Sunday, December 13, 2015

Phil Kniss: In search of the joy river

Advent 3: Freedom bound: The path of joy
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7

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Thank God for Advent 3!
    Sometimes called “Joy Sunday” . . . or in more formal traditions,
        “Gaudete Sunday.”
    “Gaudete” being Latin for “Rejoice!”
        the first word of the introit in the mass,
        taken from Philippians 4:4—
            “Gaudete in Domino semper . . .”
            “Rejoice in the Lord always . . .”
    In honor of this Sunday, the choir sang the ancient text,
        “Gaudete” . . . “Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born.”
        And, we’ve been singing hymns that highlight
            the biblical call to “rejoice in all things.”

I thank God for the church calendar.
    In essence, it forces the church not only to mark time differently,
        but to think differently than the dominant culture
            in which it is situated.
    We have a solid theological basis on which to
        think differently,
        react differently,
        behave differently,
        than others, whose life rhythm is not being shaped
            by the Gospel story,
            the way ours is being shaped.

    When we are lazy in our thinking,
        when we are not attentive to the Gospel word,
        we, quite naturally, adapt to whatever is happening around us.
    We unthinkingly absorb the fears and anxieties,
        the protectionism and self-orientation,
        the pessimism and despair,
        that is defining the lives of many in our world these days.

So I come to this sermon on Gaudete Sunday with a strong sense of call.
    I feel called to engage in a spiritual battle this morning
        against a pervasive fear that seems to overwhelm us these days.

I use the word fear very specifically and intentionally.
    Because I am hearing so much—
        in the secular culture, as well as within the body of Christ,
        that seems to grow directly out of fear,
            even if we don’t use that word,
            even if we don’t think of ourselves as being afraid.

It’s easy, of course,
    to notice, and point out,
    the fear-based reactivity when we see it in others,
        and in public figures.
    It has become a near daily occurrence,
        for something to hit the headlines,
        and hit us in our gut,
            playing to the worst of our fears.
    The power of collective fear
        plays out in the mainstream public media.
    Talking heads yammer on about what happened
        that gives us yet another reason to be afraid,
        which of course, keeps viewers glued to the screen,
            and keeps advertizing dollars rolling in.
    They speak in urgent tones, about the tragic event itself,
        or the irresponsible reactions to that event,
        hateful words from people who should know better—
            political candidates, public officials, religious leaders alike.

    And then the social media blows up.
        And many of us blindly participate.
            We react to the reactors.
            We label the labelers.
            We judge the judgmental.
        And the fear quotient goes through the roof.

    Sometimes it’s obvious when fear is a factor,
        because people openly admit it.
        They honestly describe their sense of terror,
            their tears, their sleepless nights.
    But other times—really, most of the time—
        the fear is more subtle.

We use euphemisms for our fear.
    Acceptable substitutes.
    In just the last several weeks,
        I’ve repeatedly heard close friends, or family,
            persons who belong to the body of Christ,
            members of my oikos, my extended family of faith,
            some of you here today,
            say something like—
                “It’s just so disheartening” or
                “I’m so discouraged.”

And often, I nod in agreement, or say, “Me, too.”
    Because I too, am alarmed by what I hear and observe
        in our world, and
        in our political discourse.
    I, too, am liable to give fear a foothold.
    So my sermon is aimed at me, as much as any of you.

First, I need to point out the obvious about these euphemisms:
    they don’t cover up anything.
    Better think again, if you say,
        “I’m not afraid, I’m just discouraged.”
    Because what does it mean to be dis-couraged?
        It means to lose our courage.
        To be overcome by fear.

Dis-courage-ment equals giving in to fear,
    and that’s not what we are called to as followers of Christ.
    We are called to a higher standard.
    We follow a Jesus who said to his disciples,
        over and over and over and over . . . don’t be afraid!

Now, I’m not suggesting we ignore reality—
    that we hide our feelings, or deny our failings.
    By no means.
I just want us to be honest.
    When we are dis-couraged, when we are hampered by fear,
        we are well to admit it,
        and then seek help from the one who frees us from fear,
            whose love casts out fear.

So let’s turn our attention to scripture.

We heard today from the prophet Zephaniah, chapter 3.
    Speaking for God,
        the prophet had some harsh words of judgment
            for the nations of the world, including Judah and Jerusalem.
        He called the wayward people to repentance.

See, one of God’s defining characteristics is justice—
    making things right,
    restoring rightness and righteousness,
    re-creating the wholeness and shalom God introduced at Creation,
        that we subsequently squandered.

So even though the prophet spoke judgment,
    our God, according to Zephaniah—
    this God who makes things whole,
        sees a bright future.

In today’s reading,
    we have a picture of God’s sheer joy and delight
    when God’s people turn to him in repentance.
    “The Lord . . . will rejoice over you with gladness,
        he will renew you in his love;
        he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”
        That’s God singing, you understand.
    Then the Lord says,
    “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.
        I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
        I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
        At that time I will bring you home . . .” says the Lord.

When we turn toward God, God sets things right.
    Oppressors are dealt with.
    Lame are restored to health and restored to community.
    Out-cast are in-gathered.
    Shame is transformed into praise and renown.
    And we who had been wandering are brought home.
        God brings us home.
        God gathers us.

When people turn to God, all heaven breaks loose.
    God pours out his great salvation on us,
        and on the earth.

