May the Words of my mouth
And the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in your sight, O Lord
Our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today on the third Sunday of Advent the readings encourage us to contemplate the theme of joy.
In Isaiah 61:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God”
In Psalm 126:
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy”
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing”
This theme of joy is etched into our Christian existence; it is a response to God’s grace and goodness, it is part of the Christian DNA. So strong is this theme of joy that the word for joy is found over 300 times in the New Testament.
Christians are meant to be people filled with joy.
But what does joy sound like, what does joy look like, what does it feel like?
Is joy found in the pursuit of happiness?
Is joy found in the ownership of goods?
Is joy found in status and wealth?
Or even in a bar of chocolate?
If one were to examine the Western culture in which we live one might think that the answer to these things is yes. In fact much of our advertising encourages us to think that if we consume a particular product we will be happier.
A recent campaign by Cadbury chocolate called ‘share the joy’ included the slogan “A glass and half full of joy”, whilst more recently the current Coca-Cola advertising carries the catch phrase “Open Happiness”.
Ultimately, a great deal of our advertising does the same – it suggests that by owning or consuming a particular product we will be more fulfilled and that we will be imbued with joy or happiness or contentment.
Of course most of us see through the advertising and know that products do not necessarily produce the joy in life that we seek. In fact it seems that our very opulent lifestyle is failing to fulfil us let alone bring us joy.
Despite the indications of how high a standard of living we as Australians enjoy, how wealthy we are on a world scale, we continue to speak of ourselves as Aussie battlers and wear that badge with a sense of pride. And there are clear indicators as Australians that we are not a very happy people.
Statistics indicate that at any given time one in six Australian men is suffering from depression and that women are twice as likely as men to suffer depression after puberty.
Now whilst mental illness is a complex issue this is a disturbing statistic in such a wealthy culture. This statistic is made more concerning but the figures of suicide rates in Australia. More than one in five deaths which occur in 15-24 year old men occurs through suicide.
Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the world Dominican order, noted in his devotional book “Seven last Words” that in his travels around the world it was in the wealthiest countries that he found that people seemed to be the most worried. It appears that we are afflicted by our anxiety despite our wealth or maybe even because of it!
We have not found joy! This seems somewhat paradoxical given our Western culture has its roots in Christendom. If joy is meant to be etched into our Christian existence where have we gone wrong? Where is the joy?
As I examined the passages set down for today apart from the theme of joy another theme came through, a theme which anchors that joy of which I am speaking and for which I think we long.
Listen for the theme in Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me
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,
He goes on,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Do you hear it? Do you get it? Isaiah’s confidence, his task, his joy was there because he believed and trusted that God had acted, was acting and that God would act again in human history.
So too in the Psalm
“the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion”
The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
And again in Paul’s letter the strength of hope expressed in a trust in God’s faithfulness:
“The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”
People of faith through history have found their joy in knowing and believing in a God who acts.
The God who we are told sent John into the world to prepare the way for Jesus coming into the world.
I wonder whether as a culture we have become so reliant on our own abilities, so disconnected from the struggle to survive, so individualistic in our pursuit of happiness that we have lost focus on the heart of our faith – the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness of God expressed to the whole creation in his willingness to share our human existence in Jesus and to point a way forward into the hope, peace and joy of life with God.
To recover our joy as Christians means that maybe we should stop pursuing happiness as it is being sold to us and rather pursue God: to pursue God, knowing that the joy that we find in relationship with him has led Christians through the millennia to face hardship and peril with a sense of joy and peace. The joy of the Christian life is a joy which can and does transcend personal hardships.
When the Psalmist fills mouths with laughter it is done so in the face of adversity.
So the first step may be to stop trying to pursue joy and happiness and rather focus again on God.
But more than this, the reading from Isaiah should also bring to mind that Jesus chose these words from Isaiah to preach the good news to his home town of Galilee.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Jesus declared that the year of the Lord’s favour had come in him and truly if we understand this it should be a source of joy for us.
The year of the Lord’s favour, the year of Jubilee, was meant to occur every 50 years. When the year of Jubilee came it “was a time of social renewal when all debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and every dispossessed family returned to their ancestral lands that may have been sold or lost over the decades. (Leviticus 25) People may lose their land, their freedom, their stake in civil society for many reasons—whether by natural calamity, parental mismanagement, oppressive government, or moral failure—it does not matter. A new generation gets a stake in life. All is graciously restored in the year of Jubilee.” (http://shalomconnections.org/SC/SC07Sp2H.pdf)
If we place our confidence, our faith, our trust in God and if we listen for Jesus words our joy comes from a shared hope in renewed community, in renewed relationship with God and with each other. It is about shared joy not simply individual happiness. Our joy runs deep as we live with hope that all will share in the joy of life lived in God’s creation.
I think sometimes the difficulty for we who have so much is to find joy in God and not our possessions and luxury. To be grateful for what we have and not constantly seek after more, but this is such a counter cultural idea. Yet not only this but to take seriously the concept of the year of the Lord’s favour in which we hear a vision to bring good news to the oppressed and to forgive debts and to bind up the broken hearted and to comfort those who mourn. It is meant to be an eternal year of Jubilee.
Personally I find that the struggle that I have with joy at times is that it is difficult to be joyful about how good my life is when so many are suffering in the world. Yet part of this conundrum is that not to be thankful for the things that I have and the opportunities would somehow seem ungrateful.
I believe Jesus presence in the world releases me and all of us from this conundrum and invites us to live celebrating joyfully the salvation we have found in him whilst at the same time caring so that others may know and experience salvation: life and life in all its fullness. To put it another way to be joyful in our thanksgiving but also to care until all people can share in the joy.
To rejoice in the Lord always means being set from our anxieties about the future and trusting in the God who acts and so to share his concerns for others. I don’t think we can respond to a command to be joyful rather having encountered God and heard that we can place our trust in him we can be liberated from our anxieties and so rejoice.
For me this is about getting things in the right order. Seek after God and we will find joy.
The Christian story has a theme of rejoicing a tone of celebration. This joy comes from the hope we have in Christ and the peace that we have been given in our relationship with God. It is a joy that causes us to take stock of our lives in this community of creation and as we do so to share in Christ’s ministry as his disciples in the world.
The facade of joy that surrounds us is a sales pitch that has no depth. As we edge closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus let us be surprised by the joy of our relationship with God and share that joy with others, especially those in the world who need it most as we say with Isaiah:
“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”