Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. Isaiah 12:3
Joy! Isn’t that what we all want for Christmas? Joy! Isn’t it what’s behind everything we do – the shopping, baking, decorating, sending cards, entertaining, even coming to worship, preparing the Christmas pageant? We all want a little joy in our lives.
The dictionary definition of joy from Merriam-Webster is:
1. The emotion evoked by well-being success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires. 2. A state of happiness of felicity: bliss. 3. A source of cause of delight.
Certainly an accurate definition, but as Poet Christian Wiman writes; “if you are trying to understand why a moment of joy can blast you right out of the life to which it makes you all the more lovingly and tenaciously attached, or why this lift into pure bliss might also entail a steep drop of concomitant loss, or how in the midst of great grief some fugitive and inexplicable joy might, like one tiny flower in a land of ash, bloom – well, in these cases the dictionary is useless.” Wiman turns to poetry. As a preacher, I turn to the Biblical text. Today, with joy we draw water from the wells of salvation through Luke and Paul.
Water from the wells of salvation is the reason why the crowds came out to be baptized by John. They wanted salvation. Rumor had it this wilderness prophet might be the Messiah, the Savior of the World, the Savior of them. John knows he’s not, knows his limitations, that he is a mere stage hand, while another is coming who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. John begins with confrontation – calling them a brood of snakes and challenging them by declaring their lives must change. It’s not about pedigree – whether they are or we are sons and daughters of Abraham or dare I add, of Luther. What counts is your life, is it green and blossoming or dead wood? And if it’s dead, be honest about that and don’t try to pretty it up and pretend otherwise. God’s serious about this intervention, and every successful intervention begins with honesty. When it does, the seed for joy is planted – real joy.
“How do we do this?” the crowd asks, and so do we. John’s response is so basic it leaves us wondering, “is that all?” He tells folks with two coats to give one away, and the same with food. He instructs the tax collectors not to collect more than what they were supposed to and the mercenary soldiers not to threaten or extort others but to be satisfied with their wages. It’s the stuff we learn in kindergarten – share, be fair, don’t bully. He doesn’t tell them to join him in the wilderness or be part of a movement or start a crusade – just share, be fair, don’t bully. In this, there’s joy! At Bible study a couple of weeks ago, Donna Searchfield who’s on the staff at PACS, told how the place was bursting with joy as gifts were shared and received and in the process community created. She said, “Some days my job is hard, but today it was wonderful!”
There’s more. Next, John points to the one who is more powerful than him. That one will ignite in us the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit, which changes us from the inside out. That one, the Messiah, will make a clean sweep of our lives and put everything in its proper place before God while taking everything false out with the trash to be burned. That’s what the chaff is – trash, our garbage, the rubbish we carry around because we’re so use to stinking thinking, so accustomed to nursing our fears and hurts, so scared of letting go of our sins and failures that we forever handicap our own lives by playing the victim or the bully. We soil our souls. Jesus takes our trash to a garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem, a place we call Golgotha, Calvary, where it is burned up in the unquenchable love of his crucifixion. He simply loves us too much to leave us lying in our mess. In Jesus, Advent judgement and Advent joy come together.
On Friday, John and I decorated our Christmas Tree. It’s something I love to do for each ornament carries a memory and as we unwrap them, we are given that time again. There were ornaments made by the women of St. Bartholomew’s and a few from our sons when they were in preschool, as well as many from our St. John’s Angel Tree. John handed me a cross and said, “Maybe we should save this for Easter.” I replied, “Let’s put it on tree for without the cross there would be no Christmas.” Indeed, the tree of the cross becomes the tree of life, our hope of salvation. So that we can dare to pray that while for some of us this year and perhaps for all of us one day, there will be in a great grief, a moment of inexplicable joy.
In our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi there’s far more than a moment of inexplicable joy. Paul begins his letter by writing that he constantly prays with joy in everyone of his prayers for them. Constant praying with joy! And Paul does this even though he’s in prison – mostly likely in Rome – where he’s awaiting a trail and there’s no assurance that things will go well. His opposition is formidable and the possibility of death very real. And yet, he tells them to rejoice, not to worry about anything, but to pray letting God know their concerns. Fourteen times in his short letter he uses the words joy or rejoice – he prays with joy, has his joy made complete, vows to continue to rejoice and rejoices again and again. How can he be this way? Was he a first-century Pollyanna who always saw the best in everything? Not at all. His letters to the Corinthians reveal he could be bluntly and brutally honest. Were the Philippians such a wonderful congregation that all Pastor Paul had to do was tell them to walk on the sunny side of the street? No, for he urges two women who were fussing with each other to iron out their differences. So, what is it?
There’s a line in poem by William Woodsworth called Tintern Abbey, that provides a clue into Paul’s irrepressible hope: “We see into the life of things.” In his prison cell, Paul sees into the life of things. The Lord is near to him and therefore he can confidently write to his beloved Philippians, and to us, God’s beloved people of St. John’s telling us that the Lord is near to us too. Look for the Lord – look all around. Listen for God, too – showing up in confessions of regret and words of love and forgiveness. Maybe you’ll feel the stirring up of joy or perhaps a pang of regret– either way, see and hear into the life of things and behold God.
There is joy – as it was on the last Wednesday in November in Kley Hall at Young at Heart. The Surrey Choir of Seniors was singing a glorious Alleluia. Everyone was working hard to stay together and on key, and then there was a moment when they stopped working and just sang with all their hearts, and it was as if heaven was on earth, for indeed it was.
Paul tells us not to worry for God is near. Because God leans into us, indeed becoming flesh and blood in Jesus, we can be bold in our prayers, letting God know our concerns, making our requests known and trusting that God is with us now and always. With joy let us draw water from the well of salvation.
And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Amen
Christian Wiman, Joy: 100 Poems, Yale University Press, 2017, xii.
Eugene Peterson, The Message, Luke 3: 16-17.
William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45527/lines-composed-a-few-miles-above-tintern-abbey-on-revisiting-the-banks-of-the-wye-during-a-tour-july-13-1798