Scripture Readings: Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11 | Psalm 126 | Luke 1:46b–55 (Canticle) | 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 | John 1:6–8, 19–28
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Here we are at the third week of Advent already, with Christmas now just around the corner… awaiting the arrival of Christ Jesus our Lord, and reflecting with Christians around the world on what His coming means for us, and for our world.
And as we know, this week we’re invited to contemplate the theme of Joy… to join in the spirit of celebration that the Good News of Jesus Christ inspires.
And yet, as we also know, sometimes it’s really hard to celebrate. And although this has been true all throughout human history, in recent times there definitely seems to be a heaviness at work weighing down our world. A burden of worry, uncertainty, and seriousness… with so much seeming to be at stake, and so little sense of peace and hope. For many today, it’s hard to be lighthearted… inside and outside the Church.
And so, the words from St. Paul which we heard today seem sort of strange and out of place… telling the Thessalonian Christians, and all of us believers through the centuries to “Rejoice always.” I mean, “pray without ceasing”? Sure. “Give thanks in every circumstance”? Well, that might be a challenge… but it still kind of makes sense. But “rejoice always”? Really? Why should we? And how can we rejoice always? Where can we find this kind of joy?
We know that our world offers us lots of ways to pursue joy… or at least happiness: just buy more things. Enjoy more exciting or comforting experiences. Adopt this or that ideology. Surround yourself with people you get along with. So much or what drives our society is the unending quest for happiness.
And sometimes, we Christians have got caught up in this game too. At times, we’ve tried to market our faith as this same kind of wellness activity… just another way for people to find fulfillment, and happiness. And as some critics of the Church have truthfully pointed out, there are plenty of people who twist the Christian faith and make it a tool to help those in power to stay strong, secure, and in charge… and to keep those who are vulnerable and weak longing for some relief, that never seems to come.
But the Good News of the Christian faith is so much better than another means to make us happy. And the writers of Scripture like St. Paul, are not at all interested in turning the Good News of Jesus into a product to make us feel better… and make life a little less dreary. Nor is he trying to get us to put on a phoney smile… to “keep sweet”, no matter how bitter our circumstances may be.
No, in tune with the whole story of Scripture, including our readings today, St. Paul is reminding us of the truly Good News of Jesus that we have come to believe… that in Him, the Living God is intent on lifting the crushing burdens off of His beloved creatures. In Him, the weights of injustice and oppression are being cast off from our shoulders… the wrongs will be righted… the broken-hearted will be embraced and their tears will be wiped away.
In short, in Jesus Christ, God Himself has come to lift us up to join in His divine, and unending joy.
Let’s take a moment to consider what we actually mean by Joy though. In general, ‘happiness’ can be understood as a positive experience of pleasure… of beholding beauty, having our needs and desires satisfied, and feeling connected to those closest to us. Understandably, we like feeling happy. We’re kind of hardwired to desire these kinds of things… to exist in and appreciate God’s good world. But as good as this kind of basic natural happiness can feel, it also can’t last. Our eyes are never satisfied by beauty. Our belly’s are never full of food, and so on. Eventually, the feelings of happiness we find in these things wane, and we’re left wanting more.
And this is where our desires for beauty, satisfaction, and connection can get us off track. When we start longing for them in ways that feed our self-centeredness, greed, and lust. And these are all great fuel for consumerism… promising us that if we just keep chasing things that make us feel good, at least for a time, we’ll be happy, re-orienting our lives around pursuing fulfilment… or at least avoiding pain… boredom… isolation… anything that makes us feel less than the impossible ideal that we’ve been promised.
But Joy is not the same as happiness… it’s not simply an experience of pleasure, but entails a lifting up of our whole selves… which certainly does feel good… but it also involves so much more than a momentary sense of satisfaction of desire, or alleviation of pain.
Think of a time when you suddenly had a great weight or concern unexpectedly taken away. Or when fears that were hounding you were proved to be unfounded. When you found yourself surrounded by loving arms, when only moments before you had felt all alone. That’s joy.
