The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday, which goes back to a time when Advent was a longer and more deeply penitential season than it is now. Advent still calls us to repentance, and Gaudete Sunday is meant to be a day to relax our introspection and examinations, and rejoice in the coming of Christ. Hence, signifying joy, the rose-colored Advent candle was lit today.
The promise and expression of joy overflows some 430x in the whole of the Bible. In both the Hebrew and Greek, joy denotes an inner brightness and springing up of deep gladness. In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah likens us to mighty oaks and verdant gardens; as brides and bridegrooms garlanded and bejeweled, oiled with gladness and mantled with praise.
In response our psalmist sings of a harvest of joy: mouths filled with laughter, tongue with shouts of joy, and songs of joy.
Paul follows suit in our Epistle, exhorting the Thessalonians to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.
But then the joyous mood begins to be tempered: Do not quench the Spirit, Paul goes on to say. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything.
In our gospel, we read of just such a prophet whose hard word of repentance was indeed despised; and to whom the temple elite were sent. Who are you, they ask? Are you the prophet? What do you say about yourself? Are you Elijah? What then? Who are you? Why are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?
Seven rapid-fire questions to which John responds with seven targeted assertions: I am not the Messiah. I am not. No. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord. I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.
Our gospel passage this morning speaks to a man sent from God, whose name was John. He is not identified as John the Baptist or John the baptizer; no family name or place or trade defines who he is. His identity is as a witness who testifies to the Light—to Jesus—so that all might believe through him. John himself was not the light, and answers the questions about his identity mostly by way of negation.
John tells us that to know our truest identity, which is to know God, comes by way of unknowing the self—of being centered in self but not self-centered or self-attached. As John later says of himself: I must decrease, and he—Jesus—must increase (John 3:30). Medieval theologian Meister Eckhart put it this way: God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.
Pioneer of depth psychology Carl Jung wrote that the privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are. As the ancient Greek maxim counsels: know thyself. Not to take on this holy quest of becoming who God created us to be is to quench, diminish, and grieve the Spirit. So how do we quest this understanding? Following the example of John, might we ask: Who am I not? Or, I am not . . . fill in the blank. John says who he is by quoting Isaiah, so what scripture would tell someone something about who you are in Christ? John bears witness to the Light: what do you do—in particular—that also testifies to the Light?
I undertook this exercise in identity myself and it was harder than one might imagine, especially in answer to who I am not. Most often it would seem that we define ourselves by who we are—I am this, or I am that. But a life of faith is always about a greater and deeper understanding of ourselves in relation to the big or bigger picture, which we mostly can’t see. We must take a leap into the depths of our unknowing, and trust; like John the Baptist, who made a faithful beginning, and yet, arrived to an unexpected end. In Advent, we await the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Lord, and yet, Jesus is already here. The end of the age is prophesied, and yet, we cannot know its day and time. The kingdom is already, and yet, not yet fully accomplished. Jesus is crucified, and yet, he lives.
We spend half of Advent with John the Witness to the Light, who never left his wilderness ministry until he was thrown into prison and his head was cut off. And yet, this subordinate prophet of the Most High is the patron saint of spiritual joy—not suffering—which he surely knew something about and is why the crowds flocked to him hoping for an antidote to it. No, he is the patron saint of joy—which he also knew something about and is why the crowds flocked to him hoping for a prescription for it.
Henry David Thoreau wrote that surely joy is the condition of life; a statement I’ve long pondered; because on many days, surely it seems to me that suffering is the condition of life. I’ve come to accept that both statements are true, which our Advent scriptures affirm; that to get to the manger—to the place of new life and joy—we must pass through the wilderness—the place of suffering and repentance; that if we are to take the Baptist’s message of transformation of heart to heart, we must go to the edges of meaning—to the margins of identity—to the boundary of relationship—and face and confront who we really are, and who we are not.
When we choose to place our happiness in the hands of Christ, joy arises as the deep purpose of God within the self; ancient, deep down the heart of things and in-the-beginning foundational—which means joy is possible—even in the midst of hard and sorrowful things, as attested to by many a saint and human souls.
I’ve learned that I can’t pursue or plan for joy like I can for a happy occasion. More often, joy takes me by surprise—like finding a tiny piece of sea glass amid countless grains of sand—or like God finding me—a tiny sliver of flesh in a sea of humanity.
Might we consider that joy springs from our inner most place of new life, even in life yet born; just as John the Baptist jumped for joy in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice who was carrying Jesus, his Lord and ours; bountiful rose-colored grace conceived and coming into the world (Luke 1:41-44).
What do you know of joy? Especially at this holiday time of year, which for many is a hard season. All of us live with the reality of loss all of the time, and more than a few souls and nations are brokenhearted with grief and sadness. Some of us are held prisoners by a set of circumstances beyond our control. Some are held captive by the pressure of the holidays—and life—oppressed by the relentless demands and march of time.
Isaiah prophesied to a suffering Judah of the hope of the coming Messiah, the same words that Jesus spoke at the onset of his ministry, and are spoken to us today:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to comfort all who mourn.
Such promise; that amidst our suffering freedoms of being, God comes mysteriously, mightily, and providentially, bearing the light of hope, peace, and joy—all fruits of the Spirit; all hues of love; all gifts of love. May we be vulnerable to our own becoming in Christ; and may we rejoice and be glad in the coming of redemptive Love and its new life: at Christmas, in our hearts, and at the end of the ages.