Where We Look For Joy - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (December 11, 2022)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 35:1–10 | Luke 1:46–55 | James 5:7–10 | Matthew 11:2–11
“Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5).
Does anyone remember Big Mouth Billy Bass?
Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s it was all the rage: a fake fish mounted to a plastic plaque, that would suddenly burst into song when a button was pressed, wagging it’s tail and mouthing along to the words of Bobby McFerrin’s hit song: ‘Don’t worry… be happy!”
Sometimes the places we’re tempted to look for happiness seem just as silly and out of place as listening to the sage advice of a fake fish on a plastic plaque. The truth is, as much as we all want to be happy… many of us today don’t know, or forget where to look for it… especially when we want it most. When it feels like we’re the ones plucked out of our comfortable waters and hung up on the wall for all to see.
As we know, today is the third Sunday of Advent: the season of anticipation and waiting for the coming of Christ, not only at His long anticipated birth in Bethlehem, but also when He will come again in glory to bring God’s blessed Kingdom to earth at last. When every tear will be wiped away. Every injustice set right. Every wound and schism healed, and every sorrow turned to joy.
And this is the theme that we contemplate this week: the gift of Joy, following our explorations of the gifts of Hope and Peace. And just like Hope and Peace, we all have ideas about Joy, and how it’s supposed to fit into our lives… and into the Christian life, for that matter.
For some folks, Joy just seems like an extra… an add-on… something fleeting that doesn’t really factor into our day to day duties. ‘What matters is getting things done’, they might say, focusing on the many challenges and tasks laid out before them. Feeling happy for these folks seems like a luxury, not a need. Much better to invest our energies into things that really matter… into things that will last.
On the other hand, there are those who see happiness as the most important part of our lives. The goal that guides their actions and choices. We hear this a lot in our culture… where happiness here and now is the test being used to figure out what we should do. Am I unhappy? Then I should do whatever it takes we’re told, to change that… no matter who else might get hurt along the way, or what damage I might end up doing to myself down the road.
And to confuse the matter even more, both of these inclinations have bled into the Christian faith as well. Some want to reduce religion to serious spiritual matters only. There’s no time to worry about how we feel, when there’s so much kingdom work to do.
But I think, more and more, we can see Christianity and faith in general being used simply as a source of emotional support… simply a way to find comfort, connection, and celebration as the end in itself… the goal… the point of it all, so to speak. We can see this spirit at work when we hear people say: “If things like reading the Bible, or prayer, or going to Church, don’t bring me joy, then I don’t need to do them.’ In that case, we’re treating God like a joy-machine… instead of our Lord.
These are two rather extreme examples, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle… or bounce back and forth between giving up on Joy, and giving up everything else to chase after it.
But as we seek to understand how Joy fits into our lives and our faith, our Gospel reading this morning invites us to reflect on Joy in a surprising way: through the story of John the Baptist as he is left waiting in jail. How does Joy fit into his story? And how might this help you and I know where to look to find and fit the gift of Joy into our stories as well?
Our passage starts off with John in prison, arrested for speaking out against King Herod, the puppet ruler set up by the Romans over the region of Galilee, calling out Herod’s clear breach of God’s Covenant Law regarding his unlawful marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip’s ex-wife, who had left him for a more desirable match.
Today we might wonder why John would be worrying about who King Herod married at all. I mean, after all who is John to get in the way of his ruler’s happiness?
But as N.T. Wright points out, John’s point is not simply about someone’s unorthodox family arrangements… it’s about what Herod’s willingness to flout God’s ways and commandments says about his status as a king over the Lord’s chosen people. As much as Herod wanted his Jewish subjects to think of him as their rightful, God-chosen ruler, John’s willingness to call even Herod to repent was a real kill-joy.
N.T. Wright puts it like this: “King Herod had taken exception to John’s fiery preaching, and particularly to his denunciation of him for marrying his brother’s ex-wife. This was all part of John’s announcement that God’s kingdom—and God’s true king—were on the way. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him. No wonder Herod put him in prison.”
So here we find John, the no-nonsense, inspired preacher from the wilderness, in prison for sticking his neck out and standing up to speak God’s truth. And as we see him in his cell, the words from a few Chapters back in Matthew’s Gospel, in the so called Sermon on the Mount, are probably meant to be ringing in our ears: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10).
Right now though, it doesn’t really seem like John is feeling all that blessed. In fact, this intense messenger for God’s coming kingdom seems now to be unsure of the plan. He had once confidently pointed to Jesus as the long awaited One who would baptize God’s people with the Holy Spirit and fire! Burning away all unrighteousness, until only what is holy remains. But now, staring at his own prison walls, John the Baptist begins to doubt.
I mean, how would any of us respond in his place?
When we are suddenly caught off guard by unexpected setbacks… when we’re sure we’ve been doing all the right things, but it all seems to unravel… when instead of our best efforts bearing fruit and flourishing, we find ourselves stuck… stifled… and isolated?
