Joy is the serious business of heaven

Lectionary readings for the third Sunday in Advent:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11      Psalm 126 or Magnificat (Luke 1:46b-55) 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24                     John 1:6-8, 19-28

God of all joy,
you draw us to yourself,
through the grace given to us 
in Jesus Christ.
Mould us into the family likeness
so that as we live and breathe,
we live each moment as your children,
sharing the good news with the oppressed;
comforting all whose burdens are heavy;
bringing good news to those without hope.

When we have failed to reflect your goodness,
forgive us;
when we have squandered your gifts to us,
forgive us;
when we have lost sight of you
give us that transforming glimpse 
of your goodness
and lead us into new life.

This is Christ's gracious word to us:
Your sins are forgiven; 
thanks be to God.

Joy is the serious business of heaven is a quote from C.S. Lewis, in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (you can find the whole passage here: https://tollelege.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/joy-is-the-serious-business-of-heaven-by-c-s-lewis/).  And you may wonder, when this is the second Sunday with a reading about John the Baptist, and a fearsome message to repent, what there is to rejoice about.  Although in fairness, the writer of John’s Gospel concentrates on the testimony of John the Baptist as ‘the one crying in the wilderness’.  

The style of writing in St John’s prologue employs majestic, poetic beauty when describing the Word of God; that familiar image of Jesus who is the one who reveals the unseen God.

Yet when John the Baptist is introduced it is with simple, elegant but almost terse sentences:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.

John.  There are no biographical details here, if you wish to learn more about John, you would need to read the account in Luke’s gospel (and we can only presume that St John expects that these details are known to his readers).  In John’s account, all that needs to be known is shared here:  his name is John, he is sent from God, and he ‘baptizes’.

John is given a significant role: he is a witness; he comes to bear testimony.  There will other witnesses – Jesus’ signs, the Father, the Spirit, the one responsible for the story (19:35).  But here in the prologue, it is the witness of John the Baptist that is critical to the narrative.

We mostly associate a witness with a trial, and the television portrays numerous fictional, as well as real instances of the process in action, for those who haven’t seen it first hand!  Similarly, at the time this gospel was first written both Roman and Jewish leaders would be required to offer a ruling, as they listened to the witnesses brought forward to substantiate the claims of the story.  But in doing so they make a pronouncement on themselves: the coming of Jesus is the great trial, and it demands a decision.

The trouble with testimony is that it is never a neutral thing; it forces choices that have enormous consequences.  It changes the world.  It is like a light shining in the darkness, revealing those things that would remain hidden under cover of darkness.  

The great call to repentance, symbolised by John’s baptism, is a choice that all must make, and the time of Advent offers a time in which to reflect and prepare.  But beware, it is known to be life-changing, world-challenging and brings enormous consequences.

Margaret Fishback Powers autobiography Footprints, describes one Christmas shopping excursion where she slipped away to buy one present and returned with some beautiful gold wrapping paper.

Her husband Paul screamed at her for the waste, for the paper was very expensive.  The paper all disappeared, and much to his further annoyance, their daughter Tina had used the entire roll to wrap one present.

On Christmas morning, Paul tripped over the large box covered with the expensive wrapping paper.  He kicked it, then picked it up and shook it.  He heard nothing and the box seemed so light. Ripping the paper off, he discovered the box to be empty.  Now enraged he angrily reprimanded Tina, “you shouldn’t have taken the paper, and you should have put something inside the parcel before you wrapped it!” “Oh, but daddy “, the small girl sobbed, “I did put something inside – I filled it with kisses for you!”

Margaret Fishback Powers said it was the gift that her husband most needed that Christmas.  He hugged his daughter and begged forgiveness.

Towards the end of the reading from Isaiah , which speaks of the  good news of deliverance, is an image of the joy of a wedding banquet, with bride and groom adorned in all their finery.  Well, there has not been too much of that this year.  Yet the image is powerful in this passage because it is once more set within a passage about God’s justice and righteousness, od faithfulness and steadfast love.  This is a real cause for joy amid the gloom that has pervaded life and made many feel as though they walked through the valley as dark as death this year.  Because God is still God; and repentance and rejoicing belong together.  

For although Advent is a penitential season, a time of preparing and getting ready for the Lord’s coming, it is also a season of great joy.  Because where true repentance is shown, true joy always follows.  In the parable of the Lost Sheep this is beautifully drawn out, when Jesus says, 

…there will be greater joy in heaven 
over one sinner who repents 
than over ninety-nine righteous people 
who do not need to repent.  
Luke 15:7

Isaac Watts sums up real significance of the incarnation in the great hymn, Joy to the World.  Where Christ reigns, real joy breaks out as people and creation experience his righteousness and love.

Even though I am very aware that at the very time of the year that we are called to repentance and the joy of living in obedience to Christ, the number of telephone calls to the Samaritans increases, I make no apologies for concentrating on joy. 

Churches are increasingly holding ‘blue Advent Carol Services for people who struggle through this season, because of ill-health, depression, redundancy, bereavement, in fact the whole set of issues that afflict humanity from time-to-time. And I make no apologies in a time of pandemic when life has been anything but joyful for many people. Because joy is not about personal pleasure, a surface emotion of happiness, or the gaining of more possessions.  It is not about the things of life which currently afflict us.  It is rooted in a deeply held assurance that the struggles and disappointments of the present day will be resolved by a fundamental experience of being freed by a God who will not disappoint, no matter what.

The prophet Isaiah discerned this at a time when the people of God had been exiled and life was extremely harsh.  So such joy knows the reality of being burdened and oppressed (61:10).  Yet the humble still need to hear the good news, the broken hearted still need to be healed; the captives need liberty and those imprisoned long for release.

Such joy is in contrast to the frantic pushing and shoving of a department store cash register queue or the fatigue and boredom on the faces of so many shoppers.  It is the joy marked by song and dance and by the concrete actions of those returning from exile to repair the ancient ruins.  But notice that it is described in terms of the celebration of a wedding feast where those attending come dressed in robes of righteousness and garments of salvation.

Having lost homes, loved ones and more importantly of all,  to many devout Israelites, the Temple with the concomitant distress of struggling to know how to worship God in a strange land, the promised day is coming, when the yoke of oppression is to be thrown off, in favour of fine clothes, feasting and reminiscences.  We have experienced just a little of that, as churches have been closed for several months,.  Yet the rejoicing in what God continues to do through the power of the Holy Spirit, is but a small reminder of how things should be:

The kingdom of God…
is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  
Romans 14:17

When Mother Teresa of Calcutta was asked what heaven looked like, she replied:

We all long for heaven where God is, but we have it in our power to be in heaven with him right now—to be happy with him at this very moment. But being happy with him now means:
               loving as he loves,
               helping as he helps,
               giving as he gives,
               serving as he serves,
               rescuing as he rescues,
               being with him for all the twenty-four hours,
               touching him in his distressing disguise.

O God today, 
we give you thanks for signs of hope 
as vaccine programmes become available 
to the vulnerable in our communities.
We pray for 
all those who have worked so tirelessly 
to produce these vaccines; 
for all who will administer them; 
for those who have felt trapped, 
but now may look forward 
with confidence to greater freedoms 
in days to come.

We pray for wisdom across the nations
so that everyone who is at risk,
may be given this life-enhancing gift.

We pray for the homeless 
and those on the margins of society;
we pray for all who work to keep them safe.

We look forward with joy and anticipation
to a good Christmas -
however different it may feel this year. Amen
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely;
and may your spirit and soul and body 
be kept sound and blameless 
at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
The one who calls you is faithful, 
and he will do this. 
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
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