Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
13th of December 2020
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Today, the third Sunday in Advent, is Joy Sunday, known for centuries as Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word for ‘rejoice,’ with the liturgical colour pink. Designating this single Sunday out of Advent’s four as a time of joy immediately raises the question: what are the other three Sundays meant to be? The answer is that for much of the Church’s history Advent was a solemn time; a time for Christians to examine themselves and the world in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ; a time of fasting and quiet contemplation. This of course is why the liturgical colour of Advent is purple, the same colour as Lent. A few weeks’ ago Emily shared with me a website about ‘Celtic Advent’ but we both decided not to introduce Celtic Advent practices to the congregation when we found they included fasting.
Today is a day to rejoice, but we must not rejoice alone. As we get closer to Christmas, we remember that for many people it’s a difficult time. Amid all the gift-giving and lavish feasting, those who can’t afford expensive gifts or food can feel more than usually deprived. With everything around us telling us this is a time to be happy, those suffering from mental or physical illness can feel more than usually cut off from the rest of society. Because of the emphasis on family, those who are estranged, those mourning loved ones who have died, those who are isolated from their family for any reason, can feel more than usually alone.
One recently-created Christmas tradition in Australia is the commemoration of December 21 as ‘Gravy Day’ because of the Paul Kelly song ‘How to make gravy,’ the story of a man in prison who will not be at his family’s Christmas celebrations. I remember the first time I heard the song, because I was listening to it on CD in my car and I had to pull over to the side of the road so I could cry safely. It has become one of my favourite Christmas songs, although I still cannot listen to it while driving or operating heavy machinery.
We try to lessen the gap between the promises of Christmas and what is many people’s reality when we donate money, food, and presents to those who would otherwise go without. There is a reason that Rev. Frank Byatt connected joyful celebration and thought for others when he put the first ‘Christmas Bowl’ on his table in 1949. One hundred and six years earlier Charles Dickens wrote of the reborn Scrooge, who had become ‘as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew,’ that ‘it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge’. Keeping Christmas well does not just mean rejoicing ourselves, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us.
Last week we heard from ‘Second Isaiah’ consoling the Exiles in Babylon; this week we are back again with Third Isaiah, speaking to those who have returned to Jerusalem and found everything changed. To them, Third Isaiah prophesies in words that Jesus will centuries later quote and make his own:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn’.
These are among the most wonderfully comforting and inspiring words in Scripture, although we need to remember that Luke tells us that when Jesus quoted them in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, and applied them to the Gentiles, ‘all in the synagogue were filled with rage’ and wanted to throw him off a cliff. (Luke 4:16-30) ‘The year of the Lord’s favour’ is the Jubilee Year in which debts are to be wiped out, slaves freed, fields left fallow, and the land returned to its original owners – which in the case of the land this church is on would be the people of the Wurundjeri Nation. Were Jesus to tell us that ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ we might have the same reaction as those in the Nazareth synagogue. Yet this is what we celebrate at Christmas, the dawning of the messianic age in the life and ministry of Jesus, who took Isaiah’s words as his manifesto.
The Prophets Isaiah, all three of them, remind us that the joy that this Sunday of Advent celebrates is based on justice. ‘I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing’, the prophet tells us. Joy comes when the oppressed are set free; ‘righteousness and praise’ spring up throughout the world when the one anointed by the Lord overthrows oppressive structures, regimes, and conditions. Isaiah reminds us that God is at work in every human endeavour that strives for peace and wholeness, even if that peace is partial and the wholeness only glimpsed.
It is important that the church in particular be a place that works for peace and justice because that is how those who look on will see that we are a people whom the Lord has blessed. If we are to follow in the footsteps of John and testify to the light, it cannot simply be through the beauty of our worship and the correctness of our theology. Our testimony to the light that came into the world in Jesus must be through our opposition to ‘robbery and wrongdoing’. Sadly in Australia churches have too often been places that facilitated wrongdoing, whether through our involvement in the removal of Indigenous children from their parents or through clerical abuse of children and the subsequent cover-ups. I suspect that it will take Australian churches decades of hard work to live down the Royal Commission, generations before Christians are seen as a people whom the Lord has blessed.
That is a hard thing to say and to hear on this joyful Sunday, so let me turn to today’s psalm. It begins with a memory, of a time of restoration when the Lord had done great things for the people, and they rejoiced. Their mouths were filled with laughter, and their tongues with shouts of joy. A very appropriate psalm for Gaudete Sunday!
But that is not where the psalm ends. That was the past; in the present it seems that things are not so joyful, because the psalmist is beseeching God for God’s favour, asking that their fortunes be restored once again. It is a psalm that would have been prefect for Melbourne’s second lockdown, after all the joy we felt at the ending of the first one. The psalmist implores that those who are currently sowing in tears will reap with joy. Then this short psalm looks to the future, and ends with what seems to be assurance that God will hear and answer the psalmist’s plea: ‘Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves’.
Commentators have made a lot of this final verse’s connection between tears and joy. Some argue that the tears are tears of repentance, and that they must be shed before we can experience the joy of forgiveness. Others argue that the tears are caused by the ordinary sufferings of life, and that it is through our experience of these worldly sufferings that we will be fitted for eternal life; the ancient Christian idea that this world is a ‘vale of tears’. Yet others think that the tears are those of Christ, who suffered death for us; in which case the joy is the resurrection. I don’t like any of these interpretations, although they all have a rich tradition and have undoubtedly comforted many people over the centuries. I do not think that God ever intends sorrow and suffering, not even to enable us to learn or to appreciate joy when it comes. I think the psalmist is simply recognising that, short of the eschaton, no joy will last forever and there will be sorrow, but that God will never leave us trapped in that sorrow, because God is faithful, God’s promises are true, and what God has done in the past God will do again in the future.
The psalmist believes that God will see to it that those who sow in tears will reap with joy. Third Isaiah knows that God will comfort all who mourn, giving them the oil of gladness instead of mourning. Neither the psalmist nor the prophet pretends that we can escape sorrow, pain, and loss, but they are utterly certain that God will not let sorrow, pain, and loss have the last word. God’s last word will be joy.
And so today is a Sunday of Joy, a pink day, a day to rejoice. Christmas reminds us that when God came into the world in the birth of Jesus we were like those who dream, our mouths were filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy. And Advent reminds us that this joy will be ours again. This is why today is a day of joy. Thanks be to God.