restored in the shalom of God, however, it will be clear how cherished all are to God, and that there is enough for everyone in the abundance of God, and there will be rejoicing in that truth.

Rejoice, St. Paul says, … for this is the will of God, in every circumstance.

When we rejoice, we relax in our bodies and souls. We anticipate being cared for by God whose power is love, whose gift is grace, and whose mercy is like arms outstretched drawing us into a divine hug. We are safe and at peace. In that state, we can listen because our minds are finally at rest, and we can take in the message being given to us.

This is the message of today’s gospel story about John the Baptist. John came to testify to the light, who is Jesus. The specifics of the reassigning God is doing in this story are kind of fun, so we’ll look at a few of them.

The Jewish people had been anticipating the saving action of God through the arrival of the Messiah who would deliver them from their oppression, brokenheartedness, and captivity, in this case to the Romans. John shows up preaching repentance instead, exhorting people to go a new way, and baptizing them with water – a practice usually reserved for Gentiles who were converting to Judaism. The people are eating up his message and following him in droves.

This, of course, makes the religious leadership nervous. John isn’t doing anything technically against their law, but he is becoming a powerful voice in their community – which is starting to feel threatening to them. They also worry about the Roman response to John – which as you know, ended up being a legitimate concern. More importantly, however, was that the people were conflating the hope they heard in John’s message with John himself, and rumors were beginning to foment that he, John, was the awaited Messiah.

John makes explicitly clear that he is NOT the light, he is not the prophet, he is not the Messiah. “Who are you then?” they ask.

I am a voice, he says, crying out in the wilderness, which in this case, refers to a place of political disfavor, an inhospitable region, which Jerusalem was. “Make straight the way of the Lord!” which was a quote from Isaiah, chapter 40, which begins: “Comfort, comfort ye my people, says your God.”

In that time, the Israelites were being held captive in Babylon. It was an inhospitable place of political disfavor for them, but God was promising them the restoration of shalom where everyone would be brought to a level playing field, where they would find peace and safety in the bosom of God, and the glory of God would be revealed to them.

Make straight the way of the Lord, John says. God is acting now to restore shalom. Focus your vision. Open your ears to hear the voice of God leading you. Trust in your heart and keep moving through this moment and into the shalom of God. You will find peace and safety in the care of God and the glory of God will be revealed to you.

John also proclaims in this gospel, that he is not worthy to untie the thong of the sandal of the one who is coming after him – which is a task no self-respecting Jew would have done back then. It was relegated to Gentile slaves, in other words, to the lowest of the low.

John says he himself is even lower than that. This is a colorful exaggeration to illustrate how far God will reach to raise us up, to lift us into divine glory. What was so attractive about John’s message, I think, was that he was proclaiming that there was already one among them, whom they do not know yet, who was about to do just that. It was imminent.

As we continue our Advent waiting in this cycle of our renewal, we also must wait and see, focusing our vision, opening our ears to hear the voice of God leading us, and trusting in our hearts. We must keep moving through the current circumstances in our lives and into the shalom of God. For it is there we find peace and safety in the care of God and joy that surpasses all understanding.

For us, the glory of God, the fullness of the revelation of God is found in Jesus. He is the place of our peace and safety. He is the voice that leads us, the light that shines in every darkness, and the love that fills us – body and soul – in every circumstance. That is the promise and our reason to rejoice. Amen.

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