(Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)
John 1:6-8, 19-28
(watch here: http://youtu.be/HBZkcZlM8MU)
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Ever since an early age, I’ve had a deep fascination with the sport of mountain climbing. There’s just something about it that appeals to me. I learned the various techniques and instruments used by climbers. I learned the names of all the great climbers and their famous ascents on the great mountains of the world. At one point, I even managed to get my hands on some basic climbing equipment: carabiners, a figure-8 rappelling device, and a climbing harness. Carabiners are little quick release devices that attach the harness to the rope while the figure-8 device is used for descending down a rope. The instruments only get more complex from here, as do the techniques. One would think the act of climbing a mountain would be relatively simple but you’d be surprised at all the variety of equipment and strategies! Of course, a boy/man of such stature as myself was not destined to become the next best climber. No, I’m afraid to say I’ve never even scaled up a wall or rappelled down one in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a lifelong fascination with climbers and their sport!
Over the years, I’ve read several biographies of famous climbers and their equally famous climbs. George Mallory is considered by climbers and non-climbers alike to be the greatest climber of them all. He was the first to make it to the summit of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, back in the 1920s. In his autobiography, Climbing Everest: The Complete Writing of George Mallory, he writes:
“People ask me, ‘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 did Mallory get out of climbing? “Sheer joy.” He didn’t climb for the advancement of science or for obtaining great wealth and fame. He climbed for the sheer joy of climbing. He loved the mere challenge of reaching the top of Mt. Everest. Perhaps more succinctly, as he was also famously quoted to have said, Mallory climbed Everest simply “because it’s there.”
Mallory’s profound wisdom on joy came to mind as I reflected on this week’s readings. This is the third week of our Advent journey as we await the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We have been keenly listening to how Jesus is alive and active in our daily lives. We have been diligent in recognizing that the coming of Jesus is both a beginning and an ending. We have been steadily maintaining a calmness and peace amidst the fervor of shopping and traveling this season. This week we are being reminded that this is a joyous season. We are to boldly rejoice at the coming of our Lord! Jesus comes into our broken world for the sake of redeeming it! Jesus comes and frees us from the power of sin and death in our lives! What a season of “sheer joy!”
In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet was “sent to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” It is no small task bringing good news to the oppressed, binding the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty and releasing prisoners! How often do we turn from the oppressed, brokenhearted captives among us? How often do we reach out to those among us who struggle with addiction, who struggle with broken relationships, who struggle to survive in a world that can be cruel and harsh? No, the prophet spoke difficult words to a difficult people. Yet he did so with a glad heart, empowered and emboldened by the Spirit of the Lord. God had anointed the prophet, giving him the ability to do the difficult task of proclaiming to people unwilling to listen. He cries, “I will greatly REJOICE in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.” Isaiah REJOICES! Isaiah found joy, sheer joy, in his situation because he was protected by God. There was nothing the people of Judah could say or do to take away Isaiah’s joy in being anointed and protected by God. God’s armor is unlike any other armor. God’s righteousness is unlike any other righteousness. There is sheer joy in doing what God wants us to be doing.
In reflecting on God’s great power in restoring the fortunes of his people, David also found himself rejoicing. He sang, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of JOY; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we REJOICED.” As we begin a new church year and come to the end of our calendar year, it is a good time to reflect on how God was with us in the last year. God was with us in good work, good health, good relationships, good studies, good experiences, and good earnings. God was also with us in bad work, bad health, bad relationships, bad studies, bad experiences, and bad earnings. God never leaves us. This cause for great rejoicing! Oh, the joy of knowing God and feeling God’s presence in our lives! Our mouths are filled with laughter and we lift up shouts of joy having God in our lives! I am reminded of the story of the old woman and the earthquake. During an earthquake some years ago, the inhabitants of a small village were understandably very much alarmed. At the same time, they were surprised at the calmness and apparent joy of an old woman whom they all knew. At length, one of them addressing the old woman said, “Mother, are you not afraid?” “No,” said the woman, “I rejoice to know that I have a God who can shake the world.” We REJOICE when we recognize how God was with us in the good and bad times of the last year, shaking up our worlds.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is also a bold invite into rejoicing. He pleads, “REJOICE always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Because God is always with us, we always have reason for rejoicing. Because God is always with us, we always must pray. Because God is always with us, we must always give thanks in all circumstances. Notice the trend that Paul so astutely pointed out? God is ALWAYS with us! In celebrating the birth of Jesus at the end of our Advent journey, we are celebrating God coming near to us in the form of a man. God never leaves us. We struggle to fully grasp God’s presence in our lives from time to time. Our sin can get in the way of realizing God. But this doesn’t mean God has left us. If anything, it means we have left God in a way. We turn our backs on God, believing that we know what’s better for ourselves. God is patient though. God waits for us to see the error in our ways. And like a good parent, God welcomes us back into His loving arms once we repent and seek reconciliation. The fact that we have a God who loves us so much is cause for great and constant rejoicing. There is great joy in God!
Why? Why is there such joy in God? Our gospel reading for today answers these questions. John writes, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” As we read further in the gospel, we come to realize that Jesus is the light of which John is testifying. Jesus is the light of the world! Jesus comes into our broken world of darkness. There are times of light in the world. Each day is allotted a portion of it for lightness. Some days have more light than others. In our rite of baptism, we confess that each of us carries light within. What we do with the light is left to our own choosing. Do we let our light shine on others or do we hide it under a bushel, as the song goes? Nonetheless, Jesus is the true light of the world. Jesus is the true JOY of the world! With the light comes true and lasting joy. Anyone who claims Jesus as their Lord and Savior can attest to the joy his light brings into their world. As R. A. Torrey notes, “There is more joy in Jesus in 24 hours than there is in the world in 365 days. I have tried them both.” There is great joy in God because God comes as light to the world. God doesn’t come as darkness. God comes to us as light, as righteousness and salvation.
Contrary to what George Mallory believed and what I’ve wanted to believe all these years, sheer joy isn’t found in climbing a mountain. Sheer joy is found in building and sustaining a true relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Sheer and lasting joy is found when we enter into a relationship that expects accountability and responsibility. God wants us to hold Him accountable. God wants us to expect things of Him. God wants to give to us. He can’t do any of these things unless we enter into a committed relationship with Him. Of course, true relationships are two-way in nature. Don’t be surprised if God holds us accountable, expects things of us, and wants us to give to Him as well. That’s just the nature of relationships! But be assured of the sheer and lasting joy that comes from such a relationship. Dwight Moody, the great American evangelist from the 1800s, once said, “Happiness is caused by things that happen around me, and circumstances will mar it; but joy flows right on through trouble; joy flows on through the dark; joy flows in the night as well as in the day; joy flows all through persecution and opposition. It is an unceasing fountain bubbling up in the heart; a secret spring the world can’t see and doesn’t know anything about. The Lord gives His people perpetual joy when they walk in obedience to Him.” Walking in obedience involves being held accountable, meeting expectations, and giving of ourselves. The joy of God is reward enough for such obedience.
As we await the coming of our Lord, let us not forget to be alert, recognizing both the endings and beginnings of our lives. Let us not forget that God wants us to wait in peace. Being alert doesn’t necessarily mean being anxious. One can be alert and still maintain peace and assurance. This isn’t a time for worrying and fretting. This is a time of great joy! God is coming near to us through the Son! So finally, let us not forget that this is…a time for rejoicing.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.