Signs of Joy

St. Philip Lutheran Church
11 December 2022 + Advent 3a
Matthew 11.2-11
Rev. Josh Evans




What do you hear? What do you see?

The carols are ringing.
The lights are shining.
The smell of Christmas cookies and pies wafts through the air.
And this morning, we light the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath, representing joy.

What do you hear? What do you see?

All around us are signs of “the most wonderful time of the year.” And yet, at the same time, all around us are signs that our world is hurting and grieving.

Homes and businesses are lost to natural disaster, as communities struggle to rebuild. Lives are lost to illness and violence, as families come to terms with one less place setting at the holiday dinner table or one less stocking on the mantle.

Just yesterday, many of us gathered here for the funeral of one of our beloved siblings in Christ, Ed. And while we know funerals aren’t meant to be sad, but a celebration of life and a joyful proclamation of our resurrection hope, that doesn’t take away from the very real grief we experience in times of loss.

When we are hurting and grieving, it can feel like “the most wonderful time of the year” is anything but.

In such moments, it feels like our world is shaken, as if the foundation is ripped out from under us, where we had once so firmly stood.

One hymn, based on Psalm 137, a psalm of lament from the perspective of the exiles in Babylon, puts it this way:

Once we sang and danced with gladness,
once delight filled ev’ry breath;
now we sit among the ashes,
all our dreams destroyed by death.

I wonder if John the Baptist, from his prison cell, remembered and prayed the words of that psalm, drawing deeply from the well of his religious heritage in his own time of lament:

Once he preached and proclaimed with boldness,
once a fiery hope filled his breath,
once he baptized the crowds in droves,
and attracted an impressive following;
now he sits alone in prison cell,
all his dreams destroyed.

Desperate for some vindication that he hadn’t gotten it all wrong, he sends his disciples to Jesus: “Are you… the one… who is to come? Or… are we to… wait… for another?” You can hear the undertones of regret, the disappointment, the dashed hope, the confusion.

On this Sunday when we light the rose candle of joy, John’s experience in our gospel feels anything but joyful. Signs of joy are difficult, if not impossible, to perceive.

***

You’ve heard me talk before about Blue Christmas – not the Elvis song – but a worship practice in some churches around this time of year, often coinciding with the winter solstice, or “longest night.” Blue Christmas services are designed to make intentional space for those experiencing loss and grief and sadness during this time of year.

I’m grateful that our Advent season this year gives us this part of John’s story because, in many ways, John the Baptist is the patron saint of Blue Christmas. John gives us permission to be honest about what we feel, to name our doubts, to ask questions, to not have it all together.

John also knew something big was about to happen, although he wouldn’t live to experience the fullness of the joy that he proclaimed and that he hoped and longed for in his earthly life. To be sure, there is a sadness in that, in not being able to see the thing happen.

***

This past Friday night, as if I don’t get enough of worship and prayer in my own tradition, I tuned in to a Shabbat service with a Jewish community in Chicago via livestream. Shabbat – or Sabbath – in the Jewish tradition is the weekly rhythm of setting aside time for rest, prayer, and renewal, beginning at sundown on Friday. In some traditions, this involves disconnecting from technology, so the irony of tuning in via livestream is not lost on me… but I digress.

During the service, the rabbi shared a brief reflection and invited her congregation to reflect on the good news of the past week. Sometimes, it’s easy to miss the good news in the midst of so much bad news, which makes the good news moments all the more important to notice and celebrate.

The rabbi shared this reflection as an introduction to a regular prayer in their Shabbat liturgy called Mi Chamocha. It’s a prayer that directly quotes from the Torah, from the book of Exodus to be specific. The newly freed Hebrew slaves now stand on the other side of the Red Sea, having just watched their Egyptian pursuers drowned in the waters before their very eyes, now singing and dancing with Miriam in the joy of their newfound liberation and freedom:

Mi chamocha ba’eilim, Adonai?
Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?

As she went on to explain, this prayer gets included in the liturgy precisely for those moments when there’s not much cause to celebrate, calling to mind the centuries of Hebrew slaves who never got to see that Red Sea moment, who never got to sing and dance in liberation with Miriam.

This prayer is as much a song of praise and joy as it is a reminder:

God has worked wonders before: It’s happened before.

God will work wonders again: It will happen again.

This prayer fills us with a sense of possibility that the world can change, that things can get better, that creation can heal.

***

Not unlike John the Baptist, there are always those who don’t live to see the thing they so long for happen. That can feel deflating at times. It can even feel like cause for giving up: Why bother? It’s not going to happen in my lifetime, so why even try? What use is it to me?

John’s story reminds us of a crucial aspect of joy. Joy, as we celebrate it today, is not about our individual happiness and contentment.

Joy is about something more expansive and more meaningful than that.

“Maybe,” as one commentator offers, “[John] realized that God’s work is bigger than the difficult circumstances of his own life, calling him to a selfless joy for the liberation of others.”

John knew that what was to come was so much bigger than his own individual experience.

***

Our Advent faith of waiting, watching, hoping, and working for justice calls us out of a narrow focus that “it’s all about me” (because it absolutely is not) … and into a wider field of vision that “it’s all about us” – us who are here now and those who will come after us.

Together as a church, we are encouraged to realize that God’s work is bigger than any of the difficult circumstances we come up against. Together as a church, we are building a future that is not wholly our own but one that seeks the welfare and the liberation and the joy of others, including those who come after us who we’ll never meet or know.

That is the work and the joy of the gospel.

***

Still, it can be really hard, sometimes impossible, to feel that joy in the moment.

John felt what he felt, and he named it. John didn’t for a second pretend that everything was okay when it wasn’t.

But John’s doubts and questions don’t make him any less faithful. To doubt and to question is not to indicate a lack of trust, but rather a deeply vested interest in the thing that is believed and hoped for.

John asked questions because, despite his present circumstances, as difficult as they were, he still knew something big was about to happen and trusted it to be so. He just didn’t have all the details or know all the answers.

***

What do you hear? What do you see?

The blind receive their sight.
The lame walk.
The lepers are cleansed.
The deaf hear.
The dead are raised.
The poor have good news brought to them.

Something big is happening already.

The thing is happening already, even if we miss the signs

… which, I have to say, is really easy to do when it feels like we’re fighting one never-ending battle … when we don’t see the results we hope for … when, despite our best efforts at evangelism, our pews get emptier, not fuller … when it seems we might not see the fruits of our labors, so why even try?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of shortsightedness and miss the bigger picture of what God is doing.

Which is why it’s all the more important to notice and celebrate the signs of God’s in-breaking of joy, even now, even here, to savor them, when and where they come …

… even as we trust in a future filled with hope and promise that is even greater and even more joyful than anything we can ever imagine.

What do you hear? What do you see?

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