Monday, December 17, 2018

Sermon: "Unexpected Expressions of Joy", Philippians 4:4-7/Luke 3:7-16 (December 16, 2018)

12/16/18--Advent III


Today marks the third week of Advent, so at the beginning of worship, we lit three candles. Traditionally, the first candle represents hope, the second candle represents peace, and the third candle—this week’s candle—represents joy. Before I go any further, I want us to think about what joy looks like, and how we express it. What words come to mind? Exuberance? Energy? Confidence? Boldness? Singing? Shouting? Dancing? Jumping?

None of this is wrong—the Bible describes loud, kinetic expressions of joy all over the place. Between the psalms telling us to “Make a joyful noise” and David dancing naked in the streets in 2 Samuel, Biblical joy is often expressed as a raucous thing. In that light, the theme of “Joy” seems rather out-of-place in midst of the the reflective, penitential mood of Advent. Even the wreath itself reflects how different joy is: all of a sudden, after two weeks of dignified purple candles, we get this garish pink candle that seems to come out of nowhere (we’ll be back to purple again next week, in case you were concerned). Back when much of the Church observed their liturgical seasons more strictly, this third Sunday of Advent—known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the Latin word for “rejoice”—was intended to be a brief respite within the somber season of preparation, as well as to remind us of the joyful season just around the corner.

I wonder, though, if joy really is necessarily out-of-place among the themes of Advent. We usually think of hope, peace, and love us as serene and subdued emotions, in stark contrast with our typical understanding of joy. But joy isn’t exclusively the domain of the boisterous extrovert. We experience a different kind of joy when we’re curled up on the couch under a blanket with a good book or a cuddly pet. There’s a quiet joy in sitting down with coffee and no responsibilities on a leisurely Saturday morning (if you’re lucky enough to get to do that). Who isn’t joyful when they browse through old photos of their favorite moments, serenely basking in the memories? When we sing “Silent Night” contemplatively, are we feeling any less joy at the birth of our savior than when we belt out “Joy to the World”?

Joy doesn’t just come in moments of high energy. It’s not only expressed through bursts of activity. It can be just as quiet as hope, just as tranquil as peace, and just as gentle as love. In fact, sometimes joy is more meaningful when it arises out of this kind of mildness. I was recently asked during a continuing education event to name the people who I most admired and who had influenced me in my faith journey. After I made my list, I noticed that three of them— Mr. Rogers, the senior pastor at the first church I served, and my dad—had very little in common except for two things. First, each of them has a gentle spirit. In one way or another, they’ve each exuded calmness and kindness in times that I’ve needed it most. And second, I associate each of them with deep joy in my life because of it. Think about that: the people who have influenced me the most aren’t the ones with whom I’ve had the most fun, or the ones who’ve made me laugh the most, but the ones whose gentleness quietly and lovingly inspires an abiding joy in my heart.

Joy that’s rooted in intense excitement makes a big impression on us because it’s so conspicuous, but the deep joy that unfolds through expressions of gentleness is quietly powerful in its own way. Paul’s life and ministry are a testament to this important relationship between joy and gentleness. We know that in his former life (as Saul), the apostle was a cruel persecutor of the Christian Church. But through an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul had a profound change of heart (and name). In a dramatic turn of events, he made it his life’s mission to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. The violent, passionate Saul was transformed into gentle Paul who spent his days preaching about God’s extraordinary love. By the time we find him writing to the church in Philippi, he’s been imprisoned for this ministry, and yet his message isn’t one of retribution or anger, but of—what else?—joy.

“Rejoice in the Lord,” he says, “Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’” This is a theme throughout his entire letter to the Philippians. He says we should rejoice in the face of difficulty and persecution—of which he knows a lot—because our salvation is assured in Jesus Christ, no matter what might happen in our earthly lives. But, unlike the Psalms, he doesn’t insist that we be noisy about it. Unlike King David, he doesn’t think that we need to dance wildly to demonstrate it (although, come to think of it, this may have been a more logistical decision, because prison isn’t really the place for that sort of thing). At any rate, the very next thing he says is “Let your gentleness be known to everyone…”

Is this joy not worthy of exuberant expression? I don’t think Paul believes that. After all, his joy in Christ is the thing that keeps him going in prison, and that’s no small achievement. I think the key to understanding this passage lies in what he says to do with our gentleness, and when he says it. “Let your gentleness BE KNOWN TO EVERYONE,” he urges. Coming right on the heels of his instruction to “rejoice”, the two directives give the impression of being connected somehow. Finally, he reminds us that “The Lord is near.” If rejoicing and being gentle towards all people are somehow connected to the Lord being near, then the sort of gentle joy that Paul demonstrates from prison is not only a gift from God; it’s also a missionary tool! Just as I discovered through my role models, people are drawn to gentleness. It’s a rare quality in this world, and it’s a simple and effective way to convey that you love another person as God loves them.

