Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
17th of December, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
For my twenty-first birthday a friend gave me the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. (Yes, I have always been a nerd.) When thinking about today’s service I decided that I would make use of it and I looked up ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’.
Happiness, according to the Shorter Oxford is:
- Good fortune, success.
- Pleasant appropriateness, felicity.
- Deep pleasure in, or contentment with, one’s circumstances.
Joy, on the other hand, is:
- Vivid pleasure arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction; exultation; gladness, delight, an instance of this …
- A pleasurable, happy or felicitous state or condition, especially the bliss or blessedness of heaven …
- A source, object, or cause of happiness; a delight.
And so, it makes sense that the theme of the third Sunday of Advent is joy, not happiness. We’re not talking about good fortune or success. People can be fortunate and successful at the expense of others. They can be happy doing things that harm themselves, other people, animals and the environment. We sadly see this every day. In fact, it can sometimes seem as though happiness comes from harming other people and the planet, or at the very least ignoring the harm that lavish lifestyles do to them.
But, joy, on the other hand, joy, I want to argue, is the feeling that comes from what the Shorter Oxford describes as ‘the bliss or blessedness of heaven’. When we experience ‘joy’ we’re exulting and delighting in God. Two days after the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was released this may seem unforgivably naïve, but I believe that this joy cannot be felt by those who do harm, but only by those who are obeying God’s commandments and loving both God and their neighbour.
It’s that joy, the joy that comes from knowing that we are loved by God and loving God and neighbour in return, that today’s readings describe. In the first reading, from Isaiah, the prophet says: ‘I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God.’ The reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians begins with the words, ‘Rejoice always.’ The gospel reading has John the Baptist testifying to the coming of the Light, Jesus, and for Christians Emmanuel, God with us, is the source, object, or cause of our delight. So we rejoice.
In a normal Advent, not that there ever is such a thing, I would find it much easier to speak about joy today. But, as I’ve already mentioned, on Friday the final report of the Child Abuse Royal Commission was released and I spent Friday afternoon beginning my reading of the three books of Volume 16, Religious Institutions. On my iPad Book 1 has 808 pages; Book 2 has 936 pages; and Book 3 has 823 pages, so I’m not going to be finished any time soon. As I read it Jesus’ words in Mark kept echoing in my head, ‘For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.’ (Mark 4:22) A lot of dreadful things have been brought into the light by the Royal Commission.
Of course, the first thing I did after downloading the Report was to search for the words ‘Uniting Church’. I found that during the forty years of our life 430 allegations of child sexual abuse have been made. Of these, 102 resulted in the person making the claim seeking redress and of those 102 people, 83 received a settlement. The church has paid out a total of $12.35 million in redress to the victims of child abuse. Victoria and Tasmania received the highest number of allegations, 200, and New South Wales and the ACT received the highest number of claims, 59. In private sessions to the Royal Commission 97 survivors of 50 Uniting Church institutions, or institutions from our previous denominations, spoke to the Commissioners. That’s 2.4% of the people who told the Royal Commission that they had been abused in religious institutions. Some commentators have worried that the other churches might take comfort that 61.8% of people said they were abused in Catholic institutions; Sean Kelly wrote: ‘Perversely, other institutions will no doubt look at the Catholic Church and think, “Well, at least we’re not that bad.”’ We could do that, or we could remember that it is almost certain that most people abused as children didn’t approach the Royal Commission and so all the numbers will have been much larger. And that the abuse of one child in a Uniting Church institution was a crime and a sin and a tragedy, let alone the sexual abuse of 97 children. There is nothing the Report to comfort us, except our commitment to make our churches, school and agencies as safe as we possibly can.
And yet, despite all this, I am still going to talk about joy today. Because today’s readings remind us of on what our joy is based, and that can only strengthen our resolve to do better.
The reading from Isaiah reminds us that true joy is based on justice; ‘I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing’, the prophet tells us. Can you imagine how much the Lord must hate the abuse of children by those who dare to describe ourselves with his name? Jesus told his disciples: ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea,’ and there could be no one more ‘little,’ more vulnerable, than children in the care of the church. Isaiah tells us that joy will only come when justice is shown to the oppressed, the broken-hearted, captives, prisoners, mourners, and the faint in spirit. Hope and joy come from God’s love of justice. And so we know that God was at work in the Royal Commission, as God is at work in every human endeavour that strives for peace and wholeness. God will be with us as we seek to make redress to those abused and as we try to make our churches safer. As churches have to make changes in the way that we do things, as we mutter at the frustration of needing Working With Children Cards and job interviews before congregation members can volunteer, as millions of dollars are spent in compensation, it might look as though God is no longer with us. But the opposite is true. It’s only as we do all this that we can be called ‘oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory’. Wealthy, respected institutions that were above scrutiny might have looked like those oaks, but we now know how hollow they were.
Today we also have Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians in the earliest letter of his that has survived: ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ Paul is not telling us to pretend that everything is lovely when it isn’t. Paul was writing to a tiny community in Macedonia quite possibly being persecuted by those around them (1 Thessalonians 2:14), and Paul describes himself as experiencing distress and persecution (1 Thessalonians 3:7). And yet Paul encourages the Thessalonians to rejoice, because God is with them. Our joy should not be based on our wealth, success and good fortune – which is a good thing given that as a church we are no longer particularly wealthy, successful and fortunate. It is based on our relationship with God, the one who has called us and is faithful to us, even when we are not faithful to him.
This is the reason that today can be a Sunday of Joy, even in the midst of anguish. It is a day on which we can rejoice because no matter how much pain and injustice and difficulty we have experienced, and, even worse, inflicted, God is faithful; God wills justice for the world; God has come among us in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Paul ends his letter with: ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ And so we continue to pray. May we as the body of Christ, the church, acknowledge our crimes and sins, repent and offer redress, and so be sanctified, made holy, by the God of peace. As we do so God will be with us in Jesus, Emmanuel, the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. Thanks be to God. Amen.