Written by Pastor Ed
Due to technical difficulties, the audio version of Pastor Ed’s message is not available this week.
The Joy of Christ’s Coming
Dec. 14, 2014 – Advent III
Approaching this week’s sermon was a bit of a challenge, or maybe I should say more of a challenge than usual. Over the past three week I have been involved in three funerals – first my mothers, and then those of two members of this congregation, Helen Yssennagger last week and on Thursday, Anna Giesbrecht.
The third Sunday of Advent always focuses on the theme of joy, and always includes Mary’s song, the Magnificat, as one of the readings; even though we’re not actually reading it, we are singing it in several forms this morning. But how does one speak of joy when most of what you have been dealing with is grief? And that’s just looking personally and says nothing about what we hear in the news or read on Facebook or our newsfeed.
Thankfully, and helpfully, the latest issue of the Vision magazine, published by the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Canadian Mennonite University, focused on the theme of Joy and the articles provided some interesting perspective. In his lead article, Chris Marshall, professor at Victoria University in New Zealand, notes that one of the distinguishing features of the New Testament faith was an emphasis on joy.
He notes, citing another author, Scottish theologian H. R. Mackintosh, that the first century world “was marked by a pervading sense of darkness, pessimism, superstition and fear. Cruelty and bloodshed were everywhere.” By contrast, he says, “the New Testament is ‘the most obviously exultant book that has ever been written.’“ “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,” sings Mary. “Rejoice always,” writes Paul.
Even more amazing is the fact that this joy is often expressed and urged in the midst of suffering and distress. It is not that you should experience joy only when things are going good, but that suffering, grief and even persecution are not deterrents to joy, in fact they almost seems to enhancements. James suggests that when you “face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy” (James 1:2)
Marshall notes four sources for the presence of joy in the 1st century church. The first was their unshakable belief in the resurrection of Jesus. This meant that all the fears of death, so prevalent in those days, was gone. Evil had been destroyed so that death no longer was to be feared.
Secondly, there is a firm belief that God forgives our sin and allows us to walk in a new way, the newness of life. If we are no longer weighed down by sin, then life need no longer be a heavy burden, but we can go through life with a sense of liberty.
Thirdly, the early Christians could experience joy because they were part of a new social order, a new community that supported each other in ways unheard of before. It was a community in which social distinctions were no longer operative, everyone was equal in Jesus Christ. The upsetting of society’s rigid order that Mary sang about was becoming a reality.
And fourthly, the Christians experienced that joy of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Numerous of the statements about joy in the New Testament attribute it to the presence of the Spirit. All four of these factors are interconnected and part of the fabric that make the New Testament a book of joy.
I was reminded of our speaker this year at Dankfest, Pastor John Chang. One of the factors he cited in his conversion from Buddism to Christianity was the fact that when he passed the Christian church, people were smiling and happy, expressing Christian joy, something he did not experience at the temple. Not that Christians are the only ones who experience joy, but there is something unique about the joy we can share as Christians, and part of that is joy even in the face of suffering.
But I had to wonder; how much joy do we show today? Are the reasons cited for the joy expressed in the New Testament still a part of our lives as Christians today? Do we truly believe in the resurrection which allows us to face death without fear? Are we burdened with guilt rather than experiencing the release of knowing that our sins are forgiven? Is our Christian community one that overcomes race, gender, and class in order to show a new reality? And do we experience the presence of the Spirit, or is that just a nice bit of theology?
Our texts for today also raise some other questions that I believe speak to the experience of joy in our lives. Both the text from Isaiah as well as Mary’s song speak of an overturning of society. Release to the captives, freedom from oppression, healing for the blind, the turning upside down of society’s order. Stop and think about how some of those ideas would be received by many people today, where people clamour for tougher prison terms or argue that it is the wealthy who really are the important people in society and we should do all we can to protect them.
Jesus clearly identified with the marginal of society, and adopted Isaiah’s vision as his mandate for ministry. His was the light shining into the darkness of his day that brought release and joy to those who encountered him. So who do we identify with? Are we willing to follow the path of the one whose birth we celebrate in this season?
And then there’s John again. Last week we encountered John in the Gospel of Mark as a rabble-rouser, the Baptist who spoke the truth to power in his day. The Gospel of John portrays the forerunner of Jesus in a slightly different way, never referring to him as John the Baptist. Rather he is simply the witness; a witness to the light and the joy that is to come.
As I read the texts again and thought about the theme of joy, I was struck by another aspect of joy that seems present in the New Testament. John the Baptist was content with the role he had bene given. He didn’t complain, as far as we know, that someone else was the Messiah and he was only the witness. He didn’t go around saying, “Why can’t I be the Messiah?” Rather he seized the opportunity and was authentic in his role.
In an ancient Hasidic tale, Rabbi Zusya is reported to have said, “In the coming world they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” All too often I encounter people who look around and somehow wish they were someone else. If we could only be that someone else, then we could do great things. Congregations fall into the trap as well. If we only had more resources, money, or people, then we could be more effective.
Do we see the opportunities, or only the deficiencies? The story is told in one of the articles of the Vision magazine of several friends who went to a cabin to go fishing and relaxing, only to have it rain. As they sat, mostly bored and complaining, one of them suddenly raced out the door, shed his clothes and jumped in the lake. Soon others followed and they had a great time in the water – of the lake as well as from above. Rather than bemoaning their misfortune, they changed it to an opportunity, by seeing it in a different light.
So the question for us today becomes, “Are we joyful at the coming of Jesus?” And if so, how are we expressing that? Do we look around us and see only deficiencies and wish we were in different circumstances, or can we see the opportunities that present themselves and move forward with joy?
It seems to me that part of what we need is to recapture those four elements of joy that I cited earlier. Again to quote Marshall, “Christian joy is joy on steroids, injected with confidence in Christ’s triumph over evil, knowledge of forgiveness of sins and freedom from moral defeat, membership in a loving community, and immersion in the pulsating life and power of God’s Spirit.”
If we can recapture that New Testament faith, then we too will experience the joy of following Christ even in the face of grief and suffering. As another author noted, it is in fact those who suffer the most who often exhibit the most joy because it comes not from what we have or the circumstances we are in, but rather from a deep inner place, knowing the light that is coming into the world.
Such a joy doesn’t deny the awful stuff of this world. It knows clearly the grief of loss, the pain of suffering and takes seriously the evil that is so prevalent in the world today. But it also knows that the birth of the Saviour has made a difference in the world and how we view it. It knows that this baby that we celebrate experienced all of those things as well, even to death on a cross. And then the story continued and Christ was raised from the dead, triumphant over evil.
With Jesus as our centre we too can experience the true joy of the season.