Placing the focus in Advent on joy in the middle of December is an interesting move by lectionary planners. In the beginning of Advent we remind Christians that we are to wait, anticipate, expect, this Advent of hope and peace into our lives. To get there we have to discipline ourselves that something is in fact going to come, Christ is going to come, and we should be alert, ready, to see and hear this. And then we are reminded to have joy, deep joy, in our hearts.
I think we tend to get very intense and serious in December as we wait for the coming of Christ. Is the presence of Jesus here, or over there, or is it to be found over in this place? We look, we hope, we anticipate. But in the midst of this searching we get a little down, a little morose, why haven’t we found what we are looking for? It reminds me of the at famous U2 song, “Still haven’t found what I am looking for”. There is deep lament in that expression.
The lectionary planners don’t want us to get too down, too worried, too cynical or too defeatist. Instead they want us to remind ourselves of the kind of joy we are expecting to find, to feel, to know. For the early church even as they celebrated Christ’s birth it was his death and resurrection that kept them going. Easter was THE event and at every gathering the story would be told and retold. No matter the circumstance, no matter the pain, no matter the challenges, “God will make a way out of no way”. Or as the evangelist preacher and writer Tony Campolo famously proclaimed, “It’s Friday…Sunday’s coming!”
In our lectionary text this morning Paul tells the Philippians that in the middle of their conflicts they are to rejoice in Jesus, and again to rejoice. Now, context is everything. In Paul’s world and culture this rejoicing would have meant (what we would call) public celebration. The world all around, Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth and elsewhere used to organize great festivals, games, and shows to celebrate their gods and their cities, not least the new ‘god,’ Caesar himself. Why shouldn’t the followers of Jesus celebrate exuberantly? Scholar, author and Bishop N.T. Wright says that the “celebration of Jesus as Lord encourages and strengthens loyalty and obedience to Jesus.” In other words we Christians need to practice our celebration so we can remind ourselves of the joy, the deep joy, no matter the circumstance, of knowing Jesus and knowing he is Lord of all.
It is 2000 years later. How do we understand that Easter event as a cause of celebration for our lives, for the lives of all creation? I’ve been thinking on this question all week. Here is my answer.
Lucy and I have watched every episode of the Netflix series Daredevil. Marvel's Daredevil is an American web television series. Daredevil, a blind lawyer-by-day who fights crime as a masked vigilante by night has been a favorite of ours for its three seasons on Netflix. And one of the things I love about this series is its serious treatment of theological issues. Throughout the three seasons there have been very meaty conversations between Daredevil and his Priest, between Daredevil and his mother, who later became a Nun, between Daredevil’s friends and Catholic leaders. One episode in particular caught my attention. Karen, a friend of Daredevil, is in a deep crisis and the Priest arrives with some supper. In their conversation Karen tells the Priest she can see no way out of her predicament. Father Lanthom responds, “Everything will be okay in the end. And if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” That line has stuck with me since we watched that pivotal episode.
Here is my “takeaway” from this quote. I believe what gives the Priest courage, hope and peace is the assurance that “if it’s not okay, it’s not the end”. I believe what gave the early disciples courage, hope and peace is the assurance that “if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” In other words there is an end, there is a place of deep peace, a peace that puts everything else in perspective. If you have experienced that end, that peace, that joy, you will know it is not only possible to repeat, it is inevitable to expect.
Philippians is the most joyful book in the Bible — the apostle Paul uses the Greek words for joy and rejoicing sixteen times in only 104 verses. And yet he writes from a dingy Roman prison, a place we would typically associate with misery and trial, which most people assume are the opposites of joy. He’s surrounded by every conceivable obstacle to joy, so why does he seem so happy? Rejoicing in the Lord means knowing Jesus as Saviour will eventually make it okay and only then will it be the end. As Paul says in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Rejoicing in the Lord means that there is a new song in our hearts — the song of the redeemed — that the din and distresses of life cannot drown out. It will be okay and then, and only then, it will be the end.
Paul’s joy is not anchored in circumstances but in his Saviour, who will never disappoint him and who will surely deliver him. Therefore, Christian joy is the great pleasure and happiness that we feel — whether or not we are healthy or hurting — because our redeemer lives, because we belong with he loves us, and because he is making all things new.
I try to include in every morning walk about 20 minutes for centering prayer. I empty my mind of the things that are spinning in my head the moment I wake up. Then, I focus on Jesus and his timeless truth and presence. I wait to feel both perspective (it’s not all about me) and the assurance that one day all of this will be okay. I know I have my part to play, this is not a prayer of complacency. But neither is it a prayer that leaves it all up to me, or us. I have confidence that Jesus the Saviour is Lord and will at the end make it okay. I yield to being saturated by that Spirit. In these times of “waiting upon the Lord,” my spiritual strength is renewed.
Secondly, at the end of each day as I walk with my dog Nova I reflect on all the good things that God did, that others did in my presence, and thank God for allowing me to see love and peace come to life. Following Philippians 4:8, I remember whatever I did that was true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. I also recall everything I said that was hurtful to others and fell short of God’s will. I ask for God’s cleansing. This daily process helps me experience the joy I know God wants for all God’s people.
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.” They asked him, “Where do you want us to make preparations for it?” “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
In the Decembers of my childhood and youth my mother would go around our neighbourhood visiting people of all ages and circumstances and welcoming them to our home on Christmas Eve. She would make a special point to welcome the widows, the men who lived alone, the special needs children, the families living in poverty, the eccentrics, so that no one would be alone that night. There in our living room, kitchen, and dining room the house would start to fill up at supper time culminating with the appearance of my grandmother dressed as Santa (we called her “Nanny Claus”) with pillow cases full of presents my mother had purchased at Woolco. Every person would eventually make their way to see Nanny Claus, sit on her knee and receive a hug and present.
I often look back at those Christmas Eve nights, less from nostalgia and more from the perspective that I saw what it looks like when “everything is okay”. Those nights were full of a kind of joy we don’t always appreciate or treasure when they are revealed to us. I believe God revealed to me in those moments something I needed to see, hear, and touch. I needed to know that there is a space for everyone and that everyone has a sacred space in God’s heart. We all “make preparations for the kingdom to be fulfilled”. And when joy comes, whether it is in the morning, at noon or in the evening, it comes to remind us that everything will be okay…for everybody. Thanks be to God for this everlasting joy. Amen.