Sermon: “Rejoice!”

Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
December 17, 2017

Isaiah 35:1-4a, 10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
God will come and save you.’

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

John 1:6-9, 19-27, 31
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 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.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’

This morning’s Gospel passage is remarkable not for what it says so much as what it denies: the loudest takeaway is not who John the Baptist is, but who he is not. He’s NOT the Messiah, NOT Elijah, and NOT the prophet.

Humorously, though, John bears all the marks of traditional prophethood: he’s a hermit living in the wilderness who embraces an ascetic lifestyle and was sent by God, with a message for God’s people.  I hate to break it to you, John, but if you look like a prophet, sound like a prophet, and smell like a prophet (the camel’s hair get up mentioned in other gospels had to be a little rank)…. you’re a prophet.

So why does John deny it? Why is he so evasive, especially given that this is the gospel most explicit about Jesus’ identity?

Prophets in ancient Judaism had great importance; as the mouthpiece of God, much attention was focused on them and their message. But John wanted the attention focused on Jesus; a Jesus who “stands among us but we do not know him”; a Jesus who is apparently a little difficult to recognize.

And so everything John says and does turns the spotlight on Jesus. Later on in the Gospel, John is described as the best man at Jesus’ wedding to Israel (3:29). We’ve all heard a best man focus his toast a little too much on himself while everyone awkwardly waits for it to be over. Not gonna happen on John the Baptist’s watch! He came, after all, “as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (1:7-8)

Even his baptismal ministry directs our attention to Jesus. In the other three gospels, John proclaims that he is conducting baptisms of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – that individuals might be spiritually cleansed. But in this gospel, John has a different agenda: he is baptizing not for the benefit of his followers, but so “that [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31)

Now, we’re used to baptism focusing on the individual; they’re the focal point of the worship service and our celebrations afterwards. We even order personalized cake, for Pete’s sake.

But John the Baptist’s version is a baptism that points not to us, but to the Messiah.

It may sound odd, but the idea of baptism as a sort of spiritual dragnet meant to help us find the Messiah fits perfectly with Advent. It is, after all, the liturgical season during which all signs point to Jesus.

What does it mean to recognize that we’re not the star of the show, but that we’re meant to witness to the One who is? How do we keep from being the self-centered best man at a party that’s not about us?  How do we avoid the pull to center ourselves around our own agendas rather than around God’s inbreaking presence? How do we drag our gaze up out of the latest urgent thing preoccupying us, so that we might recognize the Messiah who is hidden in our very midst?

A few chapters after this morning’s passage, John the Baptist’s disciples want to know what’s up with this Jesus guy horning in on John’s territory; they are indignant on behalf of their teacher whose disciples are being bogarted by another. John replies with the bridegroom imagery, which, despite my earlier comment about awkward toasts, is deeply moving: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” (3:29)

I love this image because we can all relate to it. We’ve all been at a wedding, or a graduation, or met a new parent cradling their infant, or even simply watched a You Tube video of some special moment and found ourselves welling up with joy not about what’s going on in our own life, but about a beautiful moment in someone else’s. John could have seen the siphoning off of his disciples as a threat to the ministry that had brought him influence and renown; instead he rejoiced that the Light had arrived and was already bringing people alive, making people whole.

John’s response here gives us the key to living joy-fully, to experiencing a life flooded with delight: don’t save your joy just for your own personal highs, your own peak moments or achievements, but spend it liberally, at every chance you get, at every ordinary moment in which you are a witness to love or hope or growth or healing, to God at work in the world around you.

Earlier this week my  husband Chris had had a trying day, and long past when he had hoped to be done with work for the evening, he was holed up in our basement office trying to wrap up some paperwork. When he finally finished, he was understandably spent, ready for the warm glow of some relaxing family time. He emerged from the dark, poorly lit basement into the dark, poorly lit upstairs, because our daughter Davie had decided to turn off every single light in the house, even the upstairs ones, to see how the Christmas lights would look.

Illumined by dozens of tiny colored lights, I saw on his face a look I know all too well, because it is so often on my own face. It said: why is our child running literal circles around the house like a crazy person, past her bedtime, with all the lights off in the middle of the darkest season of the year? And why is my wife following her?