Joy is the lifting of burdens. The release of captives. The experience, not just of pleasure, but of hope, and freedom, and love all wrapped up together in a beautiful blur. And while moments of happiness can give us a temporary glimpse of joy, it can’t really compare with it. Joy is, after all, a gift, a gracious encounter we can’t manufacture, buy or sell, just received.
So then, rejoicing is about being in tune with the truth of the universe… that is, that the Creator of all that is… seen and unseen… has not given up on us or on our world. That from the very start, the Living God has been reaching out in compassion and love to humanity… seeking our rescue and restoration… and inviting us to share together in His own unending joy.
In our Scripture reading today from the Prophet Isaiah we heard a clear vision of joy being given to the oppressed and broken people of Israel… the good news that despite the devastation that they had faced, much of it the result of their own disastrous choices, the Living God simply would not give up on them. Isaiah 61:1-4,
“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;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
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.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.”
And trusting the good news of God’s enduring faithfulness and saving love caused the prophet to proclaim in verse 10:
“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,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
And in Psalm 126, the poet attempts to wrap their head around God’s faithful love at work in their people’s story, rejoicing in His divine mercy, even as they pray for rescue in the midst of their ongoing struggles. Let’s hear Psalm 126 again:
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are glad indeed.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses of the Negev.
Those who sowed with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”
And then, we have one of the most well-known prayers in the New Testament, the Magnificat, or Mary’s song… an outburst of joy, praising God for what He was doing… drawing her, as simply and lowly as she was, into the truly wonderful story begun so long ago… the story of God’s great rescue mission, coming now to a climax through the child still in her womb. Luke 1:46-55,
“And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’”
The prophet Isaiah, the Psalmist, and the Mother of our Lord… all living in tragic and uncertain times. All feeling the heavy weight of the world… and yet, all finding themselves lifted up. Caught off guard and elevated by the Good News of what the Living God was up to, in, and through, and all around them… and so, they rejoice… they receive the gift of joy that transforms everything.
And so, St. Paul also calls us born many centuries later, to rejoice always… because of the Good News of Jesus… the Good News that even when we feel burdened and weighed down by the brokenness, of ourselves and our world, our Saviour has come, and He will come again… and through His Holy Spirit, He is with us even now… bringing the freedom, the forgiveness, the joy of God into our lives in all sorts of surprising ways, and working through us to bring God’s joy to all those around us too.
And just like the Prophet Isaiah, and the Psalmist, and Mary, we too can receive and encounter God’s joy in the midst of our world’s messed up story… as we face our own serious struggles, and suffering… but even in these dark and doubt-filled moments, the Living God can touched our hearts too with the Good News of His saving love… and transform how we understand the story of our sad world, and what the Christ has done and is doing to raise it up.
As Christians today, as those who have heard and believed the story of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ, maybe we need to get a bit more serious about joy. Not just about trying to make others happy, but serious about trusting in, receiving, and sharing the Good News of great joy for all people that the angels announced all those years ago in Bethlehem: the Good News that to us, and to us all, a Saviour has been born… Jesus Christ the Lord.
And if this Good News can shine in our day to day lives, how might our perspectives and concerns start to change? How much less might we complain if instead of pleasure, we start seeking freedom, for ourselves and others, freedom from the burdens of guilt, and isolation, and despair?
How much more would we find ourselves lifted up if we stop and consider that the One who holds our world… our universe in His hands is the same One who gave His life at the cross to rescue it from the power of death, and who was raised to make all things new?
How much joy might we be filled with, regardless of our circumstances… even in moments of tragedy, uncertainty, and heartache, when we remember that our Redeemer is with us… that He has drawn near to bear all our burdens…
“to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
…to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1 & 2b).
What might it look like if we received with all seriousness the Living God’s gift of joy in Jesus?
So, may the Good News of God’s Son, the Saviour of our world, shine in and through each one of us today. And may His Spirit empower us to rejoice always in the truth that He really has us all in His nail-pierced, and world-saving hands. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School