Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Sometimes you can’t help but smile. In the Victoria and Albert Museum in London there is a statue about 19 inches high, made of terra cotta. The statue itself was purchased in 1858 in Paris and is a sculpture of the Virgin and Child. You can see a picture of it on the back of today’s program. No one knows who made it, though the best guess is that it was crafted in Florence, Italy during the renaissance. The most interesting thing about the statue is, when you see it, it’s almost impossible not to smile…and maybe even laugh. You laugh because the child is laughing. The baby Jesus is looking at you as you look at him, and he is laughing with delight. Joy to the world!
The Third Sunday of Advent is popularly known as Gaudete Sunday. The word “Gaudete” is Latin for “Rejoice”. This is the Sunday when the rose colored candle upon the Advent wreath is lit. Think of the color rose as a softening of the more penitential blues and purples of this holy time of year.
This theme of rejoicing is echoed in the readings from the prophet Zephaniah and St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, which we heard earlier this morning: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice. … The Lord is near.”
Now, about joy and happiness. The two are different. Happiness is an emotion. If I win the lottery—I am happy. Happiness, then, is based on circumstance, luck or good fortune. Joy, on the other hand, is something deeper. Joy is not dependent on circumstances; it rests instead upon our emotional well-being. We may be happy if we win the lottery, but we feel joy when we think about a person we love. Happiness may warm and cheer us, but it is joy that creates the fierce heat of emotion that takes our breath away.
Joy has nothing to do with context and circumstance. We can have joy—and rejoice in spite of the circumstances of our lives. Joy comes from a close and intimate relationship with God. In fact, joy is the most reliable sign of the presence of God. Think of it this way: happiness is found in the externals of life. Joy is found in us. Joy is found when you know that you are loved. This is why Paul, who was in prison as he wrote his letter to the community in Philippi could pen these words: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Context makes a difference. I suspect we’d feel differently about these words if we thought Paul wrote them while lounging on a beach with a pina colada in hand than we do knowing they were written while he was awaiting his execution in prison.
Believers in Christ are intended to be people of joy. Mind you, we Christians have not always done a good job of expressing our joy in Christ. After a Christian magazine carried a picture of The Laughing Christ by Willis Wheatley, an angry subscriber wrote this letter to the editor: “I have never seen laughter before at any rime from our Lord Jesus, Christ, and I do not approve of it.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of the great justices of the Supreme Court was known to have explained his choice of a career by saying; “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”
It’s worth considering how we Christians express joy; not only through our preparations for Christmas, but through our Christian lives as well. And this is what brings us to the words of John the Baptist, who stands this morning on the banks of the River Jordan issuing this ominous warning: “Even now the ax is laying at the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The crowd, not surprisingly, is alarmed and says to John: “What then should we do?” And John replies: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Perhaps we might have expected John the Baptist—an extreme figure, if there ever was one—to make radical demands upon his listeners. Instead, he calls people to fidelity in the circumstances of their lives. So, those who have more than they need, are to share with those who have less. Tax collectors are to be honest. Soldiers are not to take advantage of the vulnerable. Parents are to cherish their children. Spouses are to be faithful; and neighbors are to live in peace. Repentance, for John isn’t simply about a change in behavior. Ultimately, it is about a change in heart—which manifests itself in the ways in which we live our lives.
This time of year, many of us will once again read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story is a haunting reminder of the true spirit of the season. Recall the moment when Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up after his haunting to discover that it is Christmas morning. Scrooge, we find, is filled with joy. “I don’t know what to do.” Says Scrooge: “I am as light as a feather, merry as a schoolboy. He cavorts about his rooms. He bursts into laughter. “Really,” says Dickens, “for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh, the father of a long line of laughs.” And what does Scrooge do? He doesn’t keep his joy to himself. Truly, he can’t. This joy, which he has rediscovered has not simply changed his heart, it changes his very world; and he can do nothing but be a part of it. And so, he buys a turkey—not simply a passable bird, but one twice the size of Tiny Tim. Scrooge changes his own life, this is true, but in so doing, he changes the lives of all others with whom he comes into contact as well.
I cannot help but think of that unknown artist who crafted the statue of the Virgin and Child so many centuries ago. That individual, on some emotional, artistic and faith-filled level, transported the joy of his or her heart onto terra cotta—and that figure, in turn, has been transmitting that same joy to others nigh on for centuries. Imagine, then, what we can do with the time and talent that God has entrusted into our care. With God’s help, we can change our hearts—and in turn, change the hearts of others as well. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice, for the Lord is coming—indeed, he is in our midst. In Jesus’ name. Amen.