Seeking the Joy in the Journey
Marie Kondo has brought joy back into the consciousness of the culture in a big way. “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” is a phenomenon that helps us bring order to our cluttered lives by asking the simple question, “Does this spark joy?” If it doesn’t, then you thank it for its service to you over the years and then let it go. True KonMari aficionados will say there is more to it than that. And there probably is. But just the evocation of joy is something to take note of—especially when it sits alongside gratitude.
The third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday. Each Sunday in the season of Advent is supposed to be feast day, a celebration, but this week is especially so. The third week of Advent is a time of joy, a time of being thankful for all that has been given—the promise of the Savior who has come, who is present, and who promises a return. The third Sunday of Advent is a day for celebration. Peel away the penitential mood that Advent brings, and rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, “Rejoice!”
Our text from Isaiah drips with joy. In a desert culture, images of flowing water and lush greenery are signs of good fortune, of blessing and prosperity, and, of course, of joy. But Isaiah goes overboard, turning the desert into a swamp and the hardy desert grasses into reeds and rushes – river plants. There are pools and springs; it almost overwhelms.
Isaiah also gives us some insight into the nature of joy. Joy is communal; joy is shared and sharable. It helps us reach out and gather up others, particularly those who aren’t yet experiencing the joy. “Strengthen the weak hands” is a statement designed to help us be with others. It isn’t “strengthen your own weak hands,” but strengthen the hands of others. And it is an imperative in the Hebrew – get out there and strengthen!
Notice, too, that the healing comes from the sharing of the joy. Wholeness comes from the invitation, the reaching out. Isaiah doesn’t say, “Go and heal”; he says, “go and build up, and then healing will happen.” And together, we will all become pilgrims on the way. And no one, not even us fools, can lose our way when we travel together in joy.
“But wait,” you’re thinking, “did no one tell John the Baptist that this was Gaudete Sunday?” Our Gospel text doesn’t seem to be dripping with joy. Or is it? Perhaps we’re not seeing it because we begin in jail. Matthew doesn’t pull any punches as he describes John’s current status. John was in prison and was starting to doubt. In chapter three, John recognizes Jesus as one who is to come, the one John had been proclaiming. He said, “you should baptize me!” Jesus told him to calm down and do his thing. Then he was sure; now he was wondering. Prison can do that to a person - squeeze out the joy, the hope, the certainty.
John had taken a risk, gone too far, spoke out against the behavior of the people in power and now was suffering for it. Now he was languishing in prison. So he sends his still faithful followers out with a question. Some argue that he was doing it for them. Maybe so. But maybe he needed shoring up himself. “Was I right that day at the river? Was that one really the hope of which I spoke?”
“Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” He knew he couldn’t wait; he didn’t have time to wait; his days were numbered.
Matthew doesn’t tell us whether the disciples of John went back with the news or not. We assume they did. We hope they did. And what they brought was joy. “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Watch the reign of God breaking out here and there. Listen for the sound of laughter and hope, sung by the voiceless, danced by the broken. Can you hear it? Can you see it?
Preacher, can you be the one who brings this message to your people today? Looking for joy on this Gaudete Sunday doesn’t mean ignore all that is wrong in the world. But it does mean paying attention to what is right, what is of God, what is the sign that God is still at work in the world, in your community, in your congregation. Tell what you hear and see as you proclaim the joy of the presence of God.