If we believe the Bible, and I do,
    then my trust rests in the God of Justice,
        the God who will have the last word.
    And that last word is freedom for the oppressed,
        and disgrace for the oppressors.

We, the people who identify with this God of justice and shalom,
    have no legitimate reason for dis-couragement.
    God’s future is on the way.
    God is present and at work now.
        Even though unimaginable suffering exists in our world,
            God is on a mission of redemption.
            There is a saving, redeeming trajectory in the cosmos,
                and it is aiming toward justice, toward shalom.
            God’s salvation is on the way.

The dire circumstances in our world are not unprecedented.
    In the time that Jesus’ birth was announced to Mary,
        things were no less foreboding, no less dis-couraging.
    Yet, Mary could sing an ode to joy—the Magnificat,
        an assurance that God’s future will prevail,
            and the oppressors will get their due.
    We’ll take a closer look at that song next Sunday.

Likewise, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed a vision of God’s future,
    when he spoke to a people in utter darkness,
    in a hopeless exile.

“With joy,” Isaiah said in today’s reading,
“With joy you will draw water
    from the wells of salvation . . .
    Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
        let this be known in all the earth.
    Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
        for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

No hard evidence, as the people looked around themselves.
    Things were bad.
    But Isaiah was a seer. He saw more than most.
        He saw God’s trajectory of salvation.
        He knew and trusted that in God’s time,
            God’s justice would prevail.

Then there is the epistle to the Philippians, chapter 4,
    the text from which we get “Gaudete Sunday.”
    “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
    The Lord is near.
    Do not worry about anything,
        but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
        let your requests be made known to God.
    And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
        will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Not a bad text to repeat to ourselves. Often.
    Not a bad text to re-read before posting anything to Facebook.
    In fact, here’s a little challenge to anyone
        who uses any kind of social media.

    If you are in the practice of periodically publically posting
        your thoughts, your feelings, your reactions
            for others to read—
        how about putting this text somewhere
            in your line of sight?
    Better yet,
        how about posting the text itself as your current status,
        so it’s there on your page for you and everyone else to read,
        so it’s there as kind of a spiritual baseline,
            to compare with other things you write.

    It might be a good reality check.
        When I’m about to make a public comment
            on the state of the world,
            on the church,
            on the latest political brouhaha—
            I might ask myself,
                are my words consistent with these other words
                that I claim to be foundational?

    “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
    The Lord is near.
    Do not worry about anything,
        but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
        let your requests be made known to God.
    And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
        will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
    If what I’m about to say publically
        seems like it has integrity and consistency
            with what I have already publically claimed is my baseline,
        then by all means, I should say it.
    If not, it might be wise to hold back, or restate.

Of course, this self-test applies to everybody.
    If you’re not on social media, you aren’t off the hook.
        Unless you’re living under a rock,
            you are also exposed to boatloads
                of fear-mongering and cynicism, every day.
    No matter who we are,
        this text can be in our line of sight—
        on a mirror, on our dashboard, our desk, our kitchen table.
    We can use it as a point of reference
        in conversations we have with others, or with ourselves.

But if you are on social media, as I am,
    we face a particular kind of challenge,
    that takes some intentionality and discipline,
        if we want to be spiritually healthy.
    It is far too easy to read and worry,
        to get dis-couraged,
        to give in to cynicism and fear.
    And it is far too easy to take off our own filters,
        and join right in with all the fear-mongering,
        even though we claim to be followers of Jesus,
            who taught us repeatedly not to fear.

    I am not advocating a heads-in-the-sand approach
        to all the horrors going on in our world.
    I am not saying we play some psychological mind game,
        and pretend not to see those things.
    I am not promoting the “power of positive thinking.”
    I am not recommending we just sing, along with the Carter family,
        “Keep on the sunny side of life.”
    Those aren’t bad ideas. But they aren’t Gospel.

    I am advocating that we hold a stubborn grip on the Gospel word
        that God is with us in the middle of the darkness.
    That God has redemption and restoration in mind for the world.
    That God has not abandoned us to the darkness,
            but is with us in it.
        The Gospel should lead us to a place of trust and rest.
            Rest within the world, not retreat from it.
            Joy in the midst of our pain,
                not instant pain relief.
            Trust in God’s ultimate salvation,
                not in God’s immediate rescue.

Joy is a river.
    An underground river.
    It runs deep.
    Far beneath the surface, where
        its flow is not dependent on temporary weather conditions,
        its waters are not polluted by surface waste or runoff, and
        it doesn’t freeze in the winter or dry up in the summer.
    Because the source of this joy river
        is the unchanging, foundational promise of God—
        the promise we celebrate in Advent and Christmas.
        God is with us,
            and God’s purposes are for salvation,
                for redemption,
                for life eternal.

    Believing that,
        engaging in practices and disciplines
            that regularly remind me of that,
        will, I am certain, have the effect that
            I will not be immobilized by fear, or dis-couragement.
            But I will boldly and faithfully keep choosing for life,
                keep investing in God’s future,
                keep living as if God needs me to stay focused,
                    and on mission with God.
            Because that’s precisely what God needs.

Let us open ourselves—ears, eyes, hands, arms, mind, heart.
    Come, Jesus, come.

—Phil Kniss, December 13, 2015

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