A member of our congregation, whom I will call "Katherine," goes to water aerobics several mornings each week. She walks from the dressing room into the pool area, steps down into the water and exercises with men and women of different ages and capabilities. However, some in the class have not walked into the pool area; they have shuffled in on walkers; others have come in wheel chairs. Katherine enjoys the class, but confides that there are a few complainers - people whom you can count on to complain that the temperature of the water is too hot or too cold. Or, if the pool temperature is not the problem, then they will gripe about the day's weather, or the traffic they encountered on their way to the pool.
"It's ironic," Katherine says, "But the complainers are the healthiest ones. I look around the pool area at the walkers and wheel chairs and can only imagine the difficulties these people encounter every day, but the ones who have their health are whining about the their minor inconveniences to the people who have real problems."
I suspect these people have their own special Advent wreath. Rather than lighting the candles of hope, peace, joy and love, they light the candles of gloom, strife, grumbling and contempt.
On the third Sunday of Advent we strike a match in opposition to the whiners by lighting the pink candle of joy, and we discover that the lectionary readings for this Sunday are aflame with joy and rejoicing. The Old Testament reading from Isaiah 61 says, "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God."
In the gospel reading from Luke, Mary has been told that she will give birth to the Son of God and she breaks out in song, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior."
In Paul's Letter to the Thessalonians, he writes, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all your circumstances." And in today's psalm, the word "joy" or "rejoice" appears in four of the six verses. Take that, whiners!
This is the quintessential season for joy. We decorate our homes, businesses and churches. We listen to our favorite Christmas music and sing, "Joy to the World! We participate in parties, we feast with friends, we sing sentimentals, we make merry, we pass out presents, we devour delectables, everything in excess, including alliteration!
In December, everyone is encouraged to muster at least a spoonful of holiday cheer. A few attention-seekers will don the role of Scrooge, but most will avoid being cast as a curmudgeon. Yet, despite all the money we spend and all the energy we summon to create happiness this time of year, Christmas is not a happy time for everyone. This can be a painful month for those who mourn an empty chair at the table; or for those who have been told by their doctor that this will be their last Christmas; or for those out of work and feeling useless; or for those living on such limited funds they won't be buying any gifts this year.
Although most of us live privileged lives, we also know life can be harsh. We have met suffering and we have struggled with adversity. Some sitting here have faced far more than their share of anguish. When they hear others expecting them to be happy despite their sorrow, it can trigger feelings of resentment. Scripture passages that trumpet joy can sound hopelessly idealistic or intended only for those whose hearts are not aching.
In Paul's Letter to the Thessalonians, he says "Rejoice always...give thanks in all circumstances." Rejoice all the time? Give thanks regardless of our circumstances? Was he writing to people who had escaped the cruelties of life and were enjoying happy days? Hardly. He was writing to a tiny group of Christians who were being severely persecuted for their faith.
The prophet Isaiah also tells his audience to rejoice. Was he addressing the comfortable and the well-off? Not exactly. He was speaking to the oppressed, the broken hearted and the imprisoned.
At least Mary has a reason for rejoicing; she's going to have a baby. But she is also poor and the Romans occupy her country and limit her freedom. Not to mention the fact that as a woman, she had few rights.
What about our text from psalms? Some psalms that make it sound as if trouble will vanish if you simply have faith in God, but today's is not one of those. The writer and his community are undergoing dark times. Hearts are aching.
He begins by remembering an earlier era in the nation's history when the people were in exile and thought they would never see home again. Yet God restored their fortunes. The psalm begins, "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."
The writer recalls this earlier period when it seemed all hope was lost. But an amazing thing happened and their livelihood was restored. It seemed like a dream that was too good to be true. They laughed, they sang, they could not believe their good fortune. Now the people are once again enduring arduous times and the psalmist says, "May those who sow in tears reap with shout of joy."
