A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Advent 3 – Rejoice!

John the Baptist by Matthias Grünewald, detail of the Isenheim Altarpiece

Advent 3 – Gaudete
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 65:17–25, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:12–28, John 3:22–30

Today is rejoice Sunday. All our readings are focused on joy.  I’ve spent the week reflecting on the word joy. Over the years, I’ve heard the word joy pitted against the word happiness. In fact, I might have even done it. But I’m comfortable with that. Nowadays, I think joy is one of those great words that needs other words to help describe it. Happiness may be one way to describe an aspect of joy. I think is happy as a temporary excitement. But it’s still an aspect of joy.

There is a bigness in the word joy. It can encompass words like delight, you know, there is a great delight or wonder in being alive. What about surprise? Maybe you’re driving along and suddenly you see a magnificent view on the horizon. The surprise of this glorious view may be described as joy. There’s also an aspect of joy that might, we might call comfort. On some dialysis days, I feel extremely weak. Kelly cares for me and this comfort might be thought of as a kind of quiet joy. There is also the joy of a quiet contentment with my wife and my family. It is the presence of people we love that can fill us with a gentle joy.

Today let’s think about joy in relation to our Scriptures. Our passages talk about different aspects of joy. Our first two passages speak of returning to Jerusalem. In that sense, they are about home. Jerusalem is the place where they come and worship at the Temple. It is the symbol of their covenant with God. It is home. There is a longing to be restored home from exile.

Our Psalm highlights a dramatic change of events when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him. [1]

But then the Isaiah passage gives us a little more nuance to this returning home.

17 “For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
and her people to be a gladness. [2]

I just want to think about this image of returning home. Think about some of the songs people sing at Christmas, they sing about returning home, you know: I’ll be home for Christmas.  Or other songs like White Christmas convey some idealic childhood experience. For many people, there is something in the memory of childhood when all was innocent and filled with wonder.

Chesterton links this idealic vision wth the wonder of being alive. He says, “At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for the submerged sunrise of wonder, so that a man sitting in his chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive and be happy.” – G.K. Chesterton

Christmas songs and films and tradition awaken for a a deep longing that we cannot fully articulate. I would suggest the Isaiah passage brings a helpful nuance to this longing. Isaiah writes,

17 “For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
and her people to be a gladness. [3]

In Isaiah this image of returning home becomes an image of restoring all things. The Jerusalem that Isaiah talks about is still to come: the New Jerusalem. So in one sense, we are longing for a home that has not yet been. We are longing for a home, that is to come. We were made for a home, a heaven, the heavenly home of Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem.

Our longing for this home is joy. CS Lewis used to speak of our longing for heaven as joy. He would suggest that heaven seems just around the next corner. It’s just out of reach. And for him that spoke of the mystery of joy.

God is leading us to this renewed world, this New Jerusalem, and yet in some ways, it is manifesting all around us even now. It is drawing us into a communion of love that will populate the New Jerusalem. It is leading us into a holy family.

We are longing to go to a home and which we’ve never been and the only way we can even taste of this home is to enter into the communion of faith.

In our second lesson today. Paul is describing life within community of faith. He writes,

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.[4]

This community of faith is a family. It is a family that God has called together, and so much like the very best of our families from childhood. If anything, these families from childhood, are simply a taste of the true family that is made up of people from all races and all nationalities, that God has called together in Christ. And there is some deep joy that He is revealing to us, within the context of the family, the church family that extends beyond the boundaries of time and space. It is the communion of saints.

Sadly, I’ve seen people you know, I know people have been wounded in church and have been wounded even by spiritual leaders, which is great grief to me. And yet, even in its fallen, broken form, at times, the church still is revealing the glory of God and it is what we’re called to, but obviously a perfected for. And so there is some great wonder that is revealed within the communion of faith. And one aspect of it there are many aspects but one aspect of the joy is it’s a place where friendship can be cultivated. So I thought deeply this week about friendship this week.

CS Lewis writes extensively on friendship, but one beautiful quote captures the eternal nature of our friendships. He writes,

Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isa. 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.

Lewis, C. S.. The Four Loves (p. 79). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

In friendship, we are each sharing together in this little community here, and other communities of faith with which you participate. We are sharing our vision of the Divine of God’s beauty of God’s glory of our hearts longing. And in that sense we are, you might say, We’re striving together, or longing together, we’re leaning together into this new Jerusalem, that God has called us to, and he’s leading us to, and we are sharing our story together. So we have the joy in the heavenly Jerusalem in the home. That to which we are headed, we have a joy in the family that God has put us and called us to.

Finally, we come to the Gospel reading. And here we have a very unusual joy that is presented to us. It is the joy. It appears to be the joy in fading away.

John hasn’t been arrested yet but he will soon be arrested and he will soon be executed. Yet he is joyful. He is asked if it bothers him that more people are going to be baptized by Jesus and few people are being baptized by him. John responds,

The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” [5]

Just as Mary said, “Let it be unto me according to your word.” John says, “He must increase but I must decrease.” Both statements are distinctive of the specific calling of Mary and John. At the same time, both offer prayers to the people of God. John’s joy and the fulfillment of his call is to point to Christ and then disappear.

How do we live into this joy? I think the whole book of Philippians might give us some insight. IN Philippians 2, we “in humility count others more significant than ourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus”[6]

In Philippians 3, we rejoice in the Lord, letting go of what is behind and looking ahead to Christ.

In Phili 4 we rejoice in the Lord always. For we have come to trust the Lord in all things.

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [7]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 126:1–6.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 65:17–18.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 65:17–18.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Th 5:12–18.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 3:29–30.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Php 2:3–5.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Php 4:5–13.


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