Rejoice

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on December 12, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, as we examine your Word, Lord, in our lives, as we examine scripture here today, as we examine our interaction with others and our understanding of you, I pray that you would be with us and guide us — that you would open our hearts and our minds to whatever it is that you are doing in our lives, to the transformative power of the Spirit in us and around us. I pray, Lord, that you would help us to draw near to you in ways that are freeing, in ways that are helpful, and in ways that lead us into peace.

I pray, Lord, that you would guide us not only through the difficulty of life but the joys of life — that you would teach us to find that place where we can dwell with the reality around us and still find joy in the things that are happening, in the things that might happen. Help us to live into the possibilities of love in the world, Lord, so that we can be part of that process — so that we can be part of creating out of love in every moment.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

Today is the third Sunday of Advent. Last week, we talked about peace, and this week, we’re going to talk about rejoicing, and as I was preparing for this, I realized that I wish I had more experience with the tradition of Advent, because there’s a lot of wonderful things that I think are happening in many congregations and communities right now that I would love to do.

This particular Sunday, often called Gaudete Sunday — I apologize if I’m butchering that; it’s Latin, and it means to rejoice — and it’s very similar to the third Sunday in Lent. It’s a time in the middle of this preparation and celebration and remembrance of the coming of Jesus that we rejoice in who Jesus is, and it often is accompanied by this opening reading:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God. Lord, you have blessed your land. You have turned away the captivity of Jacob.

It’s a combination of Philippians 4 and Psalm 85. It’s a reminder to rejoice in the Lord and rejoice in what the Lord might be doing in our lives. It’s a reminder that part of the story of Israel is the freedom from captivity that they experienced — the freedom that they find in the Lord combined with the freedom that Christians were finding in Christ. And the challenge in this sort of remembrance is that sometimes we don’t feel joyful.

The challenge for me, on this week of Advent, is that I don’t feel particularly joyful. Sometimes, it feels more like Psalm 137, especially in light of everything that’s been happening with the pandemic — in light of all the sudden changes in our own lives and the lives of the people we care about. We come to this third week of Advent, we’re supposed to rejoice in Christ and the coming of Christ, and yet, sometimes, like Psalm 137, we feel trapped.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

Psalm 137:1-6, NIV

I don’t want to tell you to rejoice, today, because I don’t think that people should tell us how to be and how to worship and how to feel when we come to God. It’s not my place to tell you that you should be joyful. When I was growing up, in youth groups and Bible studies, we used to sing this song, a song called Blue Skies and Rainbows, and if you’ve been in those circles, you probably know it.

Blue skies and rainbows and sunbeams from heaven
Are all I can see when the Lord is living in me.

And when I was in undergrad, a friend of mine said, “No, I can’t sing that song.”

I said, “Why not?”

He said, “Because it’s not true. It’s a lie.” He said, “I don’t know about anybody else, but I don’t see blue skies and rainbows and sunbeams from Heaven all the time. To say that it’s all that I can see because Christ is in me is simply not true,” and I realized that he was right.

The world is not all blue skies and rainbows, and I don’t mean the world as specified in contrast to Christians. I’m not talking about “the world.” I mean life, Christian life included. Today is a beautiful day outside, here in Vegas. It’s crisp, and it’s sunny. It’s not too windy. It’s not too hot, but that doesn’t mean that when I go outside I’m just overcome with joy. It doesn’t mean that when I wake up in the morning, I don’t feel like the psalmist of Psalm 137, and if you’re in those communities where they tell you that you have to “sing us a song of Zion,” where they tell you that you have to “sing us a song of rejoicing,” you might feel like the Israelites, here, at the rivers of Babylon, sitting down to weep, remembering what was, and knowing that what’s being asked of you, you can’t do.

So what do we do when we come from this place — when we’re part of this society that is suffering all around us — and even more so this year and last year because of the pandemic and the political turmoil? Some of us might be suffering economically. What do you do when the people you care about are on the verge of losing their apartments or filing for bankruptcy or they’re separated from their families over the border? What do you do when that’s the reality of your community — when you wake up every morning, and you know that people are not going to come visit you at your home, at your apartment, at the place where you live — when you know that your family lives too far away to come see you, or worse: that you don’t have any family? In those moments, what do you do when you come to the third week of Advent, and it is all about rejoicing in the Lord?