He does not minimize their troubles. He does not say, "It's not really all that bad, let's look on the bright side, shall we?" He recognizes that the people are in despair. Moreover, he does not suggest that the people are getting their just due. There's no hint of blame or punishment or suffering the consequences of their actions.
It's possible that the people have landed in their predicament because of poor choices or immoral actions, but if that's the case, it is beside the point. The writer is not looking for someone to blame or trying to make sense of their predicament. He simply wants the desperate to experience at least a snippet of joy.
Many imagine that joy is entirely dependent on our circumstances. If life is going well, if we are enjoying success, if we have what we want, then life is rich and joyful. But the fact is, some have everything you could ever want, but experience little joy. Others face a never-ending stream of sadness, but still manage to eek out some joy.
The Scriptures speak of joy not only when all is well, but also when the bottom has dropped out and danger is knocking at the door. The light of Christ comes to people in all circumstances, but chiefly to those who walk in darkness.
We wish that when misery blows in with the force of a hurricane and gloom envelopes us like a thick fog, we could whistle up God to clear the way for smooth sailing. But because God does not override freedom and control every event, tragedy can strike and make our lives miserable.
The Scriptures do not promise a life of protection, they promise that we do not face any challenge alone. God can give us strength to persevere - more strength than we ever imagined - and God guides people to our side and comforts us through the love of others. Joy can well up in us even at the worst of times if we know we are not alone; if we know people feel our anguish and will travel the difficult road with us.
Tony Campolo has a friend named Ralph who was the pastor of a church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He started going "to a neighborhood restaurant to have doughnuts and coffee each morning. After doing this every morning for two months he realized that the same people were there at the same time each day. One morning he stood up and said, 'Excuse me everybody, but I've been coming in here every day for two months at 6:30 in the morning. It's the same people here every day and I don't know anyone! Would you please stand up and introduce yourselves and tell us what you do?' They went around and it turned out to be an impressive group. Bill Cosby's wife was there and the author, Tom Wolfe."
"After that, the atmosphere changed. People became friendlier and interested in one another. People would come in and say, 'Hi Gordon! Hi Ruth!" Everyone got to know each other. They got to know everyone except for the man who ran the place. His name was Harry. One morning one of the gang said, 'Hey, Harry, we don't know anything about you. Where are you from? Do you have a family?' Harry hesitated. He did not want to answer. But the gang pressed him. 'Come on, you have to answer!'"
"Finally, he said, 'Alright. If you have to know, my name is not Harry; it is Haseem.' Silence fell over the restaurant. He went on. 'I'm from Iraq. My family is in Baghdad.'"
"This was in March of 2003, when our government was rattling the sabers and inventing reasons why we should invade Iraq. You could hear the emotion in Haseem's voice. Everybody hunkered down, finished their coffee and headed out within a few minutes."
"The following morning at 5:30 a.m., the pastor's telephone rang. The voice on the other end said, 'Ralph, have you heard the news?' He said, 'No.' The voice on the other end said, 'The bombing of Baghdad has begun.'"
"He hung up the phone and rushed to the coffee shop. To his amazement, at quarter to six in the morning, everyone from the 6:30 a.m. coffee gang had already arrived. They wanted to be there when Haseem arrived at 6:00 a.m. When Haseem turned the corner and saw them, he was amazed. They ran up to him, encircled him, and they wept. Finally, Tom Wolfe said, "Alright, Ralph, you're the preacher. Pray!"
"Ralph said, 'Here I am a Baptist preacher praying for a Muslim with Jews and agnostics standing around praying with me.' When he finished the prayer, he looked up and tears were streaming down Haseem's face."
"Haseem said, 'Alright. Alright. But you still have to pay for the doughnuts!' And then he added, 'But from now on, my friends, your coffee will always be free!'"1
The love of God can come from unlikely messengers. Joy can burst onto the scene in the most unlikely places.
1. Tony Campolo, "The Peace that Passeth Understanding," 30 Good Minutes, January 30, 2005
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