A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on December 17, 2017
Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
December 17, 2017—Advent 3B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
John (the gospel writer) wants to make it really, really clear that John (the Baptizer, that is) is NOT the messiah. He’s not the One. He’s not even the .67 that my favorite advice columnist recommends you round up to “the One.” What he is, is the person who points us towards the One. The one who focuses our attention on Jesus, on the mission of Jesus, on the person of Jesus. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness, in the midst of all the wild and barren places of our lives, telling us where to look to find the way through.
He points the way. The way to THE WAY. And in that, he shares a role with Paul. Paul too was given that job, and one might argue he took to it more enthusiastically than John the Baptist did. And so we can look to Paul for clues; turn to him in much the same way we turn to our GPS when we are lost. How do I get back to Jesus, we type in, perhaps frantically. And we get an answer. Now, the answer will depend on exactly where we’ve gotten ourselves lost. So today’s answer from 1 Thessalonians might be more or less useful to you. But just in case, for that time when this is precisely what you need to be reminded of, Paul answers: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16).
Rejoice always. Which is great, and also somewhat tricky.
It’s tricky, partly because we are somewhat suspicious of rejoicing. I’m reminded of the movie Babette’s Feast, in which a French refugee finds herself in the midst of a puritanical Scandinavian community: a group of Christians who take their faith and life very seriously, and find strength in an austere, pleasure-denying way of life. But they have taken her in and given her shelter, and she wishes to repay their kindness to her. She does so by serving them a sumptuous feast of all the rich and wonderful foods she learned to cook in Paris.
Accepting this gift challenges them greatly. Their view of God, their view of life, is that it is very serious, and so they must be serious. Always. Deep down, they believe it is somehow sinful, disrespectful, or at the very least frivolous to rejoice.
There will always be those who feel this way. Sometimes for religious reasons, and sometimes for reasons of social justice, there are those who insist that the presence of sin and suffering in the world makes rejoicing a shallow obscenity. But Paul argues otherwise. Paul, who himself faced violence and persecution. Paul, who wrote some of his letters from prison cells. Paul, nonetheless, stands on the side of rejoicing.
But permission isn’t our only obstacle to rejoicing. When you are in the depths. When life is hitting you really hard. You might well find you have no footing on the ground of rejoicing. So you hear this command, and feel … failure … a touch of resentment … some anger. It might well make you even more depressed.
The good news is, the trail we can try to follow is: rejoicing doesn’t actually require pretending that everything is flowers and unicorns. And Paul isn’t claiming that life will be all sunshine. When he speaks of rejoicing, he is speaking from his own deep faith and experience that joy (as it turns out) does not depend on circumstance. Joy is not like pleasure, or even happiness. Joy is grounded so deeply in what it longs for, that the longing itself becomes a satisfaction. Paul longs for the presence of Christ, for the return of Christ, and his longing brings the reality of that future into the present day. And so he rejoices. We too trust and hope that something new can be/is being born, and our longing for that future transforms the present.
Which gives us at least a little footing from which we can rejoice. Bravely and with our eyes open. Seeing all the ways in which the world does not resemble the kingdom of God. Tempted to despair. But on our best days, remembering that this is why we were given power to feed and to heal and to cast out evil in the first place. Rejoice always. Because joy is not sinful, or disrespectful, or frivolous. Rather, it can be the very core of our faith and our strength.
(This is not to say that our faith and strength might not also be made up of stubbornness, indignation, and crankiness. But joy helps a lot with the heavy lifting.)
Once we have put at least a couple of roots down into this deep, unshakable joy, it will be far easier for us to take hold of some similar truths about happiness. That it is possible to feel happiness even while we face worries and sadness. And that we are allowed to feel happiness, even when there is so much unhappiness in the world. Because life doesn’t come unadulterated, and we can’t wait until everything is perfect to take hold of happy. To do so would be ungrateful for the beauty that does come. To do so would be to succumb to despair. To do so would be to refuse the power that comes from “always.”
As the poet Jack Gilbert expresses it, in his poem “A Brief for the Defense:”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
It is worth it. Not only that, but it will lead us to Jesus when we have gotten lost in despair. Rejoice my friends. The future is born in our longing. Rejoice always. May it be so, Amen.