Sermon: Joy Sunday

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Third Sunday of Advent, 11th of December 2022

Luke 1:46b-55
Matthew 11:2-11

Rejoice! Today is ‘Gaudete’ Sunday – Joy Sunday, the only Sunday in the entire liturgical year whose colour is pink. The name comes from the Latin for ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4:4) – Gaudete in Domino semper. As the church journeys through the rather sombre purple season of Advent, while the world around us starts celebrating Christmas, this third Sunday of Advent can come as a relief. Finally, we are on the same page as the rest of society; we too are celebrating.

Yet even today our rejoicing is not straightforward. The Gospel reading we are offered for this joyful day begins with John the Baptist in prison, doubting himself. We first encounter John the Baptist in the Gospel according to Matthew when he is preaching and baptising in the wilderness. Then he says that ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals’. When Jesus comes to be baptised by him, John responds, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ (Matthew 3) John certainly seemed to recognise Jesus then as ‘the one who is to come,’ but now, after Jesus has started his ministry, John seems unsure. This, of course, is because John has now been imprisoned by Herod Antipas. Imprisonment has been a common occurrence in the lives of the people of God, before and after John, and it always brings doubt about whether God truly is with the prisoner. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison include a poem in which he wonders:

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
hungry for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsty for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
caught up in expectation of great events,
powerlessly grieving for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?[1]

No wonder that John the Baptist, also imprisoned, is ‘restless and longing and sick,’ too, wondering whether what he had prophesied has come true. Can the Messiah truly have come if rulers like Herod Antipas are still in power?

Jesus does not answer directly; he does not tell John whether he is or is not the one for whom John was the forerunner. Instead, he tells John’s disciples to report what they have seen and heard: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’. Jesus draws on the prophecies of Isaiah to reassure John that what he foretold has come to pass. Today’s lectionary offers us Mary’s song as an alternative to a psalm, because in the Magnificat Mary, like John, looks forward to the messianic age when a new world will be born, the kingdom of God in which everyone has enough to eat and in which the lowly are lifted up and the powerful brought down from their thrones so that everyone is equal – siblings and friends and beloved children of God.

This is where our Advent journey is taking us; this is what we will celebrate at Christmas; this is why today is a Sunday of Joy. But these weeks leading up to Christmas and Christmas itself are not necessarily times of joy, despite what the advertisements tell us as they try to sell us things. Many congregations conduct some sort of ‘Blue’ Christmas Service around this time of year, recognising that for many people Christmas can bring as much pain as it does hope, peace, joy, and love. For some people, their sorrow at Christmas is easily talked about. Members of their family may be interstate or overseas, unable to join them around the table but able to call or FaceTime in. Children and their families who visited parents on Christmas Day in previous years might be with their in-laws this Christmas. We mention these situations to one another; sympathise with each other that this Christmas will not be exactly as we would wish, not the way we remember it when the children were small.

Then there are the griefs that are not temporary. The loved ones who are not a phone call away; those who have died leaving behind widows and widowers, children and parents, to remember the Christmases past that can never come again. When I have held Blue Christmas Services in the past people have brought to them the memories of longed-for babies who died in the womb, miscarried or stillborn. There are so many of these, although we do not often speak of them. And society’s emphasis on children at Christmas can devastate those who for whatever reason have been unable to have any: those for whom IVF did not work; those who do not have a partner to parent with them. These griefs can be much harder to talk about, partly because we do not want to inflict our pain on others when they are celebrating.

Finally, there are the griefs of which we may be ashamed, those that can be completely impossible to disclose. The aftermath of marriages ended by divorce. The families broken by abuse or addiction or mental illness. The parents who are unsure why their children no longer visit, or who know only too well. The adult children who have had to make the difficult decision to separate themselves from their families of origin. One common challenge to the hideous commercialisation of Christmas is a reminder that the real meaning of Christmas is not the feasting and the presents, it is family and love, and I do hope that that helps those who have little money but lots of love. But there are many people who face Christmas with sufficient money while lacking the love they long for, and for them Christmas is even more difficult. If you remember A Christmas Carol, you can imagine that it is the difference between the jolly Christmas of the poor Cratchit family, and the isolation of Scrooge’s Christmas, pre-ghosts.

Today, I am not suggesting that those of us who struggle to find the joy in Christmas should pretend that everything in our lives is perfect. I suspect that our lives would be better were we able to say honestly that Christmas is a difficult time for us. Since even such Christian saints as John the Baptist and Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be ‘weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,’ can question who Christ is and how his coming can make a difference, we should feel no guilt if we have those feelings and ask those questions too. Even at Christmas. Perhaps especially at Christmas.

But, having acknowledged that and shared our pain with those we trust, I think it can also be helpful to understand the joy from which this Sunday takes its name not as a God-given gift but as a virtue to be cultivated. We know how to do this: by finding things for which to be grateful; by caring for others; by doing what Jesus told John the Baptist to do – rejoicing that ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’ even if we ourselves still feel imprisoned.

Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol showed us one of the best ways to cultivate joy. Dickens writes of Scrooge on Christmas Day:

‘I don’t know what to do!’ cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath, and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings.I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy, I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’

He then immediately starts to share his joy by giving to the poor of his community. As I have mentioned before, numerous positive psychologists tell us that joy does not need to precede giving, that giving itself brings us joy. Those of us struggling to enjoy Christmas can take Scrooge as one of our role models, the man who was ‘as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew,’ and of whom ‘it was always said … that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.’ We can give.

We can take Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an even more important exemplar. Bonhoeffer ended his questioning poem:

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

We too belong to God, just as much as Dietrich did. At Christmas, we celebrate that God’s love was so extreme that God entered the world as a human being to share that love with us. Whatever else has happened in our lives, we are those for whom God was willing to die. From his prison the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.’ (Philippians 4:4-5) The Lord is near; the Lord came at Christmas to be with us. So, whoever we are, O God, we are yours. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM Press, 2001), p. 130.

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