Third Sunday of Advent
Pastoral Reflection Christmas Pageant Sunday
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

On this third Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of Joy and remember that joy is possible; intended.  It is easy to forget that joy should be normative and not the other way around.  Sometimes, we get so weighed down, consumed, and overwhelmed by life, circumstances, and situations.  It’s easy to live our entire lives in the valley of despair surrounded by people in despair.  And there is never a particular “good time.  Every year and every generation brings its own set of troubles.

We have to work at having joy; work hard but it’s work worth pursuing.  It is necessary.  Essential.  We have to work hard because there is always a distraction.  There is always something or someone popping up to make us think and feel as if joy is an anomaly – a distant possibility.  Have you noticed that?

That’s why we sing joy-filled songs, especially this time of year; and ring bells.  It’s why we run all over town spending money and racking up credit cards.  It’s why we sit before the computer screens and google – “best gifts for men this year” (or for women); and travel and hang out with folks that we might rather not hoping to give and receive some sense of joy and happiness.

Department stores, Hallmark, and Amazon – all understand this basic human need to create a “wow”  moment of excitement.  Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, even the day after Christmas are all tied into it.

But the season of Advent helps us to remember that there is another kind of joy.  There is the kind of joy that transcends and transforms; that cannot be found in a sweater ever so beautiful; or an Amazon Echo, not even a diamond ring.  We know that the kind of joy our heart most yearns for cannot be wrapped up in a single morning nor one day.  It is the kind of joy that one thing or one incident – or many for that matter – cannot give nor take away; not really.  Not for very long.  Surely, not forever.

We know the joy of a God who has come to dwell with us and in us.   The joy of a God who has entered our lives and story and dwells in our midst regardless of how things might appear.

The apostle Paul says, “Rejoice always.”[1]  Be joyful always.  We ask ourselves, How can this be?  Where can we find such joy against the backdrop of our lives and the world in which we live?  The world so fraught with bad news and wilderness ventures and the dark valleys of time?

Paul helps us with this:  “Pray without ceasing.”[2]  Here is a man accustomed to hardship and trouble up close.  A man who knows what it is like to be on the wrong side of time and experience.  Pray without ceasing.  Give thanks.

Come boldly into God’s presence.  Not only in moments of euphoria, but also in moments of despair, doubt, fear, even anger.  Those real lived moments that comfort and confront us all.  Those moments of mistrust, paranoia, when we are tired – even exhausted, criticized, unappreciated.   When we are sick.  Lonely.  Overwhelmed – all are moments when prayer can best be expressed and heard.

Pray simply, honestly:  I need you Lord.  I am tired.  I’m afraid.  I can’t do this on my own Lord.  I don’t feel like being kind right now.  I’m angry and hurt and disappointed.  Forgive me Lord; have mercy.  Teach me. Show me.  Thank you.  Scream and yell to the rafters if you want.  Other times, keep silent – all prayer.   All good.  All heard; all touch the heart of God.  And I tell you this:  there has never, ever, been a time when I was aware of the presence of God in my life and circumstance that I don’t leave comforted, better.  God has never failed me in this regard.  The prayer may not be answered, certainly not as I had imagined and almost never right away.  But I have never brought my whole being into awareness of the presence of God that dwells within me and did not feel relief, better, more determined.  Blessed.  Loved; filled with grace and wonder.  Never.

Often, we Christians want to compartmentalize God and our experience of God. We are tempted to say or to think that God is with us only when; when we are in Church; when we are serving the homeless or doing good works; when things are good and others are treating us well, or we ourselves are “obeying” the will or God.  But truly truly; most truly – God is with us all the time.

In the mess; most especially in the mess.  When we are not being treated well; even when we are not the ones being open, and gracious, and kind.  When we ourselves are rude, and indifferent, and too busy to dot the I’s – God is still with us.  That ought to give you joy right there.

God’s presence is not contingent on what we do or what we say; but on who we are.  This is the claim that we make during Advent: it’s awesome and amazing; overwhelming.  I scarce can take it in:  God is with us; all the time, everywhere and in everything:  In the obscure, in  the little nuggets; in the darkness, the wilderness and the valleys of life – when there appears to be no sign of God at all; that’s why we have faith; we believe.   We won’t let go come what may.

Give thanks.  Do you see the trajectory? Can you grasp how it flows?  In all things, give thanks.  Now that takes awareness and understanding.  And it takes prayer.  And it takes open eyes to see; open ears and heart to receive and take in.  It takes faith to trust and a will to believe.

I said to a group earlier this week.  Some of the biggest lessons I have ever learned have come through hard times.  Have come through the midnight, mistakes.  Brokenness.  Loss and pain.  I have learned so much and I’m still learning.  And more determined than ever.  Still learning.  So glad.  So grateful.  I don’t have to kid myself about so many things anymore.  I don’t have to stay down all the time.  No, I have other options; and I claim them for myself.

How is it, my friends?  How are you doing?  Is there any joy in you?  Oh I hope so.  I hope that circumstances, and situations, indifference, disappointment, mean, miserable, and joy-less people have not taken away all your joy.   Don’t let them.  Love them but do not let them take away your joy.  Our days are way too few; our time too limited.  Claim the one wild and crazy life that you have.  Let God enter in and surprise you.

O Lord, most high.  Enter here.  Speak tenderly to us.  Give us a spirit of Joy unspeakable – “the Lord has come.  Let earth receive her king.  Let every heart prepare him room.  And heaven and nature sing.  And heaven and nature sing… He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.  And wonders of his love, and wonders [joyful, amazing, incredible, everlasting wonders] of his love![3]

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:16

[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:17

[3] Issac Watts, Joy to the World, 1719 United Methodist Hymnal, pg 246.