In Philippians 4, where part of that opening reading was taken — Philippians 4, in verse 7. The reading ends at verse 6 with presenting your requests to God with thanksgiving, and in verse 7, he says,

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:7, NIV

And we talked, last week, about that peace. That peace of God, that year of the Lord’s favor — that comes now for people like us. That is to say, not for the privileged but for the people who are feeling marginalized for the people who are wondering how they can push forward in joy in a world that is filled with suffering.

Paul says there’s a peace that comes from God that surpasses all understanding, because it’s not a peace that comes from a place of privilege. It’s not the kind of peace that comes from a place where you have everything that you need, and I submit to you that that peace is what we look for in order to find the joy in the Lord. We look for a place that is somewhere between the rose-colored “sunshine and rainbows and sunbeams from Heaven” and the reality of suffering that we find in the world around us.

[The former] that says that we rejoice all the time because of Christ often comes at the expense of denying the reality of life. It denies the suffering of life. It denies the struggle of life. It denies the hardship that people live in, but often when we come from this rose-colored view and when we begin to accept the reality of life, we swing all the way over [to the latter]. We swing to a place where all we can see for a time is the suffering, and all we can see is the hurt and the pain, and the more we begin to empathize and share life with those who are on the margins, the more we begin to feel that pain and the harder it is to find joy.

And the goal is not simply to abandon joy in favor of reality. The goal is to find a way to live in this reality and still find joy in life, and what scripture suggests to us is that that joy is found in Christ, not because it denies the reality of suffering but because it presents an alternative [of] what life could be.

I talked recently about the way that prayer, at its core, is a reminder of who we are and who [we] want to be — a reminder of our relationship with God — and I would go a step further and add to that: that it’s also a reminder of the kind of world we want to live into. When we pray to God in a way that rejoices and gives thanksgiving, when we present our requests to God in this gratitude of life, it reminds us liturgically that we want life to be different than it is. It reminds us that we don’t want to live into the life of suffering. We don’t want to be content with a world where people suffer and are pushed to the margins. We want to participate in the kingdom of peace and love and hope and grace right now, and so we bring those petitions to God, but we also remember that that is what God desires, too. And by doing that, we can rejoice in the possibility of the future.

We can rejoice in something that’s different than the reality that exists, but more than that, we can be part of changing the reality that exists. The very reality of our societies is not set in stone. The realities of this life and the suffering and the hardship are here now, but they’re not permanent. They’re not predetermined for our future. We can be different than that. We can live into something different than that.

The beauty and the joy of Christ is that he comes and tells us that we can be different than that, and it’s a shame that after 2000 years, we still don’t see it. It’s a shame that after 2000 years, Christians are still struggling to realize that they can be free — that they don’t have to live into the suffering, and they don’t have to deny the suffering. They can live into it as a reality and they can push for something different.

Love does not sit back and say to us that it just is what it is and we just have to accept it. Love persists and fights boldly for change. Love persists and fights for a story that ends differently than the one the world has handed to us. That’s the beauty of the inbreaking of the Kingdom with Christ. That’s the beauty of the love of God that manifests itself, incarnates itself, in a sacrificial sort of love through Jesus.

It reminds us, as disciples and followers of Christ, that God is not satisfied with the suffering of the world. God is not satisfied with the marginalization of people. God is not satisfied with the destructive nature that people live into day after day.

God will only be satisfied with the re-incarnation of life — that transformation in the new creation. God will only be satisfied with the incarnation of love in all of creation.

This week is not just a time when you’re supposed to pretend to be joyful and rejoice if you don’t feel it. This week is a time of reminder that our joy in Christ is not rooted in a denial of reality. Our joy in Christ is rooted in the hope of possibility for the future.

I don’t feel joyful, but I am committed to learning how to find joy in the hope that this world isn’t predetermined, that our futures are not unchangeable, and that I can be part of that change. I am determined to find joy in the transformation that frees from my own fears, that teaches me to love myself, and that is present with me and empowers me to create out of love in every moment.

When we become part of that work, that’s the joy and the hope that draws us near to God. Even people who are suffering need some joy in this life, and part of ending the suffering in people’s lives is drawing them into something that gives them reason to live.

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God. Lord, you have blessed your land. You have turned away the captivity of Jacob.

Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s