The Advent candle that we light for today is the candle of joy. As we read today’s passages, each one of them touches on the subject of joy in different ways.
Starting with the passage from Zephaniah, we see a community of people that have experienced deepest darkness. They have been taken from their homes and sent into exile, they have lost everything they valued and no longer have a home, a center, a temple. It seems that God has abandoned them, left them, forsaken them. And the reason God gives for this is that they have been acting unjustly. They have oppressed their poor, their widows, those already in pain and grief they have injured more. According to the prophet it is their own behavior that has led them to this place, this place of exile and alienation from God. They are at rock bottom, and there is nothing more to lose, nothing more to grieve. All is gone.
Still, it is from that bottom, from that place of despair and absolute loss that the light begins to shine. There was nowhere to go but up, and when the Israelites hit that bottom, only then was there room to finally make the changes they needed to be able to return home, to reclaim their lives, to begin again and to live into joy. Only then could they look at their own oppressive, hurtful actions. Only from that place of themselves experiencing some of the pain they had inflicted on others could they begin to change. Only then could they really look and see the way that they held power and wealth at the expense of those who had little. Only then could they choose to be faithful to God’s call for their lives, and in that faithfulness be answered by God with the promise of return to new life. It is after the weeping, after the exile, after the horribleness, after the dark night that Israel is able to repent, to change and find herself then with the promise of restoration, light in the darkness, and new life. That recommitment to God, that recommitment to living the Godly life, to answering the call for justice and compassion, that look towards what God is doing, towards the light that God is shining, only that will bring the joy that God promises, that will bring the joy of new life.
Next we heard the passage today from Philippians. This passage contains the direction, the admonition, to “rejoice in the Lord always.” ALWAYS. But committing ourselves to joy, fully, and at all times is frankly not an easy task. When we reflect on our own lives we know this, but also as we reflect on the Biblical stories, like the one from Zephaniah we know this to be true. We all go through struggles, we all go through times when we feel God’s absence, when it feels that there is little or nothing to rejoice about. Our challenge is to remember in those times that joy is not the same thing as happiness. Also, joy comes to us as grace from God. It is a God-given gift. We still have the responsibility to claim it or reject it, but it is a gift from God, not something we can create in ourselves or by ourselves. My friend and colleague, pastor James Lumsden, said it this way, “I start to realize that while God continually offers me the gift of joy, I have to make room for it – if there’s no room in the inn of my heart for Christ’s blessings – then the Spirit of Jesus is going to be born someplace else and I’ll be the poorer for it.” JOY takes practice, and it takes discipline. It is a gift of grace – God offers us this joy, but unlike the “happiness” that comes with Christmas, Advent joy, the preparing for Christ’s coming joy, requires effort on our part, it requires us to make room for that joy. And that takes work. It does take looking at our lives, repenting our lives, striking out in a new direction and choosing to follow God’s call. That makes room for joy.
Fr. Richard Rohr speaks of this commitment to joy in this way. He says, “I have committed myself to JOY. I have come to realize that those who make space for JOY, those who prefer nothing to JOY, those who desire the utter reality of JOY, will most assuredly have it. We must not be afraid to announce it to refugees, slum dwellers, saddened prisoners, angry prophets: now and then we must even announce it to ourselves. For in the prison of now - in this cynical and sophisticated are - someone must believe in JOY.”
What does that mean practically? It goes back both to the Zephaniah text, but also to the passage we read today from Luke. We cannot claim joy, real joy, unless we are doing God’s work, are part of ushering in the kingdom to earth, are part of making the valleys rise and the hills lower. We do this, as John tells us today, by giving our second coat to the one who has none, by sharing our food with those who do not have. These aren’t really choices for Christians. John says we MUST share our coat if we have more than one. We MUST share our food if we have more than enough. That is following our call, and that is how we claim the joy of God. Sister Joan Chittister says, joy is the deep-down awareness of what it means to live well, to live productively and to live righteously (that is for justice and compassion). In other words, Joy is God- centered, not us centered. Joy requires looking beyond ourselves, and looking beyond the moment of our own pain or struggles or thoughts, even beyond our own happiness. Instead, Joy is centered in doing God’s will, doing God’s work, seeing beyond pain and death and into the awe and wonder and amazing gift that is God.
