Sermon for December 16, 2018
Third Sunday of Advent
The Joy of The Lord Is My Strength
Text Luke 1:11-20, 23-25; Isaiah 12:2-6
We have reached the third Sunday of Advent. Notice a shift has begun from waiting and longing to excitement and expectation. We have arrived to JOY! I wonder, what gives you joy? And is joy the same thing as happiness to you?
In today’s gospel lesson we are focusing once more on the parents of John the Baptist again- Elizabeth and Zachariah. In this portion of Luke’s account, we read the about the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Zachariah- who was a priest, that he and his wife were indeed going to have a child.
I always found it interesting that despite Zachariah being someone who would have spent much time in prayer and worship, leading others in worship that he was not able to immediately believe Gabriel’s words.
Now, Gabriel started out by saying, “Do not be afraid, Zachariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you will name him John. You will have JOY and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”
Gabriel was letting Zachariah know that his prayer had been heard and honored by God. Not only heard but that it would be fulfilled.
Have you ever had something you prayed for come to fruition? Do you remember how that felt?
I have- and I must confess that I was like Zachariah at first- not about to really believe it. You see, sometimes I think we get so used to praying and hoping for something that it is hard for us to accept that what we were praying for has really occurred. Perhaps that is what happened to Zachariah. Maybe he had even given up all together? He is old, after all. Perhaps he and Elizabeth had been praying for decades to have a child but weren’t successful.
Well, contrast his reaction to that of Elizabeth’s. Elizabeth did believe it and embraced it. Her reaction is one of gratitude toward God for answering her prayer.
Why would it have been such a big deal for them to have a child?
Specifically, a boy? Because sons would be able to carry on the family name. They would be able to help sustain the family economically. Because in this patriarchal system having a male child meant you had value as a woman and as a couple. That is why Elizabeth states, “this is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Indeed, she would have been living in disgrace all of those years and now she no longer had to. Their prayer had been fulfilled.
So what about you? How did you react when your prayer was fulfilled What did you think? What did you feel? Who did you share your good news with?
Now, I need to pause here and clarify that I am not saying that joy
is ONLY about receiving what we pray for. We know that God is not a genie or Santa Claus. Sometimes what we pray for isn’t for us or it isn’t the time for us to receive it.
I am saying, however, that what we pray for IS being heard by God and when we are given the answer to our prayer, we need to embrace it and give God thanks for it. Not doubt it, as Zachariah did but embrace it, as Elizabeth did.
I prayed for many years to become a pastor again. I interviewed, I spoke to churches. I searched. I prayed. I waited. In the meantime, I worked as a chaplain. You all know that. Some of those years were very hard but also very rich with opportunity to remind many hurting people that God was truly with them.
But it took 8 long years for my prayer to be answered. I don’t think I doubted it. I was just over-joyed! That finally God was sending me to a church setting again. That God would allow that place to be here in California which made most sense for my family and I.
I remember wondering why it took so long. I can only imagine that it was because I needed more time to learn to completely rely on God. Perhaps i needed to be a blessing to all of those patients. Perhaps you weren’t ready for me or my kind of leadership? It happened in God’s time.
But notice that Joy and happiness are two different things- are they not? For I am not speaking of happiness. Neither was Isaiah or Luke. We read over and over how Jesus came to bring JOY to the world. Had it been just happiness that He brought, it would have been something momentary and not the event that it was that changed the world forever.
Joy is enduring. Happiness is fleeting.
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit that bears more fruit.
Joy is choice, not just a result. Archbishop Oscar Romero said this of Joy- “Christians must always nourish their hearts the fullness of joy. Try it brothers and sisters; I have tried it many times and in the darkest moments, when slander and persecution were at their worst: to unit myself intimately with Christ, my friend… it is the deepest joy the heart can have.”(quoted in The Saints Guide to Joy that Never Fades by Ann Ball, 120)
Joy sustains us- This is what my friend, the Rev. Matthew Crebbin said on NPR, one year after the Sandyhook massacre when 12 children and teachers were struck down. Matt is the senior pastor at Newtown Congregational Church and went to seminary with me. He said in his interview- “we are not people who look at happiness- the root for happiness is the same root as happenstance or haphazard. Happiness is really rooted in this notion that somehow, we are dependent upon circumstance around us as to where the well be happy or not. And really for people of faith, joy is a deeper sense that we are held in something that sustained us, beyond envy our ability to recognize, sometimes even in the moment.”
Friends- the Christian message is not one of happiness. Where we are meant to have faking smiles on our faces all day. It is one of deep joy. A joy that only God can provide. A joy that give us peace in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.
If we are a people who only lived by circumstances, we would not be able to survive. We wouldn’t want to get up in the morning. We wouldn’t want to keep fighting for what is right, we wouldn’t want to live out our faith through acts of kindness, justice, and transportation. If we were a people who only existed on happiness, we would not come to worship Sunday after Sunday.
We would only do it if we felt happy. We would only do it out of habit and not because we chose to believe and serve a God who stopped at nothing to show us what love looks like!
We are people of Joy. As such we are called to spread Christ’s JOY into the world. Where is the darkest place in your life- take joy, there. Who in your life needs joy- tell them why you believe in God and how Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s love for them.
What will joy call you to do in your own life? Pray and meditate on it. Ask God- who or what situation needs you to bring Christ’s joy to them? It isn’t about being happy. It isn’t about “fake it ‘til you make it.” It is about the joy that comes from God, that give us strength that IS our strength!
Let us be a church that embodies, embraces, preaches, teaches, demonstrates JOY in all circumstances. That is what will give us strength.