Expecting Joy

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
December 17, 2023, Third Sunday in Advent

Scripture: Psalm 126; John 1:6–8

The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday in church liturgical speak. It is the day we focus on joy. Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice.” Our early church forebears looked to the Apostle Paul’s call to the saints in Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice” (4:4). So, during the season of Advent, we start off hoping for the promised newness of God with us. We dream of peace, not human-created peace that comes at the end of a weapon or is only experienced by those with power, but God’s shalom, which, in our best articulation of the concept, means well-being for all creation. But this Sunday, we shift our focus to joy and tap into the well-spring of bliss and delight from within that bursts forth despite the present circumstances. I’ve heard the faithful sing about that joy all my life, even when I didn’t quite understand it. It was in the testimonies of church folk who endured loss, poverty, and disappointment but could sing about their trust in the promises of God. They sang, “This joy I have, the world didn’t give to me. The world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.” They sang, “I get joy when I think about, what he’s done for me.” They sang, “After all, after all. After everything I have seen, thank God I still, still, still have joy.” Our scripture lessons provide spiritual and theological warrants for just such rejoicing, even during the darkest of times.

There is no denying that joy is central to our cultural holiday season experience. Many, if not most, have noticed how, soon after Thanksgiving, we start to see joyful images of the Christmas season—trees, wreaths, holly, ornaments, mistletoe, Santa—all designed to stoke, remind, and express joyfulness. Media and corporations seek to influence us with powerful images of joyous celebration and to encourage us to find joy by purchasing the right gifts, watching the most festive programs, and attending the most dazzling and decorated places and events. We are encouraged not to dwell too much on the hollowness and superficiality of such consumer-driven expressions of joy because they do bring some measure of happiness. Those joyful images have a way of distracting us from the truth that joy and sadness occur together and that there is always the opportunity to rejoice even when much remains so wrong in the world.

But the call to rejoice always begs some questions for the faithful: How does one rejoice amid the intractable injustice and profound unhappiness surrounding us? What makes a people rejoice in the face of exploitation and domination by systems of oppression? Within a world where there is so much chaos, anxiety, and destruction?

The psalmist and John give us insight into the prompting to rejoice when the present circumstances of suffering and injustice overshadow the hope and promise of peace. The superscription for Psalm 126 calls it a “song of ascents.” It is the worshipful posture of people expecting a movement up from their current place and condition, anticipating an elevation to a higher and better place. It is a song in which God’s people remembered what it was like when they returned home from exile. They remembered what a joyful experience it was when God rescued them from the displacement of exile. Their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with shouts of joy. They can rejoice now because of their experience of God doing great things when all seemed lost. And God is faithful and just to do it again. They have joy because they know that God’s promises are always followed by fulfillment. So, yes, they are sowing in tears right now, but by the grace of God, they will reap with shouts of joy.

Like prophets before him, John is harsh in his spiritual instruction to those coming out into the wilderness to be baptized. He dispenses with images of cheer and peace to stoke anyone’s joy. Instead, John speaks to the expectation and anticipation of the Messiah, proclaiming to them the arrival of the One Who Is to Come, and with that arrival, a more powerful, more transformative, more complete baptism. Whatever they may think about John and his approach, it is worth rejoicing now because the One Who Is to Come will confront and transform all that now brings sorrow, injustice, and division.

The psalmist and John rejoice because they know that their present circumstances are neither permanent nor absolute. They anticipate God’s move to bring justice, liberation, and restoration. They remember how many times and how many ways God acted to make things right before. Their memory is not nostalgic, and it is more than a wish. They are holding God to God’s promise and faithfulness, expecting God to respond to their cries now, to act decisively in the future just as God did in the past. They respond with joy, the wellspring of delight and contentment from their experience of God’s light and presence.

And so, on this Advent Sunday, we join our spiritual forebears in both the expression and exhortation of rejoicing. And I know some of us recoil at the idea of rejoicing while war rages, poverty and homelessness remain unaddressed, and injustice threatens migrants, LGBT people, and women’s reproductive health. But it would be a mistake to think that joy is unreflective or unserious. We know that joy does not miraculously change the conditions of the world and is not a means of escaping pain and suffering. But joy has a way of changing how we see and respond to the troubles of the world. We can actively and intentionally access that joy anchored in our experience of God’s presence in the love, light, and goodness that breaks through even at the worst of times. I’m talking about joy that is not determined by external circumstances. It is not the fleeting moments of happiness from something good happening to us at some point. I’m talking about joy emanating from experience and knowledge of the lasting contentment and satisfaction we get from love, community, and trust in a good and faithful God.

I saw it last week when we hosted the Homeless Memorial. The first half of that service was dedicated to honoring and remembering those persons who died while experiencing homelessness, those formerly without housing, and those workers and advocates who worked to house the most vulnerable people. We said prayers, lit candles, and called their names, and our tears flowed, and grief was visible and palpable. But the second half of that service featured stories and memories of the people who died. It became a testimony service in which people came forth and told laugh-out-loud stories about those who died, rejoicing because of the love, relationships, and community they created together. There was laughter and rejoicing not because all was well but because there was memory, hope, and anticipation that while we sow now in tears, we hope to reap with shouts of joy when there is no longer a time of poverty and homelessness.

Perhaps our joy can be found telling the world what we hear and see, the love and goodness we’ve experienced. We see people finding beloved community here, liberating themselves from ideologies and theologies that tell them that they are unworthy of God’s love. We offer food and support to those lacking the necessities, sharing the abundance of our community with our neighbors. We see people find health and wholeness in treatment and recovery, seeing them get back on their feet. We experience that outpouring of love and support when we are scared, lonely, and grieving. That’s why we sing and rejoice. We sing it all the time when we sing “Joy to the World.” A lyric in that song invites us to the most appropriate way to rejoice for all to see. We sing, “repeat the sounding joy.” That’s why there is a joy deep within that isn’t determined by the world’s failure or our disappointment in how oppressive the world is. We sing because the source of light, justice, and liberation is coming to be with us. God is moving, delivering, and providing even when so much is wrong.

One of my favorite songs of the season is “There’s Still My Joy,” as sung by Roberta Flack (and many others), in which she sings, “For all my tears, for what I’ve lost, there’s still my joy . . .” I am filled with so much joy today. Not because everything is going well or as a way to convince myself that everything is okay when things are not okay. But something about the superscription on the psalm keeps joy alive while all else seems so despairing—a song of ascent. We are not stuck alone or in desperation with the world as it is. In our expectation of joy, we rejoice when we think about our hope being realized, peace prevailing, and love lifting us all. Repeat the sounding joy.

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service