Resigning himself to the circus we had created, Chris went to turn on a light to fix himself a pre-bedtime snack. Davie, on one of her spins through the kitchen, gleefully reprimanded him, “No Papa, we need to see the Christmas lights!”

And God bless him, I watched Chris open himself up to the wild joy of this small person, a joy that was most certainly not his own in that moment, and I saw him decide to share in it. Suddenly all three of us were racing around our dimly lit house to the strains of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s holiday record, singing at the top of our lungs about, ironically, not letting the light go out.

Shared joy aside, Davie had just discovered a fundamental spiritual truth: light shines more brightly in the darkness. John the Baptist knew this, too; Jesus arrived on the scene just a few chapters before John would be imprisoned and beheaded. Like many prophets, he knew the fate that awaited him; in chapter 3, verse 30, John says of Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Yet he still managed to celebrate Jesus’ advent.

In addition to sequestering joy into the rare air of milestone moments, we sometimes think that joy is dependent on our circumstances being happy. John, headed to his own death, gives this illusion the lie. How is it possible, we might ask, for him to have not just joy, but complete joy – otherwise translated perfect joy, full joy, whole joy? How is it possible for us to have joy in the face of despair, of diagnosis, of divorce, of addiction, of tragic headlines? How is it possible to have Light in the darkness – light in our darkness?

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, describes it this way: “Joy is different than happiness…Happiness can be very evanescent, can come one day and leave the next. But joy is…about relationship.” Joy is dependent not on whether you’re having a good or bad day or whether you are happy or sad, but on being in relationship.

That’s why Chris could catch Davie’s joy; he was connected to her and could open himself to joining in her delight at the world. It’s why we feel good when we volunteer; it’s why we experience a brief flash of warmth when we return something a stranger has dropped on the floor of the bus. And it’s why John the Baptist felt joy at Jesus’ arrival even as he moves toward his demise – he was in relationship with Jesus. Like the best man at a wedding, he celebrated Jesus’ joy as his own.

The deepest, most abiding joy comes, of course, from being in relationship with God. Father Martin tells the story of another Jesuit, T.J. Martinez, who “died of stomach cancer at age 44. And…even towards the end [he] was joyful. And I mean that in…the fullest way. It wasn’t fake. It wasn’t insincere. …[H]e was joyful. …[T]he last six years of [his] life, he’d worked in a school for poor children in Houston, called the Cristo Rey school, that he founded. [He s]aid, ‘the last six years of my life have been my best assignment ever.’ And [then] he said, ‘my next assignment will be even better.’ [H]e would send me these texts that were joyful…why is that? Was T.J. happy about having cancer? No. Not at all. But he was in a relationship with God, and he had this trust and he had this experience of joy. …[T]hat’s the difference,” says Father Martin, between joy and happiness.

I won’t oversell it; it is not necessarily easy to find joy in seasons of pain. When we have lost and suffered, when we are eye-deep in the throes of grief or weighed down by the flatness of depression, it can feel impossible to even consider joy; it’s not even on the emotional menu.

But we can remain in relationship with God, with the Jesus who knows the pain of being human – of betrayals, of broken relationships, of condemnation and loss and physical suffering.

And this allows us, at the same time we are in despair – at the same time we find ourselves in the darkness – to dare to affirm that a light is coming, that there is One who loves and cares for us beyond all imagining, and that in Him – in Jesus – our joy is complete. As the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, those who no longer have the strength to stand, “those who are fearful of heart…shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Even before any of those happy endings come, we have reason to feel joy, because Jesus is the One who does not ever leave us alone in our suffering.

In this season of holiday stress, of short days and dark nights, of beloved ghosts haunting our festivities, let us remember the One who is both the main event and our deepest consolation, the One whose presence thrills us with the kind of joy we feel at seeing our best friend happily married. In the groping darkness of our unlit homes, the Light of the world is about to arrive. For a moment, for a season, may we forget our agendas, may we transcend our pain and suffering, and dare to lose ourselves in joy.