SERMON: Advent 3

SERMON: Advent 3

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 17th December 2023

In the coming days we shall be bombarded with exhortations to be happy:  Happy Christmas!  Have a good time; have a great party; enjoy your family gathering.  Public and private expectations of happiness are very high, almost astronomical, in the Christmas season.  But there will be many who cannot buy into these expectations, who may well be profoundly unhappy.  There will be homeless people on our streets, people alone and feeling they are social failures to be alone at this time, people forced into dysfunctional family gatherings, and people who are aware that there is an empty place at the family table this particular year.  Quite apart from this sort of domestic unhappiness, there are people enduring suffering and loss at this present time which is almost unimaginable to us – in Ukraine, in Gaza and in Israel.

But the Christian calling, specially in Advent and at Christmas, is not to happiness but to joy.  The first two words of our epistle make this plain. “Rejoice always”:  and this – from one of the very earliest letters in the New Testament. Our modern use of the English words “joy” and “happiness” appear in ordinary usage to be almost interchangeable. You’ll find this if you look up the two words in a dictionary.  Or just look around:  the main Boots in Cornmarket Street has a big sign near its cosmetics counters saying, “Give a little joy this Christmas.”  Really?  Does a new lipstick or moisturiser bring joy?  Happiness maybe.  Happiness is surely a fairly superficial emotion, in response to the ups and downs of everyday life.  But joy is far deeper: an orientation of  heart and mind. Perhaps the sea is a good image here.  The “sea state” which forecasters describe, whether the sea is rough or calm and so forth, is produced mainly by temporary and changing forces like wind.  But far below these surface characteristics there are the deep and lasting forces controlling the ocean – the tides. 

But what are the foundations of Joy? Our scriptures make it plain that joy, a joyful heart and a joyful life, rest on the belief that we are in the hands of a God who is in a mysterious sense Joy itself, whose Joy continually overflows in creation, and who comes to his people with joy.  Human joy stems from a deepening awareness that we are made and loved by God.  But more than that, he actually comes among us and within us.  So in contemplating Christian Joy we are drawn into the great truths of the Incarnation and also of the work of the Holy Spirit in Christian lives.

But first let us look at how scripture and particularly today’s readings may help us.  The Old Testament shows us how God’s people gradually over centuries came to an understanding of God which was far more inclusive and loving than some tribal deity, a God whose action and presence was the source of joy. We can see this in some of the psalms, and the stories of those who encountered God in some special way.  There is Hannah’s story (I Samuel, chs 1-20) and her song after her much longed-for son, Samuel, was born.  It has always seemed to me particularly poignant – and significant – that she sings this song of exaltation just as she gives him away and leaves him in the Temple to serve Eli, the priest. Clearly this was a manifestation of deep joy and trust rather than any obvious happiness.  There is that great psalm of joy, No. 100, which we Anglicans know as the Jubilate.  “O be joyful in the Lord all the earth ….. For the Lord is gracious; his steadfast love is everlasting, and his faithfulness endures from generation to generation.”  Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah is another great song of Joy – in response to the good news to the oppressed, the broken-hearted, and to prisoners.  “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.”

Our gospel leads us to contemplate John the Baptist, and our third candle was lit on the wreath today in his memory.  He often seems to have been a strange and intimidating figure – but his birth was, according to Luke, greeted by  his father, Zechariah, with a great song of joy about God’s active presence among his people. John is a sort of hinge figure – the last of the great Old Testament prophet figures, yet the herald of a new age of light and joy.  He says this of himself when the Jewish religious authorities asked him point blank who he was.  But Matthew’s gospel (ch.11) suggests that when John was himself in prison he sent word to Jesus with a similar question  – are you the one who is to come? Jesus does not answer him with a direct yes or no, but tells John’s disciples who had come to him to tell John what they see and hear – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleanse, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  Here Jesus was echoing several passages from Isaiah, particularly chapter 35.  These were the signs of God coming into his world to transform the lives of his people.  These were the signs of a new and deeper joy. 

The gospel writers make it clear in other passages that Jesus was a sign God’s Joy overflowing among those who would listen to him; that joy sprang up around Jesus.  Luke particularly does this.  He gives us of course Zechariah’s song.  He also puts into the mouth of Mary another great hymn of praise and joy modelled heavily on the song of Hannah; and he describes her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, saying that the baby who would become John the Baptist leapt for joy in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. In Luke’s account of the appearance of the angel to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, he tells them that he brings news of great joy.  In John’s gospel (ch. 16) we read how Jesus prepares his friends for his own death and final departure from his human life on earth.  Even in that most difficult of times he assures them that when he is no longer visible as their human companion the Holy Spirit will be their comforter and guide, and – extraordinarily –his own joy will be in them and their joy will be complete. (John 15:11) The joy that happened around him in his earthly live does not end.  The gift of God’s joy will be even greater after his death, resurrection and ascension. So it is no surprise at all that Paul, writing to the Galatian Christians, lists Joy as part of the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian lives.  Joy may not be one of the great “virtues” of Christian life, like Faith Hope and Love:  but it is a core characteristic.

This is the great message of Advent.  We are not preparing for Christmas as if it were more or less a jolly birthday celebration: though this is of course the popular idea of Christmas, if anything religious enters into it.  We prepare for Christmas as a celebration of the on-going coming of God into the lives of ordinary people, the in-coming of the same joy which is God’s very nature and gift. In the great Prologue to St. John’s gospel, which we shall hear read on Christmas night, the writer makes plain that what happens in and around Jesus is new:  God does not just visit his people, as Old Testament authors proclaimed.  He now comes and dwells among them. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.  He still dwells among us, makes his home among us.   In our busy preparations for Christmas we can so easily overlook the enormity of this truth.  But our Christian calling is to this most profound joy.  It is sometimes said that Christians are an Easter people.    But we are also an Advent people. 

Now, to the God who comes to us in joy, to redeem and re-create us in his image, to be Joy within us, be all honour and glory, now and always.  Amen.