December 17, 2017 |John 3.22-30 • “Joyful Hearts”

* I apologize, I forgot to turn on the recorder yesterday …
“Joy” by John Taylor, 2010 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 John 3.22-30 (NIV)

After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

These Sundays leading up to Christmas, I want to think about what it might be like to prepare ourselves spiritually for Christmas … I want to look at the themes of our Advent candles and discover what it could look like to prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas … I want to ask what it might look like to have a hopeful heart, or a peaceful heart … and I want to wrestle with how John the Baptist, the one sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus, could speak to our preparations.

 

I stumbled across a “How Much Do You Know About Advent Quiz.” I want to ask you all some of the quizzes’ questions.

  • What does the word “Advent” mean?

Advent, means arrival … “the arrival of a notable person or event.”

For Christians, there are two parts to Advent, we talk about the arrival of Jesus as a baby, and we look forward to Jesus’  second arrival.

  • Why are our Advent Candles arranged in the shape of a circle?

Circles are often used as symbols of eternity because they have no beginning and no end.” The author of the quiz wrote that, “the circle of the advent wreath is a reminder during Advent of our waiting for the eternal to come into our midst.”

  • Now for the most important question, Why is that one Advent Candle pink?

Here is the answer I found – In the fourth century Advent was a lot like Lent, the season before Easter when the church is a little more somber, more thoughtful, more self-reflective, and spends more time than usual fasting and praying.

In the Middle Ages the assigned scripture reading for the Third Sunday of Advent was Philippians 4.4-6 – “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” People would have read scripture in Latin back then … In Latin, Gaudete, means “rejoice.” The third Sunday of advent came to be known for the first word of the day’s scripture reading, “Gaudete Sunday” or “Rejoicing Sunday.” The Third Sunday of Advent became a joyful little break in the penitent and somber mood of Advent … some congregations started using a pink or rose-colored candle on their Advent Wreath’s to symbolize a bit of joy breaking into their fast as they prepared to celebrate Christmas (The Companion to the Book of Common Worship, PCUSA), pp. 99-100).

 

So, here we are … the third Sunday of Advent … “Gaudete / Rejoicing Sunday.”

Kendra and Aiden lit the pink, joy candle for us. Gerrits read a passage of scripture where we hear the very intense John the Baptist talk about his “joy becoming complete.”

Joy is a challenging word to define … especially for the ways we understand it as Christians.

A dictionary might define joy as, “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” I don’t know if that  really catches the Christian understanding of joy. The bible seems to understand joy as something much more than feelings … feelings can come and go … Christian joy seems more persistent … more deep … more significant. As I explored the idea of joy, I came across a number of layers and angles that can helpful when we think through a Christian understanding of joy.

Here is how Dallas Willard, another one of my favorite authors defines “joy:”

Joy is not pleasure, a mere sensation, but a pervasive and constant sense of wellbeing. It claims our entire body and soul, both the physical and the non-physical side of the human self. Hope in the goodness of God is joy’s indispensable support.

Donald McKim, a Presbyterian pastor and author, defines “joy” as:

A sense of extreme happiness and well-being related in Scripture to knowing God and God’s actions and love specifically in Jesus Christ (The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, pg. 172).

My, way too thick, bible dictionary also had some helpful angles to consider when we think about joy:

In [scripture] joy signifies not only an inward feeling, but audible or visible expression … People find joy in ordinary daily life: the love of a spouse … wise children …  good meals … harvest time … the fruit of one’s labors … an “apt answer”… and good news … (Here is the part, I think might be the most helpful) More often, however, joy occurs in theological contexts that celebrate who God is and what God does. Those who have experienced deliverance … protection … steadfast love … forgiveness and restoration … righteousness judgments … rejoice in God, not only in thanksgiving for past deliverance but also in anticipation of future salvation … (The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, v. 3, p. 417).

A Christian understanding of joy seems to be very connected with a sense of wellbeing in response to knowing and experiencing who God is and what God has done … with this understanding of joy, we can still be joyful even when we might not be feeling all that happy. This is what our Advent, or Christmas joy is all about – in Christ’s coming we know God. In Christ’s action we experience God’s goodness.

 

So, this may just be me, but I haven’t ever thought of  John the Baptist as a happy guy … but he could be a joyful guy, he does seem to have that sense of wellbeing that is based in knowing God and knowing God’s actions … John the Baptist doesn’t show a hint of insecurity and jealously when his followers are troubled and threatened by Jesus and his growing group of followers. John understands that he isn’t the point … his purpose in life is to point people toward Jesus … he is like a best man … it is not his wedding, it is his friends’ wedding and John’s role is to make sure all the attention is pointed toward his friends.

John’s statement about becoming less so that Jesus can become greater also has something to say to our definition of joy – joy must have something to do with being in a right relationship with God and with the people around us.

I really enjoy being around joyful people.

I want to see the world the way joyful people see the world.

I want to think and speak the ways joyful people do.

I want to have that sense of wellbeing that comes from knowing God and experiencing God’s actions.

Joy is contagious. Joy can change us … joy can change the world.

My friend Charles Graham is one of the most joyful people I know. Charles carries himself with biblical joy – that deep and profound sense of wellbeing … his faith is appealing and warm.

At Christmas I think of Charles for two reasons:

1) He sang the most moving version of “Mary Did You Know” I have ever heard, and

2) the first time Sarah and I really had a chance to visit with him was at a Christmas party at his house.

I didn’t really know him all that well … someone had asked Charles to sing at church … during the announcements he invited the congregation to his Christmas open house in Dermot, Arkansas. (Dermot was one of the most hard times towns I have ever been to. It was only 15 minutes away from the town where we lived, but the way people talked about it and avoided it, you would have thought it was hours away.)

His party drew a really interesting crowd. It was one of the few places we went that actually represented the diversity of the area … The racial statistics there were something like 48 percent white and 42 percent black, but there weren’t many places or events where everyone hung out together. Except for Charles’ party – Charles’ party was an everybody party. Everyone was invited and everyone seemed to enjoy each other’s company. It was something Sarah and I had been longing and praying for. It was a taste of God’s kingdom when we really needed it.

When we talked at the party, Charles must have sensed we were homesick and lonely – he invited us to come to his house for dinner later that week. When we hung out again, he shared more of his story and we experienced more of his joy. He had lots of reasons to be angry with that community … he had grown up there … he had attended segregated schools and segregated churches … he experienced the pain of racism … after high school he left that town and never intended to live there again … but God nudged him as he made plans for retirement, he experienced God’s call to move back… It was amazing how Charles’ joy … how his deep sense of wellbeing in Christ … how his relationship with God and his experience of God’s goodness … impacted that community.

His joy brought people together.

His joy brought out the best in people.

His joy inspired people.

Charles’ joy pointed toward Jesus’ love and goodness … in the way I imagine John the Baptist pointed toward Jesus’ love and goodness.

As we seek to live as disciples, as people who trust and follow Jesus, God grows joy in us. That deep relationship … that deep sense of wellbeing.That deep understanding of who God is and what God has done changes us … it shapes us … and it transforms our communities to be more like God’s kingdom.

Christmas joy … our joy that comes from Christ isn’t fleeting … it is more than an emotion … it has power to change us … it has power to change the world.

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