Preparing for Joy

The Virgin Mary & Jesus, St. Stephen’s Church

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017, offered at the parish of St. Stephens with St. John, Westminster, London. 

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I bring you greetings from The Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City.  Thank you so much for your friendship and your prayers, as we have lived into our linked parish relationship.  Thanks especially to Graham and Cath for their collegiality, friendship, and welcome.  And thanks to the Buckles: Graham, Victoria, Monica, and Ollie, who have shown us such wonderful hospitality. Thanks especially to Fabian, who we haven’t met yet– since we are staying in his room!  It is a great joy to be with you all.

Joy is in many ways the theme of today’s worship.  It’s the Third Sunday of Advent and in some places a special name, “Gaudete,” from the first word the congregation hears as the choir sings, “Gaudete in Domino semper,” “Rejoice in God always.” (from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians) “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice.”

In today’s first scripture reading, Isaiah brings joy to a people in exile who are longing to go home. “He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,” Isaiah says. “To bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; . . . to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faith spirit.” A joyful message, indeed.

The psalm also rejoices that God has remembered Israel, so that “our mouths are filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy.”  Psalm 126 can be replaced today with the Song of Mary, Magnificat, as it sings of God’s promise and power to do justice, to make things right, to lift up the poor and lowly, and the fill the hungry with good things.

The Gospel continues the theme of joy, but here, the joy goes further and is transformed into light. John the Baptist explains that his job is a little like Mary’s: to magnify, to point to the light, to testify to the light, and to bear witness.

And so, today, with the prophets, with Mary, and with John the Baptist, we too are invited to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ, and to share the joy of his good news.  But that’s not always easy, is it?

One of the Collects for today prays

God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to speak the truth, to hunger for justice, and to suffer for the cause of right, with Jesus Christ our Lord. (Common Worship, Church of England, option 2)

That’s hard stuff: to “speak the truth, hunger for justice, and suffer for the cause of right”—whether it’s with or without Jesus.  And yet, that’s the very place—the deep place, the holy place, the place of the Cross—where true joy can be found.

The 20th century priest and writer Henri Nouwen talked about the difference between happiness and joy.  He suggests that while happiness often depends on external, outward conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.”

Happiness is a gift and something I hope for everyone, but joy is a quality that runs deeper and grows with the Spirit of God.  Isaiah could weep for the people’s sins and have joy in God’s goodness all at the same time.  The psalmist could weep all night, but even through tears, know that morning would come – one day, some day.  The Blessed Virgin Mary could enjoy every moment with her son and savior, while sensing all the while a sadness that would result in his death on the cross.

December 17, this year, happens to be the Third Sunday of Advent, but in the church calendar, it is also the day for commemorating Eglantine Jebb.  Born in 1876, Eglantine worked on behalf of a number of progressive causes, but especially felt called to action after World War I, when she began raising money on behalf of German and Austrian children, hurt by the war’s aftermath and an Allied blockade.  Though she was arrested for going against the wishes of the British government, she persisted and overcame the objections.  With her sister, Eglantine founded Save the Children, the organization that put forth a Declaration of the Rights of the Child, approved by the League of Nations and later adopted by the United Nations.  The organization has flourished and last year, Save the Children reached more than 157 million children in 120 countries.

Eglantine Jebb prepared for JOY.  She prepared for joy to break into the lives of millions of children and all those along the way whose lives are enriched and magnified in the process.  But what’s especially interesting (to me) about Eglantine Jebb is that she was not always joyous, herself.

She suffered from a thyroid condition, underwent three surgeries, and died at the age of 52. She loved writing, but failed at publishing any of her novels.  She was often disappointed in love, she seemed to suffer from depression, and she did not even find herself especially comfortable with children.  But she prepared the way.

One key to joy, I think, is remembering that we are called to help prepare the way, but the ultimate joy is God’s to shower and shine forth. We work. We pray. We hope. We do our part, but then we have to let go.  We rest in faith and watch in hope.  Because it’s God’s work to finish and unfold.

Especially in this season, we can look and learn from our own busy lives.
For example, I can cook a roast and all the other food, set a perfect table, have everything just right—but that doesn’t insure that people will get along, that the conversation will go well, or that people will enjoy the time they spend together. I can only do my part, but then have to let go.
I can give a gift, but can’t control the reaction.
We can prepare our children for the world, but we can’t control the way they turn out.
We can prepare our bodies for aging and for stress, but there’s a point where we have to trust in doctors and science, and pray for God’s healing.
We can pray, give sacrificially, and volunteer until we collapse, but it is God’s Spirit who will grow the Church.

May we prepare with the tenacious joy of John the Baptist. May we hope with the bright joy of the Virgin Mary. And may we work with the steady joy of Eglantine Jebb and others, as seek to share the joy of Jesus Christ this Christmas and always.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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