December 16th, 2019          Advent III

Zephaniah 3:14-20         Philippians 4:4-7

So today is the third Sunday of Advent, with the theme of joy. We light the pink candle. In some more ceremonial corners of the Anglican church they will even pull out pink vestments for the day. In the days when Advent was observed more as a penitential season, it was seen as a bit of a holiday from the rigours of Advent prayer and fasting.

See, I’m not sure we take joy seriously enough. The other Advent themes, sure: hope is what Advent is for, the expectant waiting on God’s coming. Peace – we all know how badly this world needs peace. Love – well that’s the big one, isn’t it, that’s what it’s all about. They are all solemn duties of the Christian life; whereas joy – well, we all like joy, but I’m not sure we think of it as quite in the same league. Joy feels like a holiday, like dessert, the icing on the cake of life which we enjoy when we can get it, but it’s not the real business of being a Christian.

The more I have been thinking about this sermon this week, the more I think we may be making a mistake by not taking joy seriously enough. Where would it take us to try to put joy more in the centre of our faith life, to think about it as just as crucially important as hope and peace and love?

Certainly today’s Scripture readings reflect the importance of joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” writes Paul to the Philippians; and indeed it is a theme that runs through the whole letter: Paul uses the words rejoice and joy about a dozen times in these few short chapters. So he was in a particularly happy mood? And yet, as we read through the letter, we realize that Paul’s situation is not all sunshine: he is in prison, fully expecting he might be executed. And the Philippians themselves have apparently experienced both persecution from the outside, and conflict within the church. So whatever Paul means by “Rejoice”, it is clearly something more than a “don’t-worry-be-happy” kind of optimism. Rejoice in the Lord, he says, by which he means Jesus – he is calling them back from their stressful, conflicted life to the roots of their faith to find the joy they have experienced in the gospel of Jesus.

Or take the appeal in our Old Testament reading: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Here too it is not just a call to lighten up and be happy: Zephaniah has just spent three quarters of his book berating the nation for its injustice and threatening dire consequences. What he offers at the end is a vision of redemption, of Israel restored to its original purpose. And that purpose is to be in relationship with God, a relationship that is pure joy.

In the Biblical vision, joy is more, so very much more than just a human emotion we experience. Joy is woven into God’s good creation, because creation itself is birthed in joy. In the book of Proverbs, in that glorious hymn to Wisdom as the Holy Spirit, Wisdom speaks of being at God’s side as the world was created:
               Then I was beside him, like a master worker;
               and I was daily his delight,
               rejoicing before him always,
               and delighting in the human race.

Or God, addressing Job out of the whirlwind, speaks of the primordial moment of creation
               when the morning stars sang together
               and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy

What lies behind these poetic passages is a vision of the very nature of creation itself, as something birthed in the free, spontaneous energy of God, overflowing in beauty and truth and love, exulting with delight in the wondrous complexity of all that is. In short, joy.

And because creation itself is born out of joy, it is to joy that we are summoned. Not just as a reward in the sweet by-and-by, but now, in the midst of this life, we are being called back into that original joy in which we were created, we are being called to get back in touch with the joyful energy that lies behind all creation – in other words, we are being called into relationship with God.

Now we want to be careful here. Joy cannot be commanded. If we feel we ought to be joyful, and try to force ourselves, we just end up with that strained pretense of happiness that is so demoralizing because it feels so empty. To say that as Christians we are called back into joy does not mean that we have to be upbeat and happy all the time. There is so much that can get in our way: the anxieties of everyday life, grief for the hurts that have broken our hearts, the black pall of depression. That is all part of the human condition. And we don’t need to add to these burdens by heaping on a layer of guilt, as though it were a moral failing if we are not happy all the time. That is not helpful, and it is not true.

Because, as saints and ordinary Christians in every age have testified, the Christian life is often more a longing and thirst for that joy, rather than being flooded with it. We find ourselves often as travellers in a desert, weary and thirsting for the deep springs of water. We know they are there, those springs, at the bedrock of creation, but we can’t get to them. And yet the promise and the call to joy remains.

In my Advent pastoral letter, I spoke about Walter Brueggemann’s challenges to a prophetic church: to speak the truth in a society that lives in illusion; to grieve in a society that practices denial; to hope in a society that is mired in despair. But I’m thinking maybe he missed one: to cultivate joy in a society that has lost sight of it. Because I would suggest that is one of the challenges of the world we live in: we don’t do joy very well. We are big on enjoyment, having fun – but that is not at all the same thing. We talk a good talk about happiness, although whether we actually achieve much of it is another question. But joy, that deep delight in the goodness of creation, that we see less of. We have because at once too cynical, too mistrustful of seeming naive; and at the same time too caught up with worry and responsibility.

In this society, then, it is our calling – our mission, I will use that word – to be a place of joy in the midst of our community, a place where people can experience something of that deep delight in life that gives our existence meaning. I might even suggest that this is our key missional task; because if people can catch a glimpse of joy here, then that will attract like nothing else.

But of course that is not easy, because we too are people of our time, people who do not find joy an easy thing to come by. We are prey to anxiety: the common anxieties of our world, and the specific anxieties of church life, the worries about money and hurt feelings and our future. Like everyone else, we carry our griefs with us, deep griefs that have broken our hearts. And we too, like anyone else, may experience depression and its bleak, stifling malaise.

We certainly can’t expect to be happy all the time. And let’s not try to be the kind of community that pretends to be, because that kind of community has no room for the grieving and the depressed. But perhaps we can try to be a community that more consciously and intentionally cultivates joy: that holds up the promise and call to joyous fullness of life, even when we’re not feeling it, and sets about seeking joy in our faith.

I am talking about practices like:

• gratitude, consciously seeking to count our blessings, to see what is good in our lives rather than focussing on what is not
• the practice of caring for one another, which we do. Christian love too is a discipline of joy, because it is a way of looking for and appreciating what is good and gracious in one another, in delighting in another person as God’s creation.
• spending time in nature, paying attention, with all our senses, to the wonderful richness of God’s good creation, as we are drawn into that original delight
• and finally, most basically, seeking an ever deeper relationship with God; not because it is a duty, not because it will make us a better person, not because of all the things we are supposed to pray for, not hung up on the theology of what we can or can’t believe – but first of all because God is that very energy of exuberant joy burning at the heart of creation, the very source of our life and our purpose, and when we draw near with silent and receptive hearts, we may find ourselves touched by joy.