Scripture Readings: Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11 | Psalm 126 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 | John 1:6–8, 19–28
Today, here at St. Luke’s Church, we have many good reasons to rejoice. We can rejoice because after our region moved back into the Yellow Phase of recovery this week, we are holding in-person services of Holy Communion again; worshiping God together, and receiving His gifts of love. We can rejoice because today is the third Sunday of Advent, a day when Christians reflect on the biblical theme of joy. And if we took a moment, I’m sure, that we could come up with a pretty long list of other reasons it would be easy for us to rejoice today.
And yet… we also know of many reasons it’s hard to rejoice right now. I don’t think it takes much imagination to know what I am talking about. In countless ways, our neighbours, our country, our world is suffering today. Maybe we too are suffering. Maybe it’s those dear to us. And what makes it all the harder, sometimes, is not knowing when this suffering will end. Today, there are many reasons it is hard to rejoice.
But this is precisely when the message of joy is meant to be received: in very the face of darkness and suffering… when joy is needed most. Perhaps the words “rejoice always” mean much more than we think? Perhaps they offer us more than we could ask or imagine?
Of course, there is a kind of joy that is not all that unusual. The kind of happiness or joy common throughout the world. We find it in all sorts of ways, as we share in the good things in life: like time well spent with family and friends… hearing a beloved song that stirs up our hearts… in the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. These are all examples what I’ll call glimpses of joy: tastes of the goodness of life that the Living God has created to be enjoyed… gifts meant to be received with simple gratitude, and shared generously with the people all around us. These moments of joy are precious… but they’re not the complete picture. They offer us a welcome taste, but they’re not the entire meal.
And again, along with these glimpses of joy, also come the big challenges of life. Much of our experiences are not what we’d call enjoyable, after all: the times of deep loneliness… or when we’re confronted with harsh and ugly side of our world… or ourselves… with the feelings of futility when our efforts seem to fall short, or when they’re cut short.
We know these times, when the normal joys of life are overshadowed, are not the whole picture either… we know there is much that is still good all around us. But we need more than a reminder to just look on the bright side… though it can bring comfort to reflect on and remember the things that stir up our joy: the loving memories, the blessings of each day, and the hope of a brighter future; God’s salvation drawing ever nearer. It is good to keep all this in mind, but there is more being asked of us than to simply reflect and remember… we are also asked to receive. Today we are invited to see that true joy is a gift.
Our Scripture readings today point us to the source of this gift: to the goodness and the rescuing grace of the Living God.
In our first reading, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, we hear God’s word of hope and joy sent to those in darkness and suffering.
“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 brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 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.”
God’s message through the prophet was good news to the oppressed. Not a call to optimism, but a message of redemption: that the Living God would not ignore the suffering of His people, but instead would come to end their sorrow, and bring about new life.
Isaiah begins these words of hope with a phrase of great significance: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” This message, and the power of it, flows from the Spirit of God. It is God’s Spirit, God’s living presence, that shares and brings about this new life. The Good News comes to us from the Holy Spirit’s work.
And in our Gospel reading, we are told of that great the New Testament prophet, John the Baptist, who was sent by God to point ahead to the Greater One who was still to come. John was sent to prepare the way for the LORD’s anointed: the Christ… the One who would baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. Who would immerse God’s people with the LORD’s presence and life.
And so, John points us to Jesus: to the Son of God… who stepped into the place of His people in order to bring them God’s rescue at last. Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus embodied the promise of Isaiah, transforming the lives of even those in the most hopeless suffering by graciously drawing near to them with the holy love of God… restoring sight to the blind, healing the sick, raising the dead… Christ touched people with God’s Spirit, and their sorrows turned to joy.
And before His own darkest night, before He would face the suffering of the cross, Jesus spoke to His followers and shared these words with them (John 15:9-11):
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Facing His death for the sins of the world, Christ speaks to us of sharing His joy… by inviting us all to abide in His love… together to share in His life, bound in Him to the source of all joy: joined to the Living God.
Joined to the blessed Trinity; to the One who imagined, and invented, joy in all its earthly forms, as glimpses and tastes of the true joy of complete fellowship with Him… with the one Who is Himself the fountainhead of all that is right and true, and good. It is God’s own inner joy that He wants us His creatures to share in. Giving glimpses here and there of what will one day be in fullest view… tasting a few bites and drops of the full feast that’s to come.
But in Jesus Christ, God’s joyful life has drawn impossibly near to us, and He has poured out His joyful life in the world through the Holy Spirit, so that those who abide in Jesus are able to share in God’s joy here and now… despite all the darkness around us or the suffering within. Abiding in Christ, we can come to know the joy of the Living God… always. Even as we struggle… even as we weep… God’s joyful Spirit is a gift we can hold onto forever.
Christians can “rejoice always” as St. Paul urges us, not because it’s always easy, but because the Holy Spirit of God has been poured into our lives… drawing near to us with His rescuing, re-creating love, and breaking into our darkness and pain with the gift of His joyful salvation.
So today, may we remember and reflect on all the reasons that we can rejoice today, whether it’s easy or not. But even more than that, may we abide in Jesus Christ. May we cling to Him in faith, eager to fully share in His joy, and through the Holy Spirit, may God’s joy be alive in us always. Amen.