Although our culture tells us that aggressiveness and assertiveness are the best ways to earn respect, people NOTICE gentleness—and it’s a MUCH better reflection of God, in my opinion. After all, when we implore one another to be “Christ-like”, what sort of attitude are we trying to elicit? Usually, we’re not encouraging authoritativeness, but grace, kindness, and forbearance towards others. And Paul reminds us that all of these things—gentleness, joy, and peace that surpasses all understanding—are intricately connected in God through Christ.

But—and this is a candidate for the understatement of the year—being Christ-like in our gentleness and joy is NOT an easy thing for God to ask of us. We live in a world that’s full of frustrating circumstances and people who try our patience. If you disagree, I’d like to know what sort of Eden you’re living in and directions on how to get there, because you’re definitely in the minority. Attitudes of gentleness and joy can be really hard to cultivate because of the troublesome people and situations that we have to live with every day by virtue of being human. Few understand this reality better than John the Baptist. Nothing says, “gentle joy,” like calling people a brood of vipers, right? In our reading from Luke, John sounds more like pre-conversion Saul than gentle and joyful Paul.

This is almost a relief, though, to be honest. It’s a good reminder that none of us can succeed at being gentle all the time. I should have suspected as much; I may consider my dad a gentle-spirited person, but there were times in my teens that I was definitely able to push his buttons. I mean, I fail pretty regularly at being both gentle and joyful, but if JOHN, cousin of the Messiah and prophet of the Most High, struggles with it, I can’t be completely hopeless.

Nobody’s perfect, and we all drop the ball. But that doesn’t give us an excuse to stop trying, or to decide that gentleness just doesn’t work. Listen to what John tells those who follow him: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none…whoever has food must do the same…” To tax collectors and soldiers, he says: “don’t extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation…don’t demand more than you need for a salary…” If we listen to his words instead of just his tone, we find that John, too, is preaching gentleness towards one another—just not in the gentlest way. To give credit where it’s due, even if his tone would have disappointed Paul, at least he’s sticking to the right message. Even though he’s aggravated by people who don’t get it, he’s not giving up on the task set before him. In this moment, it’s hard for him to exude the type of gentleness that Paul writes about because his frustration is overshadowing his joy—but there’s always another chance to try and get it right tomorrow.

And there’s more good news, too. Although the people seem to be confused, John knows that he’s not the Messiah; he understands that he—like us—is only a human being doing the best that he can. But he assures us that there’s one coming after him who is far greater than he. And we know that this is one who welcomes little children, who eats with sinners, and who commands his followers to love their enemies. The king about whom John prophesies will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire—and yet, he’ll also embrace us tenderly, teaching us how gentleness can bring hope, peace, love—and yes, deep, abiding joy.

You see, these two things—fire and gentleness—aren’t mutually exclusive. As I said before, there’s power and strength in gentleness. Just as the quiet flame of a candle holds the potential to warm a family or light an entire room when used effectively, so, too, can our own efforts at gentleness bring enormous joy to all those we encounter. There’ll be times that it feels impossible, but if we, like Paul, can tap into the joy that comes from our relationship with Christ—our gentle king—then we’ll find Christ’s own gentleness guiding us. And as this gentle joy spreads from person to person, we quietly and effectively share Christ with each other and with the whole world in a way that all can understand.

So be gentle with one another and with every person you meet. Remember that in your gentleness, you’re acting as an ambassador for Christ’s joy, and that’s a powerful thing. It’s also a difficult thing, an unexpected thing, and a revolutionary thing. But it’s something that’ll make people pay attention. And more importantly, it’s something that will demonstrate Christ’s very real presence in the world—even now, as we still wait for his birth as well as his return. Even now, as the world aches with fear and conflict. Even now, when it sometimes feels like there’s no joy to be found anywhere. Paul reminds us that there is indeed GREAT joy to be found, even in the darkest places. It’s our job to share it as we’ve been taught. Let’s continue our Advent preparation by making the world a little more gentle and a little more joyful—a little more Christ-like—for the child who’s coming to save it. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment