So here we are. The third Sunday in Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday in Church Latin because it’s all about Joy. We’ve done Hope and Peace. Love is to come. It’s all so neat and tidy.
Preparing for Christmas, preparing for Easter … has anyone ever had the feeling that they’re not preparing properly? Preparing seriously? Like a really spiritual person would. Like a really good Christian.
Maybe if you identify with this feeling, somewhere, sometime, you’ve accommodated to it like I usually have, by ignoring the vague urges to connect with the Holy that it embodies, or allowing this desire to be drowned out by other cares and concerns and the general busy-ness of this season: work dos, family dos, finishing up a few projects before the holiday season, doing the shopping.
Or maybe you’ve been fasting and praying for weeks now, and spend an extra hour every morning in private worship and contemplation of the coming Christ Child. Maybe you’ve sent off all your Christmas letters and cards, bought perfect presents for the children in your life and charity goats for small villages in Eritrea as proxy gifts the adults, shed a tear during your favourite solo piece in this year’s performance of Handel’s Messiah, and set up your low-carbon decorations in the lounge room window so that they spread cheer to passers-by as they glance up from the footpath. Good for you.
It was with all this in mind that I wondered what on earth I might learn about Joy and Advent.
Only, my mind was already quite full.
At the hospital where I work, I’m very aware of the on-going rolling suffering that mental and physical illness bring. Germs and dementias ignore our holy days, disabilities and infirmities never got the memo, strained relationships and care partner burdens and chickens well and truly coming home to roost care nothing for our spiritual seasons.
In the mornings when I read the news on line, I’m very aware that it is soon to be illegal for the 280 million people in Indonesia to have sexual relationships with the people they can currently freely choose to have them with – unless they are married. Which means that no gay people can ever have a legal adult relationship with anyone of their choice. And it will be illegal to critique this law because it simply enshrines “Pancasila”, the Indonesian Way. I’m shocked that there are people in this country who fear and who hate the government and its leaders and others that fear and hate the opposition and its leaders; people who are prepared to go to court to defend their hatred and prepared to let their child die to defend their fear. I’m aghast that the streets of every city I have ever visited have had people sleeping in doorways and begging on street corners and that the richest countries seem to have just as many people in these situations as the poorest. And I’m gob-smacked that there are some unusual individuals out there who have power over thousands, or millions, but nonetheless seem be locked into some kind of obscene competition to reach the bottom the fastest.
There are wars and rumours of wars, nations do rise against nations, and there are indeed famines and earthquakes.
My mind is already quite full. I wondered what on earth I might learn about Joy and Advent, what I have ever learned about Joy and Advent that doesn’t sound trite and fade into insignificance against the plight of even one of the people who come to see me because I’m “their specialist”, even one of the poor kids that I know are living in
my own suburb.
At the turn of the Common Era two thousand years ago, the people living in Galilee and Samaria and Judea had similar concerns. Herod Antipas, Roman Senator Quirinius, the Governor of the Greater Syrian area – these were certainly political leaders to worry about. Disease and disability were a fact of every life and fit young people died as a matter of course. Old age was a rare gift and started at 50. Folk then would have heard the words Ben read to us today from the prophet sometimes called “First Isaiah” in a very particular way, and they would not have skated in the way we tend to now over lines like “Your God will come … with vengeance, with divine retribution” and “The unclean will not journey on [that highway], wicked fools will not go about on it”.
Even John the Baptist, whose mother must have told him stories of how he leapt in her womb when she met her cousin Mary, pregnant with Jesus; even John, about whom Jesus said “[He is] a prophet, and more than a prophet … among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater”; even that John appears to have been caught up in this same kind of thinking.
Admittedly, sitting in an Herodian prison is unlikely to do much for a person’s positive outlook on life, but still, even super-ascetic, super-politically aware, actively prophetic John is moved to send his own disciples out to Jesus to check in with him: ‘Look, um, Rabbi, sorry to ask, but are you actually The One Who Is To Come, or should we expect someone else? Like, you’re very wise and everything but I hope you don’t mind us noting that there’s little evidence of the kind of social justice, mass repentance, or possibly smiting that we would have expected to see by now’.
I think I might have more than a little in common with John’s disciples. I too have had my eyes opened by prophets to see the injustice, the hunger, the poverty, the disability, the sickness, the signs of death in my society and in the societies all around me. I too was brought up yearning for the Kingdom to come. Any prophetic energy in me usually seems to be as imprisoned as John found himself, and just as prone to having its head lopped off. Where’s the Joy in Advent for John’s disciples and for John?
Where’s the Joy in Advent for me this year?
I don’t know much, but here’s what I do know.
I belong to the God of this morning’s Psalm, the one who is in the making of everything.
When I align myself in some small way to the causes of the oppressed, I am joining work that the Spirit of God is already deeply engaged in.
When I feed the hungry, I am the hands of God. I am. The hands. Of God.
When I have helped set a person free from something oppressive, or worked towards the causes of freedom, I have been doing my bit in the work that the God of Ages is doing.
When I have helped enable someone to see their way better, figuratively, or indeed literally as part of my hospital work, I have done no less than brought God’s Way into another corner of this present darkness.
When I have joined someone who was bowed down by their burdens, connected with a foreigner in friendship, and given sustenance to someone who is grieving, be that a casserole at the front door step or a sustaining text message on a busy morning, I have joined in the work of the God of the Universe.
Where’s the Joy in Advent for you this year?
I don’t know much but here’s what I do know.
You are good and faithful servants of the Most High God of First Isaiah when you do anything that strengthens a feeble hand or steadies a knee that was at risk of giving way. Good and faithful servants of the Most High God.
You are angels when you help anyone with a fearful heart believe, just for a bit, that they can be strong enough, that they need not be so afraid. Angles from Heaven.
You are aligned with the Spirit of the Universe when you come alongside anyone whose abilities have been held back by physical, by psychological, by social, or by spiritual shackles, and when you do your best to add your strength to theirs. And I’m sure that sometimes, just sometimes, you have indeed both leapt like deer and shouted for joy.
My God and your God did not enter this world as expected and did not bring about political solutions and did not restore unjust social structures at a stroke; God did not roll in to cure all cancer and all psychotic illness in a once-and-for-all blaze of light; God did not come and redistribute the wealth of the world justly. In fact, the Jesus
example was to keep speaking truth to power and love to the outcast until the inevitable happened, until the death he clearly saw heading towards him was so imminent it either had to be embraced to enable him to stick to his truth or be avoided by some radical capitulation. He chose truth and was murdered for it. This is the Advent we were actually given.
All this was known and yet the gospel writer of Matthew was unashamed to record this answer to John’s disciples’ question: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor”.
Can we find joy not in spite of the puzzling state of this life we’ve been given, and this damaged world we live in with its apparently strong evils and its apparently weak islands of goodness, but can we find joy because it is in this exact world that the Advent of the Christ has ushered in a new Way?
A new and permanent and forever understanding that God is still here, is always here, is always at work; working to redeem us all, all of us, without any exceptions; and that you, and me, all of us in this small and imperfect church family, and everyone else too, all of us are given the same invitation; to join in with something so big, so deep, so high, and so wide that we will never exhaust it, never escape it, and never put ourselves beyond its love, no matter what we do. The light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not put it out.
So let’s enter the last fortnight of the Advent together with singing, let’s allow a measure of everlasting joy to crown our heads, let’s accept the moments of gladness and joy that overtake us, and let’s give sorrow and sighing permission to flee away.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.