This third Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of joy—everything today is meant to reflect the joy of Christ’s approaching. We light the pink candle because we are reminded that this season of waiting and repentance is one, also, of joy.
Our canticle today, the First Song of Isaiah, is one we sang most mornings in seminary. The words describe the praise of the prophet, “Surely it is God who saves me, I will trust in him and not be afraid…Cry aloud inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.” There is a version of this canticle written in honor of Thomas Merton—the well-known 20th c. monk—who sought this kind of praise Isaiah writes about.
Thomas Merton, to me, had an interesting life… he was born in 1921 in France to artists. He then moved to and grew up in Queens. He started college at Cambridge but left and ended up living with his grandparents in New York where he graduated from Columbia University. While at Colombia he converted to Catholicism, laid the groundwork to be an “honorary beatnik”, discovered Eastern spiritualities, and Buddhist practice. After teaching English for a few years, he joined the strictest of contemplative orders, the Trappists (OCSO). He was prolific there writing lots of books about solitude, the contemplative life, and all sorts of spiritual topics. He died in 1968.
Thomas Merton says the path to joy involves removing the obstacles in our life that prevent us from getting to God. One of the chief obstacles, he says, is a selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything: to be a brilliant success in our own eyes, and in the eyes of others. However, the reality is we can’t do everything—we can’t taste everything, go everywhere, understand everything, etc. Rather, there is only one joy: to please God.
That’s what Thomas Merton wrote from his monastery cell in rural Kentucky where with his fellow monks the day centered around the seven periods of daily prayer. But what do we glean from this? What does it mean to seek a joy that comes from God?
I think what is means is a deep and true joy, not dependent on what surrounds us, but that comes from a source within us… that which comes from God.
The trouble is that many of us, myself included, have gotten so far away from this kind of joy that it hardly seems real to us. When we can entertain ourselves or fill our lives with all sorts of things, it does not seem like we need God for much…but this kind of happiness is based more on a reward system. This happiness depends on what comes next—what reward we seek at the time—rather than the free gift of joy that comes only from God. This is a big switch and one that probably won’t happen completely in one week of Advent, but maybe there is gift enough to begin to recognize or remember joy of another kind. A joy from God.
Our gospel passage today, I have often heard, is one of apocalyptic judgment and anger and, thus, a passage more to look over rather than into. However, reading it again recently and exploring what it really says, I feel it is not one of judgment so much but rather one of salvation…even comfort and deep joy…the deepest joy. In this case, the Greek text makes a difference—rather than bore you with a translation, I’ll just explain three pieces. First, John the Baptist is relatable. He is clever. He says, don’t start thinking within yourselves—I’m a child of Abraham, it’s fine, I don’t need to change ”…For I tell you God can make stones children of Abraham”. Sort of like us saying, Jesus forgive me so I don’t need to act differently—Jesus forgives us but that doesn’t let us off the hook. Second, he is refreshingly direct. No parables here. He tells the soldiers: Don’t oppress people, don’t accuse people falsely, be happy with what you earn. He tells the crowds: If you have excess, share. Act like you were God’s. Third, his message of repentance is different than we might think. He says, are you all children of vipers, the evil one? Who told you to fear strong emotions like anger or guilt or pain? Rather look into these dark parts of yourself and see how God calls you through them to be children of God. John knows it’s difficult to change how we act and think but he says, begin by going through the motions. Change your thinking and actions to be that of God’s. Bear fruit worthy of this mind that has been changed and that looks for God. And soon, Jesus, the true savior is coming and brings with him fire—and this fire is good news for us. His are the fires of salvation and not of hell. These fires are what swallow up or clear away any part in us that belong to evil.
John’s message is amazing! John doesn’t condemn the crowds (exclusively). They come to him looking for something and he invites them to make a real and profound change—to do what they can—to act and to share—as a preparation for Christ. He says Jesus is savior because he will clear out everything in us that blocks us from God, the obstacles to God—as Merton put it. Christ keeps the wheat but burns up the chaff. It’s not about condemnation—it’s about salvation and true joy.
Merton wrote, “If I seek some other reward besides God Himself, I may get my reward but I cannot be happy”.
God didn’t send Christ as a reward for us. Christ came to show us there is a way God created us to be— and I think we recognize this in some way, but it can be deeply scary because to move towards this kind of freedom, we must first recognize how we have hurt others, ourselves, etc. But that’s Christ’s endless invitation to a joy and way to live for which we were made. It is possible. God wants us to belong to God— Jesus coming as a human being shows us this.
We are never too far away. Christ meets us where we are—in a stable, on a winter’s night, in a town, or a field 100 miles east of Jerusalem. The shepherds and wise men aren’t just figurines in a nativity scene, holding 24-hour perfection of virtue. They had things to do, lives already established, and despite that they suddenly recognize there is one thing they seek worth pursuing.
No matter where we are or what our life looks like—God’s love, Christ, can meet us. And, funny enough, John’s words are still applicable today as we in this Advent season practice waiting for Christ. We can still do what we can—share what we have, oppress no one, or envy what others have. We know what is good and bad in us and we start by bearing fruit that is good even if the reward is not one that comes right away.
Our canticle reminds us of the joy of life lived with God as it ends with: “Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world. Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel”.