NOTE: This essay is based on the Old Testament and Epistle readings for the third Sunday of Advent. For a reflection on the Gospel reading, see “What Then Should We Do?” from the JwJ archives.
For Sunday December 12, 2021
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
In his brave and provocative poem, “A Brief for the Defense,” American poet Jack Gilbert insists that we cultivate joy in the face of the world’s brokenness:
"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.”
The ancient writers of our lectionary texts would wholeheartedly agree. The prophet Zephaniah exhorts his readers to “sing aloud, rejoice, and exult” with all their hearts, because God is in their midst, and rejoices over them with gladness. Isaiah claims with confidence that his people will "draw water from the wells of salvation" with joy. And Paul, writing to the Phillipians, encourages them to “Rejoice in the Lord always."
Indeed, the Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday in the liturgical calendar, because it’s a day when we anticipate and celebrate delight — God's delight in us, and our delight in God's salvation. In many churches, the penitential purple of the season is put aside in favor of a lighter, happier rose. Even as Christians around the world contemplate the apocalyptic significance of Jesus’s once and future arrival, we pause to remember the heart of the Gospel story, which is the stunning good news of God’s saving love. Good news grounded in joy.
And yet. And yet is it fair to say that these texts leave us feeling a bit uneasy? A bit anxious? A bit inauthentic? The truth is, rejoicing isn’t easy, especially in these days and times when the concept of joy is routinely manipulated by advertisers, religious leaders, and politicians who want nothing more than our money, our loyalties, and our votes. If the Biblical instruction to rejoice no matter what strikes a sour note for some of us, given all that is happening in the world right now, I don’t think we’re alone. As the United States reels from yet another devastating school shooting, as nations contend with a frightening new Covid variant, as the planet continues to suffer the effects of climate change, as economic and political uncertainty hits our communities in increasingly consequential ways, it might feel like the worst kind of denialism to “risk delight.”
Moreover, we Christians don’t have the best track record when it comes to balancing a commitment to joy with a sensitive and holistic response to the world’s pain. Too often, we are known for exhibiting — and demanding — a Pollyanna-ish cheerfulness that refuses to look the complexities of real life in the face. We mistake lament for unfaithfulness. We sacrifice empathy for our own emotional comfort. We behave as if our faith — and, by extension, our God — is too fragile to handle life's dark side without a generous side-serving of grinning emojis.
I wonder if our spiritual ancestors — Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Paul — might have something to teach us in this regard. These writers don’t approach joy from a place of denial, obliviousness, or cheap frivolity. Zephaniah writes in the context of terrible spiritual and political corruption, perpetrated by the very leaders who are supposed to care for the poor and the oppressed of Judah. His exhortation to joy sits right alongside his call to repentance and lament, and his confidence that God will sit in righteous judgment against those who exploit and oppress the weak.
Isaiah, likewise, writes in the context of great suffering, as God’s exiled people experience the humiliation of Babylonian domination. His call to joy is a forward-facing call, a call that fully recognizes the terror and pain of his present moment, and yet at the same time insists that something infinitely good, restorative, and salvific is on the horizon. God will not abandon God’s beloved. Exile will not define reality forever. There will be a return. A homecoming. A cosmic celebration of renewal and restoration. To rejoice in a time of exile, then, is to insist that God is present, active, and faithful, even when circumstances suggest otherwise. Joy in Isaiah’s context is a muscle to exercise, a practice to honor, a discipline to cultivate. It doesn’t require denial at all. What it requires is the courage to trust in a God who promises deliverance.
What about Paul? What helps me as I contemplate Paul's advice to "rejoice always" is remembering that he writes his letter from prison, while awaiting trial and anticipating death. It also helps to remember that he’s a man who is threatened, rejected, beaten, and shipwrecked. A man with a "thorn in the flesh" that God apparently does not heal in his lifetime. A man whose haunted past includes violence and murder. A man who knows firsthand the irony of a Pax Romana that leaves everyone in 1st century Palestine cringing under state-sponsored oppression.
It’s clear that Paul’s famous lines in Philippians are not about feeling good so much as they are about cultivating the inner life of the soul. In Paul's view, peace and joy are not emotions we can conjure up within ourselves. They come from God, and the only way we can receive them is through consistent spiritual practice: prayer, supplication, gentleness, and contemplation.
In other words, joy requires us to sidestep sentimentality and cynicism alike. It requires that we hold onto two realities at once: the reality of the world's brokenness in one hand, and the reality of God's love in the other. Joy is what happens when we daily live into the belief that God can and will bridge the gap between the world we long for and the world we see before our eyes. It is a posture, an orientation, a practice. A willingness to sit gently but persistently in the tension of the "not yet," trusting that God's peace will guard our hearts and minds in that in-between place for as long as it takes.
In his poem, “Hamlen Brook,” Richard Wilbur describes the work of joy this way:
Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.
I love this. I love the linking of joy with longing, joy with ache, joy with deep and unslaked desire. To "rejoice" by this definition is to lean hard into our longing for God’s perfect shalom to break into this suffering world and make things right. It is, unabashedly, a longing for rescue. It is not a longing that excuses our passivity and apathy. Rather, it is a longing that compels us to participate in God’s good work. It's a longing that drives us to anticipate and enact shalom in every way we possibly can, while also admitting our desperation, our helplessness, our urgent need for a savior.
In the Biblical tradition, joy and judgment are inextricably connected. I know that we tend to equate judgment with condemnation, but in fact, to judge something is to see it clearly — to know it as it truly is. In the language of scripture, synonyms for judgment include discernment, acuity, sharpness, and perception.
So. We can rejoice because we trust in a God who sees rightly, honestly, and deeply. We can rejoice because God our judge sees us as we truly are, in our beauty, brokenness, earnestness and evil. God our judge loves us enough to deliver us from ourselves, and loves the world enough to redeem it so that all can thrive. Isn’t this cause for celebration? Because our judge is pure love, we don’t have to fear the day of judgment that’s coming — we can rejoice in the promise of creation made new and whole. We can "risk delight." We can be honest in our longings. We can admit, even in the worst of times, that “there will be music despite everything.”
Debie Thomas: email@example.com