In our own times of struggle, when all we can see when we look around are prison walls, so to speak, it’s so easy to lose sight of the larger story we’re in. To either become completely downcast by all of our troubles… or dig in and desperately get to work trying to keep what’s left of our fragile world from collapsing. Or on the other hand, to seek some kind of escape by chasing after whatever we think will satisfy our desires… what we think will bring us joy.
But John doesn’t fully despair. He doesn’t give up completely, or give himself over to simply saving his own skin. No, he sends his friends to go and speak to Jesus for him. Confused, suffering, facing an uncertain future, John reaches out through those close to him towards the One he had hoped really was the Christ, God’s chosen Saviour, and the true coming King.
What a precious gift it can be to have friends we can lean on and trust in dark times, isn’t it? To have those who understand our situation… who see our struggles, and share in our burdens? To know there are those who can help us reach out towards hope, and remind us of the reasons we still have to rejoice?
This is the gift of the community of faith, the Church. Brothers and sisters, friends in God’s family, who can share in each other’s sorrows… and in our lowest moments help us to reach out and look to the One who brings true Joy… even when He shows up in ways none of us expect.
And Jesus was not turning out to be what John had expected at all. Far from the bringer of fire, and overthrower of unjust tyrants, Jesus was spending His time with His handful of stumbling students, and crowds of hurting and hungry misfits. Where John had been deeply dedicated to the serious work of God’s coming kingdom, and ended up in prison, Jesus was out there having feasts with tax collectors and sinners.
John’s discouraged because he can’t see how Jesus could be the One he had been waiting for, coming to bring God’s good reign once and for all, and end our sorrows for good. “Are you the one who is to come,” he asks, “or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
But then again, unlike you and I, John didn’t yet know how the story will end, or how God’s good Kingdom was already at work all around him.
Matthew 11:4-6, “Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Far from wasting precious time and energy, Jesus was hard at work embodying and bringing God’s good Kingdom to life in the lives of those around Him. He was already turning our pains and sorrows to joy… repairing broken bodies and broken hearts, and bringing together a new family, and setting free from both their despair and unruly desires, to share in the New Life of God here and now, and forever.
And not only that, John didn’t know what was coming… what would soon await the Christ.
John didn’t know that the One who was bringing sight to the blind, healing to the sick, and raising the dead would soon Himself face the rejection, humiliation, and the cruel death of the cross. That rather than bringing fire from heaven to burn up the wicked, Jesus would bear Himself all of the brutal consequences of our world’s unholiness and sin. John didn’t know that the Saviour had come to suffer Himself to set us sinners free.
John didn’t know the whole picture, but Jesus’ response opens up the way forward: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” what can John see and hear in that moment? Just prison walls, and his own doubts in the darkness. But John is invited to trust, not in what he sees, but in the message, the Good News being shared with him… the news of the sick made well, broken bodies remade, the dead raised to life… the joys of God’s Kingdom, come to earth at last through Jesus the Christ.
In his moment of despair and doubt, Jesus offers to John an invitation to believe… to trust and take heart… to rejoice in faith, confident in what the Living God is doing through Him, even when John can’t yet see it for himself.
And we too are invited to look to Jesus… to trust Him… even when things don’t look at all the way we had imagined. When we are tempted to just focus on all that is wrong with our circumstances, or to give up on God’s way, and simply chase after our own ideas of happiness… we can look to Jesus and find in Him God’s gift of life-giving joy, reminding us of all that the Living God has done, all that God is doing right now, even when we cannot see it, and of all that God’s promised to do in our own lives, and in our world.
Looking to Jesus, we can find joy, not just when everything is easy and as they should be, but even in the middle of life’s lowest moments, His joy helps us to carry on.
As the writer of the book of Hebrews puts in in Chapter 12:1-3,
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
We don’t know every step of where our story is headed. We don’t know what challenges await us, or what temptations to give up on God’s way we will have to face. But whatever comes, God invites us to look to His Son, Jesus, and find in Him true joy.
To look to Jesus, and see God’s healing, life-giving power at work even now in His name.
To look to Jesus, and see God’s victory over the powers of despair and death once and for all, opening up the New Life God intends for His creation.
To look to Jesus, and know He is not far off somewhere… He is “God-with-us”. In the good times, and in the absolute worst times, to know He will never forsake us.
We are invited to look to Jesus, and to help each other continue to look to Jesus, and rejoice… trusting in the glorious future that lies before us in His Kingdom… so that we too can hold on to God’s way today and not lose heart.
I’ll end now with some words from Br. Roger, the founder of the Taizé monastic community:
“Don’t be afraid of sharing in others’ trials, do not be afraid of suffering, for it is often in the depth of the abyss that we discover the perfection of joy in communion with Jesus Christ.
Perfect joy is self-giving… It is sheer wonder renewed by the sight of the generosity of the Giver of all gifts, material and spiritual. It is thankfulness. It is thanksgiving.”
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 125.
 Br. Roger of Taize, Parable of Community (London, UK: Mowbray, 1980), 25-26.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School