By Geralyn Wolf
My sisters and brothers in Christ, today the lessons speak to us of joy, and in lighting the third candle of Advent, we are put in mind of the spiritual light that increases within us in this glorious season — it is the light of Christ coming into our hearts, and the heart of the world.
Joy in the secular world is often associated with happiness, buying and wrapping gifts, decorating the house, hearing Christmas music, houses bedecked with colorful lights and maybe Santa on the front porch waving to the passersby.
For the Christian, joy is not just an outward appearance, but an inner peace, an inner knowing, a spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Galatians (5:22) we read, “The fruit of the Spirit is joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,” and so on. It is interior, it is a gift of the Spirit weaving into our hearts and minds. When the beautiful decorations are taken down and put away, when the tree is no longer in the living room, and gifts have been given and received, so many people are sad because Christmas is over. Of course, others are relieved.
However, for the Christian, for the follower of Jesus, the meaning of the season does not end on Christmas Day. The Messiah, whose birth we celebrate in one season, comes to life in our hearts in every season of the Church year. It is not a gift-wrapped in beautiful boxes and paper, but it is a gift implanted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, day after day, after day. From this same Spirit, continually working within us, our actions reveal joy to others, and become the gift that the Messiah offers to the world.
However, let us not be fooled by the warm feelings of the season. They are manufactured by the media and public relations in order to make you feel good and spend more. The truth is, joy often takes root in our despair and disappointment, and finds its beginnings in our darkest moments when we wonder if God is present at all — those times of profound of anxiety and loss, those experiences of helplessness and fear.
Psalm 139 is a great comfort in times like these: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you, … the darkness is as light to you.” And more words of comfort in John’s first letter: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
We cannot flee from Jesus. He is present in spite of us. His light is present no matter how dark our lives may seem. When we put God in first place in our lives, and call upon his word for sustenance, we are slowly given the strength to persevere and to see the light that is ever-present. We are not alone in our darkness, for his presence is both in us and in the whole community of faith. As we help each other, we become the body of Christ, the Church, a source of hope, strength, and love.
On this third Sunday in Advent, we hear once again the message of John the Baptist. He is considered the last of the Jewish prophets and the first to clearly proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the one who is come to save the world.
One of John’s messages to us is his witness of humility. It could have been very easy for John to tell his followers that he was the Messiah. After all, many already thought that he was. If this all happened in our present age, John would have made the front page of the newspaper, been invited to appear on talk shows, and made millions of dollars in speaking engagements. But John the Baptist did not claim importance for himself. He found his joy, with a capital J, in preparing the way, in opening up the spiritual road, in pointing to the one he knew to be the promise of ages. Pointing to Jesus was John’s joy.
Our joy is expressed in the beautiful message from the prophet Isaiah. It tells who Jesus is, and who we are as his followers. You may remember that in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke (17-21) we read that Jesus unrolled the scroll on the Sabbath and read the same passage from Isaiah that we read this morning: “The Lord has anointed me: he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to the broken-hearted, to captives and those in prison, to provide for those who mourn. To give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” And he ended the reading by rolling up the scroll and saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled.” Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
And through Jesus, and in the power of the Spirit, we are given the gift of his love, and in our very being there is good news and garlands, gladness and praise. As these grow in us, we become the outward signs of Christ’s joy, made complete in us.
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we are given steps to guide us in this journey of being Christ for others.
The first is to rejoice — to give joy; to gladden hearts. It is an act of giving.
The second is to pray without ceasing. Now, some of our prayers come from those learned long ago in our childhood. They include the Lord’s Prayer, prayers in the prayer book, hymns that are like prayers to us, prayers taught by parents and grandparents. Others are heart prayers. They are the prayers that spring from within us. Some of us don’t think we have the words, or even know what to say. But hear the comforting message that St. Paul writes in the eighth chapter (26-27) of his letter to the Romans: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” God knows what you mean. You don’t have to worry. Some of the most beautiful prayers I’ve ever heard have come out cautiously, haltingly, fearfully.
Third, do not quench the Spirit. Be open, expectant. Be malleable, willing to change. Remember those wild winds of the Holy Spirit that alighted on the apostles on Pentecost: disturbing and life-giving. Full of truth and power. Uprooting our complacency, and clearing our vision so that we can see more clearly.
Paul goes on to tell us to honor the prophets, to test everything and to hold on to what is good. Even the young Mary tested Gabriel. She listened, and questioned, and listened again before accepting the message. In time, she discovered what was good, and held fast.
And then finally, abstain from evil. Once you’ve tested the spirits, choose what is good, hold on to what is good, do away with evil and the devil — who often looks very attractive, but don’t be deceived. Put God first, again, and again, and again, and evil loses its power.
In this letter, Paul gives us the route to our sanctification. It is the road to a sound spirit and body. It is a blameless journey into the coming of Christ — we’ve done the best we can. Not perfect, but whole in the Lord. We’ve been faithful, and we are ready to celebrate his first coming, and our lamps are lit as we look for his second coming in glory.
Like John, we are to testify to the light. The truth is, I believe we are crying, preaching, living in a cultural wilderness. There are so many movies and television shows that test our moral judgment. The newspapers are filled with stories of violence, corruption, and greed. Our computers and telephones are wonderful inventions, but they bring us distortions of the truth, and cause harm to so many young people. Like John, in the midst of our wilderness, we are to testify to the one who is to come. And, as we testify through word and action, Jesus’ light will shine through us. Some of us spread the seeds, others water, but God gives the growth. When we do our part, there is joy in our hearts — an interior fulness of God’s presence.
In the prophet Isaiah, chapter 55, we read “the word that goes forth from my mouth will not return empty, but it will prosper for that in which I sent it.”
God’s word in us will not return empty, but it will bring forth the fruit that God desires. Jesus is putting his trust in us to bring forth his word, allowing it to prosper in our lives and in the midst of our families and world, so that through us God’s word may be fulfilled: that all the world should prosper.
Christmas is about true love, love that is born into the world. Not an emotional love, though that too is a gift, but love that is sacrificial, love that comes from being lost and now find. In the end it is life-giving love, springing from God’s Spirit working in us. It is the joy of Christ himself.
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
This word from St. Paul to the Thessalonians, is Jesus’ message to us: to be one with him, with Jesus, in thought and in love. This is indeed our greatest joy.
The Rt. Rev. Geralyn Wolf, Bishop of Rhode Island from 1996 to 2012, is an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Long Island.