Gentile, da Fabriano, ca. 1370-1427. John the Baptist, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46774 [retrieved December 5, 2020]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." 21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." 22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23 He said,
"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'"
as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" 26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin. And that’s why today’s Advent candle is pink. Pink symbolizes joy.
It marks the point in Advent when we turn towards the joy of Christmas. And joy is a wonderful thing, to be sure.
And also, it feels a little strange to be talking about joy as this wrecking ball of a year keeps on swinging.
It feels strange to be talking about joy in the midst of grief-struck times.
It’s easy to worry that feeling joy means we’re not taking all the heartbreak of this world seriously enough.
And it also feels strange to be talking about joy with John the Baptist as our trusty companion.
Joy is not the first word that comes to mind when I think about him: the guy who roamed the desert, clothed in camel’s hair, eating locusts, calling those in power a “brood of vipers.”
But maybe this time we’re in, when joy itself feels unlikely is just the time to have an unlikely companion on a journey into joy. —-- And the thing is, joy is strange. It’s not quite what we superficially think it is.
If you look up joy in the dictionary you’re likely to get a ho-hum, superficial definition.
Like this, from Merriam-Webster: joy is “an emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or the prospect of possessing what one desires.”
It’s not that that definition is wrong, but it doesn’t capture the inexplicability of joy.
If we were all together, in the sanctuary, I’d be really tempted right here to ask you to share the last time you felt a jolt of pure joy.
I think we’d see pretty quickly that joy doesn’t always make sense.
That it comes unbidden.
It surprises us, and it leaves us seeing things differently.
I think we need poets to help us understand joy. Poets like Christian Wiman, who says this about joy.
If you’re musing on the general meaning of joy or sitting down to write an article on the subject, [the dictionary definition] might be of some use as a place to start. But if you are trying to understand why a moment of joy can blast you right out of the life to which it makes you all the more lovingly and tenaciously attached, or why this lift into pure bliss might also entail a steep drop of concomitant loss, or how in the midst of great grief some fugitive and inexplicable joy might, like one tiny flower in a land of ash, bloom - well, in these cases the dictionary is useless.
Or poets like David Whyte, who defines joy like this.
Joy is a meeting place of deep intentionality and of self-forgetting, the bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion with what formerly seemed outside.
C.S. Lewis, whose spiritual autobiography is titled “Surprised by Joy,” takes us to a similar place.
Joy, as Lewis understands it, is an emotion shot-through with yearning. Unlike pleasure, he writes: joy “must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
Joy, he says, “is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’.”
Joy is “a pointer to something other and outer.”
All of them, and many more, talk about joy as an experience that brings us out of ourselves.
An experience that yearns us towards something our hearts truly desire and in so doing moves us, not just emotionally, but in how we live.
That kind of joy, inexplicable, unbidden, lifts us out of ourselves, yes. But it doesn’t put us back down in the same place where it found us.
Joy transforms us.
And this makes sense if joy is our hearts sensing that that - that thing I feel or sense that is what I desire more than anything.
That kind of joy will have the power to turn us, towards that place where our hearts sense they will find home.
And so I find myself wondering, what if we read John the Baptist’s story as a story of that kind of joy?
Where might such a reading take us? It’s not as strange an idea as it might sound. Luke’s Gospel tells us that John’s life began with joy.
Just before the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, which you heard last week, there is a moment when Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, first greets Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus.
Elizabeth reports that as Mary drew near, as Jesus drew near, John leapt for joy in her womb.
“A lift into pure bliss,” as Christian Wiman put it. Communion. An encounter with his heart’s truest desire.
And I think that what happened next in John’s life is a good example of how joy transforms us.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light.”
John is the one who says I have seen this. I have felt this. That’s what it means to testify. It is to say aloud what you’ve experienced.
John’s life was testimony from the beginning. Starting with that leap of joy that Luke’s Gospel records.
And in a way, testimony is what joy is all about.
Joy doesn’t stay safely put inside of our hearts.
I think, if we listen, we can hear that overflowing in John’s story.
His life testifies: I have seen this. I have felt this. My heart will yearn ever towards this.
Join me in this place of joyful encounter with the One who comes to bring light into these dark and challenging times.
Seen that way? His is a ministry of joy.
A ministry of joy that we are invited to join.
John invites us, even as he invited his contemporaries, to surrender to that very same joy that made him leap and that moved him to help others see what he saw.
Which was Christ. God-with-us. Here, now.
Good reason for joy.
The invitation that this story extends to us is maybe most clearly visible in John’s answer to the question: “Who are you?”
He answers the authorities with a series of statements about who he is not.
I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet.
You can almost hear him adding I’m just John. Just me.
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
It’s a stunningly humble answer to the authorities’ question.
And it’s one that makes space for us to join this story, to join John in what one commentator calls his not-ness.
We are also not those things. We are also just ourselves. Each of us, one voice. —-- So the question for us is: will we? Will we say yes to that invitation? Will we say yes to that joy?
Will we risk letting that joy that is our hearts’ encounter with Christ transform us?
Lift us out of our lives and put us down somewhere new?
Will we let our hearts’ yearnings towards that place they recognize as home, bend the paths we walk in these lives of ours?
And here’s the thing to remember as we ponder that invitation.
John’s lived response to his joyful recognition of Christ in our midst doesn’t need to be our response.
We don’t need to wander the desert, wearing camel-hair clothing, eating locusts.
What this text asks of us is simply that we participate in this unfolding story.
If we let it, the particular joy that each of our hearts feels on recognizing the One in whom we find our home will overflow from our lives.
We will bear our own witness, each in our own way, to the light that came into the world, to Emmanuel, who is God-with-us. Like the mirrors in a lighthouse, reflecting and sharing the light that is not their own.
John bore witness by baptizing and preaching.
Others in history have born witness to that light by working for social justice, through acts of kindness, by planting hope in times of despair.
If we say yes to entering it, we each write our own version of this story.
And that feels like a good project for Advent.
It feels like a good project for this particular Advent.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for resisting the Nazi regime, wrote that joy is from God.
It’s something given, not something made or forced.
Joy seizes us, he says. If we let it, I’d add.
And when it does, he writes, joy reaches around itself, it pulls others along, it bursts through closed doors.
Joy, in Bonhoeffer’s hands, and in John the Baptist’s, and if we let it, in ours, is no frivolous emotion.
It’s not self-satisfied pleasure. It’s not ignorant of the world’s suffering. As yearns us forward towards the One in whom we live and move and have our being, so joy bears us in the work of enacting the good news He proclaimed.
We need that kind of joy write about now.
As we leave here and contemplate our own living of the story John’s telling, I offer this prayer written for this day by Rev. Anna Blaedel at the organization enfleshed.
The Joy of God-With-Us does not come as naïve optimism, or surface level feel-good-ness.
Joy cannot be imposed from on high. Joy cannot be commanded. The Joy of God-With-Us is mingled with grief, exists side by side with mourning, knows that pain and death are all too real, but do not have the final word.
This joy tends tenderly to beauty, and softness, and the gladness that comes from paying attention to what matters.
The Joy of God-With-Us is collective, liberating us from deadly despair.
Joy is gestating in darkness; it comes unexpectedly.
Joy invites our expectation, and demands our participation.
Prepare the way, for joy with sorrow.
May Joy be birthed among, within, and through us, this Advent.