The Reverend Kathleen Killian
December 11th 2022
And yet, Joy
Last Sunday, I spoke to you about direction, and that the life of a Christian requires “a long obedience in the same direction” (Frederick Buechner). As every Advent, John the Baptist calls the church into the same direction, that of the wilderness where he points us in the direction of Jesus. After church last week, however, I got to feeling that perhaps I had left you all stranded in the wilderness! Which to be fair is where our scriptures left us off—in the wilderness with John the Baptist—but where exactly is that?
For most of us, most of the time, the wilderness is not a literal desert or mountain but an existential place, a far country of trial and restoration, struggle and guidance. We are often thrust into these uninhabited regions of our hearts by illness, loss, or death, by change and growth, or even during times of deep silence and prayer.
In whatever way we get there, the wilderness is often a place of intimate encounter with the Holy One. Our usual ways of life and being are disrupted and disoriented, suspended as we are in a strange land of unknowing, waiting and awaiting our reorientation into new life. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us as we prayed this morning. Undoubtedly, John the Baptist would be praying along with us as he finds himself today in yet another wilderness of imprisonment; if we are honest, might we also sometimes feel convicted and confined by our own present realities and their limitations?
And yet, given the challenge of our gospel today, we lit the pink rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath in celebration of joy! Traditionally, this third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudette Sunday, or Rejoice Sunday, a midday point of the season in which to relax our Advent preparations, disciplines, and introspections and dwell ahead into the joy of the coming Christ.
The Old Testament passage from Isaiah overflows with such an expression of joy:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
A highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way;
. . . it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
. . . the redeemed shall walk there.
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
The response of the psalmist echoes this abundance of joy:
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!
whose hope is in the Lord their God;
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
The Lord shall reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
But then we come to our Epistle and our joyous mood is tempered:
Be patient, James writes, until the coming of the Lord. Strengthen your hearts. Do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord . . .
. . . which leads straight into our gospel from Matthew, where indeed we find a prophet who spoke in the name of the Lord, and who is patient and suffering: John the Baptist alone in a prison cell.
It would seem that the joy has been let out of Rejoice Sunday, from elation to deflation; from fierce knowing to tremulous unknowing; from certitude to uncertainty; from proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah, to questioning if he is: John sent word by his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
John’s faith was shaken, himself like a reed shaking in the wilderness. This got me to thinking about faith all week, and the words that Jesus so often said to those he healed: your faith has made you well. John’s faith didn’t save him from prison or beheading, though I would imagine he didn’t necessarily expect to be saved in that way. But he is genuinely expecting the Messiah, and is wondering, even worried, that perhaps he’s got it wrong. Jesus doesn’t respond to John’s question with a simple yes or no; rather, he directs John’s disciples to tell him what they hear and see, that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them—all of which is fulfillment of prophecy.
I wonder though, did this “answer” satisfy the Baptist? Would it satisfy me? Did John the Baptist comprehend, or was he offended? Are we offended at our present realities, that God has not come to our rescue? Do we understand that in our deepening comprehension of faith, the prophecy and promise of the One who is coming is fulfilled?
Faith is always about a greater and deeper understanding of the big or bigger picture, which we mostly can’t see. And so we must take a leap into the depths of our doubt and unknowing, and trust, like John the Baptist.
Jesus asks the crowd who are also wondering about John: what did you expect to see in the wilderness? a reed shaken by the wind? someone dressed in soft robes? There are numerous interpretations as to what he meant by these sayings, from the political to the literal to the symbolic. But to me, Jesus is pointing to the wilderness, in which he himself was tested and transformed, as a place set apart from the life we have come to expect and or are attached to. A prophet prophesies God’s truth, which is not a “guarantee” in the worldly sense, but an unexpected and costly reality of the divine. Jesus gives his cousin, the wilderness prophet, his due, saying: He is more than a prophet; truly I tell you that among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, our joy meter is rising a little too. But then he abruptly steps back from any gained ground, saying, and yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
If I could do so, I would rename this midpoint of Advent: And yet Sunday; because that’s what living in the middle is like, and living in the middle is where we live most of our lives, in between the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Like John the Baptist, we’ve made a good beginning, and yet, the end that arrives is not what we expected. Like John the Baptist, we have faith, and yet, are unsure. With him, we await the coming of the Messiah, and yet, Jesus is already here. The end of the age is prophesied, and yet, we cannot know its prediction. The kingdom is already, and yet, not yet. Jesus is crucified, and yet, he lives.
And yet speaks to juxtaposition: to two things placed together, side by side, with contrasting effect that yet are not in opposition or conflict. Our faith is a faith of and yet’s, as well as, and yet, joy; for our joy, our peace, our love most truly springs from something other than ourselves and personal circumstances; like an ancient underground stream of pure clean water that is always flowing, unseen and unheard, yet deep down the heart of things, Christ is our sure foundation, an endless well of light and life from which to draw and drink. As John the Baptist said of Jesus: He must increase, but I must decrease; this joy of mine is now full (John 3:29-30).
We spend half of Advent with John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets whose head was cut off; and yet, he is the patron saint of spiritual joy—not suffering, which he knew something about—but joy—which he also knew something about before he was even born; jumping for joy in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice who was pregnant with his Lord, and ours (Luke 1:41-44).
Joy and its rose-colored grace is very much part of readying our hearts for the coming of Christ. When we choose to place our happiness in the hands of Christ, and trust, joy arises as the deep purpose of God living and alive within us. Joy springs from new life yet born; for what may look like and feel like an ending and impossibility is where Christ is, there on the cross with us. God speaks to each of us as he makes us, though sometimes without warning in startling and unexpected ways—that we wake up and head in the right direction—eastward—towards the country of Life.
Give me your hand, says the Lord. I am here to set you free. I am coming to bring you home, and gather all of creation into the joy and peace of my Father’s kingdom, here on earth, and as it is in heaven.
Alleluia, and Amen!