(Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/lnEql003WrU)
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
This morning we are celebrating the 3rd Sunday of our Advent journey. We see it is a special Sunday, unlike the other three Sundays, by the pink candle we have lit in our Advent wreath. It is a Sunday unlike the other Sundays because it lifts up an element of this season that often gets overlooked: the gift of joy. We all seem to focus instead on the other gifts that come with Jesus’ birth. We celebrate his gifts of hope, love, and peace more than his gift of joy and I’ve often wondered why this is the case. So why are we more grateful for his gifts of hope, love, and peace more than his gift of joy? Perhaps it’s because we think that hope, love, and peace are more lasting than joy, more sustaining than joy, more transformative than joy. We tell ourselves we need hope, love, and peace for long, fruitful lives and joy, well, joy simply adds spice to our lives. We don’t really need joy to get through life, it’s just something that’s nice to experience every so often…or so we tell ourselves. No, we can get through life, doing what is expected of us, living responsible lives of service, without ever experiencing some type of joy. Indeed, many people in our world somehow manage to lead such joyless lives. But are these the lives that God wants us to lead? Is joy essential for leading a full, God-pleasing life?
Now I can’t really know what pleases God. I don’t know the mind of God! But I can know that there is a goodness that comes out of joy. I can know that joy can help us experience the goodness of our God. It is through joy that we can come to know God’s hope, love, and peace. It is through joy that we can come to know God’s everlasting grace and mercy. It is through joy that we can come to know the awesome glory of our God. Can we live without knowing God’s hope, love, and peace? Can we live without knowing God’s grace and mercy? Can we live without knowing the glory of our God? Why sure we can! But would we want to?!?! Knowing God and all His goodness so deeply enriches life in this world. Experiencing some type of joy, in whatever form it comes, gives life such a deeper meaning and purpose. Joy IS a spice of life but it is a profoundly transformative and uniquely enhancing spice of life!
As I’ve mentioned in other sermons, I’ve held a long-standing fascination with the culture of mountain climbing. There’s something about it that resonates with my inner being. And, strangely enough, I’ve never really gone mountain climbing! The closest I’ve ever gotten was mountain hiking; nothing with ropes and sheer rock faces though. But I’ve read several books and seen several movies and have loved hearing the struggles and victories of climbers throughout the years. George Mallory is one of the heroes of climbing having first ascended the largest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest, back in the early 1920s. Forgive me if I’ve told you this before but I absolutely love his response to a reporter’s question as to why he risked his life climbing Everest. He said, “The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.” What Mallory so eloquently conveyed in his response is not only the absurdity of climbing a mountain but also the absurdity of joy itself. Joy can, at times, seem much more unnecessary, much more fleeting, much less rewarding than hope, love, and peace. One can seem to get by in life much easier without joy than without hope, love, or peace. Yet, as Mallory points out, joy is an end unto itself. Joy is an absurdity! Joy is unnecessary yet oh, so necessary! Joy is fleeting yet, oh so impactful! Joy is its own reward! Joy is a complete and utter absurdity!
And in many ways a relationship with Jesus is a complete and utter absurdity. To know our Lord, to be in relationship with our Lord, won’t necessarily bring you fame or fortune. There are far quicker and easier ways to fame and fortune! It won’t necessarily grant you special privileges in this world. You don’t get a special VIP backstage pass to all the major events! It won’t necessarily give you all knowledge about God. In fact, you’ll probably become more confused about God in a relationship with Jesus. It won’t necessarily give you an easier, more carefree life. Being in relationship with Jesus often makes your life more difficult, more complicated. Yet there is a joy unlike any other joy in a relationship with Jesus. There is a contentment, a satisfaction, and a righteousness in a relationship with Jesus…as if in spite of all its hardship and difficulty. Indeed, such a relationship is an absolute absurdity!
Last week, we heard John the Baptist preparing the people around him for the coming of the Messiah by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is coming near.” As it turned out, the people didn’t like being told to repent for their sins, especially the king. John was thrown into jail for his proclamation and that is where we find him in our gospel reading assigned for this morning. While he was sitting there, he was beginning to hear news of Jesus’ teaching and healing and ventured the possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah for whom he was preparing the people. He sends his messengers to find out if Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus responds, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Of course Jesus can’t just come out and say “yes” or “no” to John’s question! He lets his ministry speak for itself, and rightly so. The deeds themselves are more definitive than words ever could be. Jesus allowed John, and us, to come to our conclusion about who Jesus is. Jesus IS the Messiah, not because it is a title he and others give him but because his actions convict him as such. The actions speak louder than words!
This brief interaction helps illustrate the sheer joy, the absurd joy, of being in relationship with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t give us straight answers. Jesus doesn’t enable us to feel better about ourselves. Jesus doesn’t free us from ourselves. Yet he does give straight answers…he does enable us to feel better about ourselves…he does free us from ourselves! Joy, pure joy, is found in contradictory forces. Joy is found when and where you least expect to find it. Joy is found in the tension.
Joy is found in a season that for many of us is filled with stress and anxiety. We worry about gifts and family and traveling and feasts and jobs and finances and any number of things. But amidst all this year-end flurry of activity comes our Lord and Savior. Jesus comes to us as a baby in a lowly manger. Jesus comes to us as new hope, new love, new peace. Jesus comes to us in the tension of our lives. Despite what we might think about this season, there is great joy to be experienced. Jesus is a source of great and everlasting joy! Jesus helps us to better know and experience God here and now, in this world, at this time. We’ve given thanks for this season being a time of hope and a time of preparation. Let us give thanks for this being a time in which Jesus not only brings joy but also enables us to share that joy with others. This is a season of joy, of sheer, absolutely absurd joy, so let us be glad it is a…time of rejoicing.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.