Advent Three gets its own name – Gaudate Sunday, Latin for “rejoice” or “joy.” Pink or rose as we see in the Advent Wreath and the flowers in the nave today says that Advent’s darkness won’t last. After this past Friday I found “joy” was so stuck in my throat, how can we speak of joy? How can the darkness and pain of this tragedy go away?
Is joy foremost in our minds today? What did parents of those children feel as they went to the firehouse Friday? Some found their worst nightmare realized – no child to take home. Where can they find joy? What do parents whose children survive feel? Include grandparents and siblings, families of teachers who died, the shooter’s family – Christmas is forever changed. What do we tell the children who trust us to keep them safe?
We have seen tears in the eyes of police, reporters, witnesses, school children and teachers, even the President, and we weep not with joy this day. Your pressing questions may be: “Why does God permit such evil? Is there a word from the Lord this day?” I believe so. God still comes to be with us, in times of evil and pain especially – times when we cannot sing with joy. How ironic this is the Sunday of joy and rejoicing in Advent.
Israel lived for 40 years in exile, dragged from their homes, and held captive in Babylon. What would those parents tell their children? Some wonder if God finally has gotten so fed up He’s unchosen them; or maybe the Lord is dead.
In the midst of such darkness and despair, Isaiah speaks a startling word of reversal from the Lord: “Your exile will end. My anger is over. Fear not.” Israel responds with a Hymn of Thanksgiving, so effusive and majestic we made it Canticle 9 in the Prayer Book.
It’s easy to be joyful when darkness, pain and despair end. But when they don’t, we’re stuck and suffer. In such a state it’s hard to see beyond ourselves. Some people tell me they have no joy anymore – and no desire for joy. They grow so embittered they shut down. First joy is a choice. We are not powerless. Joy comes when we desire joy. It grows with desire. It’s a gift from God that requires open hearts and lives. Joy comes in appreciation and thanksgiving for the little things. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Thank God for all good smells and good sights and good sounds.”
Maybe Steve Jobs was right. Sometimes we need to look backwards and see where the dots connect to trust you can move into the uncertainty of the future with a reservoir of confidence from the past. You are here this day. You have survived times of pain, losses, and deaths of loved ones. Has God been mysteriously present for you? Do dots connect?
The Jews in exile sang psalms of lament. In their lament was a stubborn longing for God. Even in absence, God was palpably present in deep longing and painful lament. They remembered God chose them, the least of all; rescued them from Pharaoh; lead them through a 40 year wilderness to a new home. God risked a covenant with people who wouldn’t always act like His people; sends laws, and prophets, and people of wisdom to woo them back when they stray; gives them kings like David and a promise of an everlasting kingdom. Joy takes time, memory, belief and trust. It’s not a fast food, but a by-product of living alert, watching for all that gives us gratitude and blessing. We learn to savor each moment – looking for where God has been and for recovering joy even when both appear AWOL in the moment.
We need two things: first to know and savor God’s story – the past, so we can understand the present. The Jews knew their story – God’s mighty acts to call, save and redeem them. It’s in Holy Scripture. The Bible’s overarching story is that God loves us so much as to come and dwell with us, and never lose us. God comes into death and darkness, especially in Jesus – because he brings life and light to a world of evil and suffering. To lose that story is to lose everlasting joy and hope. In worship we gather to remember and celebrate God’s love story in beautiful liturgy and music. We are forgiven, restored, at peace with God and others. No one is a stranger to God or us. We break bread and drink wine remembering God’s acts. Our Thanksgiving Hymn is Eucharist, and as we celebrate God’s grace, we again are lifted into God’s story.
Secondly, we receive God’s joy and love as we practice habits of faithfulness to God – even when we are weary or feel no joy. It’s called endurance, commitment – staying alert, waiting, keeping on, and not giving up on God. Otherwise God is a word we speak, a rumor we hear, but not a reality or relationship for us. Where do you find God giving you strength, sustaining you, holding you in your darkest hour? Where do you turn when joy can no longer be sung? “Do you want joy?” is a question that startles one who loses all joy.
We can sing Isaiah’s song of joy this day in Advent. We must. “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. Ring out your joy, for the great one in our midst is the Holy One of Israel.” We sing for those who cannot right now. We sing as an act of defiance against this world’s sin and evil. We hold faith for those who can’t – faith that God leaves none of us alone, in exile, or despair. So, how can we keep from singing? We comfort and stand with those in darkness, suffering and loss as signs of hope. We wait in Advent for a coming day of the Lord’s return when all will rejoice and sing for joy. We are called to be witnesses that when evil destroys, God mends, softens and heals. And with Paul, crazy Paul who makes no exceptions as he writes the Philippians: “Rejoice always!” We can – because God is present even in the darkest hour. Thanks be to God.