In Ben Mikaelsen's book, Touching Spirit Bear, a 15 year old juvenile delinquent named Cole has been given the opportunity to change his life, change his path, change his future by spending a year on an island by himself rather than the rest of his life in jail. At first he is not ready to change, but he, too, hits “bottom,” like the Israelites, when he is attacked by a bear and faces the real possibility of his own death. He then comes to a place where he really is ready to repent, to change, but there is much he has to learn in order to do that. He goes back to the island after his physical recovery from the bear attack, accompanied by two men, Garvey and Edwin, Native American men who try to help him see his world differently. They tell him that his first step that evening is to cook them dinner. This is what follows.
“What would you guys do if I refused to cook anything?” Cole asked with a wry smile, as he sharpened a sapling for a hot-dog stick.
Garvey crouched beside the fire and reached his palms toward the flames to warm up. “First, we’d get hungry. Then we’d take you back to Minneapolis (and to jail).”
“What’s the big deal if I fix a hot dog or not?” Cole asked. “It’s not the end of the world.”
“The whole world is a hot dog,” Garvey said.
“What does that mean?”
“Go ahead, eat a hot dog and I’ll show you.”
Cole poked a raw hot dog onto the stick and held it over the fire. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was, so he held the hot dog in the flames to cook faster. All the while, Edwin and Garvey stared patiently. When the hot dog was charred, Cole placed it on a bun. “Now what?” he asked.
Cole squirted on a glob of ketchup, then devoured the hot dog. Edwin and Garvey kept watching. “There,” Cole said, finishing. “I ate the hot dog. Now what?”
“How was it?” Garvey asked.
Cole shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Why?”
“That hot dog did exactly what you asked it to do. You asked it to feed you, and it fed you. No more, no less.” Garvey held out his hand. “Pass me a hot dog.”
Cole pulled another one from the cooler and handed it across the flames. Garvey took the hot dog carefully in his hands and examined it. “This is a fine hot dog,” he said. “The finest I’ve seen all day.” Carefully he slid it onto the stick. He started humming. Soon Edwin hummed along. For ten minutes they hummed the melody over and over. All the while Garvey patiently turned the hot dog over the coals, careful not to burn it. Finally, when the hot dog was a glistening, crispy brown, Garvey drew the stick back from the fire. “The song we hummed is a song of friendship,” he explained.
“What are the words?” Cole asked.
“There are no words because each person makes up his own. That’s how friendship is.” As Garvey spoke, he rummaged through the cooler, pulling out salt and pepper, cheese, a plate, cups and a tomato. He leaned a bun against a rock near the coals to let it toast lightly, then wrapped it around the hot dog.
“You going to eat that thing, or play with it all day?” Cole asked.
Garvey smiled and kept working. He cut the hot dog into three pieces on a plate and lightly shook on salt and pepper. Next he cut slices of cheese and tomato and put them on top. With a flair, he added a small circle of ketchup to each. Last he poured three glasses of water. He handed one to Cole and one to Edwin. “This is a toast to friendship,” he said, raising his glass.
After taking a drink, he handed Cole and Edwin each a piece of the hot dog he had prepared.
“That’s your hot dog,” said Cole.
“Yes, it is, and I choose to share it,” said Garvey. He began eating, savoring each bite. “Eat slowly,” he said, raising his cup again to toast. “Here’s to the future.” After each bite, he raised his cup for a different toast. “Here’s to good health.” “Here’s to the sun and the rain.” “Here’s to the earth and the sky.”
When everybody had finished eating, Garvey turned to Cole. “How was my hot dog different from yours?”
Cole shrugged. “You shared yours and acted like it was a big deal.”
Garvey nodded. “Yes, it was a big deal. It was a party. It was a feast. It was a sharing and a celebration. All because that is what I made it. Yours was simply food, because that is all you chose for it to be. All of life is a hot dog. Make of it what you will. I suggest you make your time here on the island a celebration.”
Cole scuffed at the dirt with his shoe. “What is there to celebrate?” he asked.
“Discover yourself,” Edwin said. “Celebrate being alive!” (2001: New York. Harper Collins. p145)
Celebrating being alive is choosing joy. Looking at things not with eyes of every day cynicism or pain, but with eyes to see where God is moving, where God is acting, where God is calling us to be, that is choosing joy. It sometimes takes hitting bottom, going into and through the darkness to come to the place where we are ready to repent enough to be open to God’s joy. But when we do that, when we can take our experiences as launching places into new life, then we become ready to do the work of repentance and opening ourselves to God’s joy. Thanks be to God that the gift of that joy, the grace of that joy is offered in every day and in every moment! Amen.