Union Church is filled with joyful messengers today, from little Union angels to those of the heavenly ranks, to the saints of Philippi, to even fiery John. Listen again to his passion when he calls out to the spiritual leadership of Jerusalem: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” This was the little baby we met just a week ago, the joy and delight of his elderly parents, filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, destined to prepare the way of the Lord.
Yes, the angels are messengers of God’s word just as John is, and people flock to both as we see in the scriptures. Eight out of `10 Americans believe in angels and Pope Francis goes further to assure us that we each are assigned a guardian angel, and would do well attune ourselves to our traveling companion. “No one journeys alone and no one should think that they are alone,” The Pope declared. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, responded, to the angel, with fear, Mary and Shepherds had to be first advised not to fear before any conversation could take place. Yet once we overcome our fear and hesitation, if our heart is seeking God, we find ourselves filled with expectation and hope, seeking God’s will and direction for our lives from our angelic friends. We long to hear a good word, a message, guidance from someone wiser, someone further along the way, be it a prophet, an elder, an angel.
So in this vein, people flocked to hear the message of John in the wilderness. There’s no two ways about it: John was gruff. He was not afraid to denounce the corruption in the spiritual leadership. He didn’t pull any punches. He was an ascetic - yet he was joyful. He called out sin but more importantly, called out a yearning for wholeness.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” He demanded. He knew what we could do. Like Paul he insisted we bear good fruit. Remember what Paul wrote to the Philippians? “Let your gentleness be known by everyone…Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever, is just, whatever, is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise thing think about these things.” The crowds hungered to hear John talk about this.
John had a way about him. We know about the camel hair coat and eating the locusts and wild honey. We have the pictures of the uncombed hair –wilderness look -- that we associate little we joy – but John – he lived joyfully. The wilderness was a symphony of joy. As he went about living into his mission – Joy sustained him. He exuded Joy. That’s what drew people to him.
People felt the brokenness in their lives that John was talking about. They felt the wholeness in his life and they wanted what he had.
So they were filled with expectation. They asked: what should we do?
If you have two coats, share one. John said. Same with food, share your food.
Tax collectors asked, what should we do? Don’t cheat. John answered.
Soldiers asked: what should we do? Interesting answer here, John didn’t say, leave the army and join the resistance, he said not to exhort money and be satisfied with your wages.
Unless there is sociopathy or psychopathy, profound mental illness, or evil; people are drawn to integrity, goodness, truthfulness, and joy. We want to be around near people who can teach us, guide us, and transmit their energy as if by osmosis. Friday, Forrest and I had a date night and watched the “Mocking Jay Part 2” movie. Every time the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman made a cameo appearance, Forrest squeezed my hand a little tighter. After the movie, we talked awhile. What was it about Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and others, like Robin Williams, John Denver, a Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, creative lights that drew people to them, troubled souls that could exude joy that others hounded from them that they themselves so desperately needed for themselves?
There was a recent national poll about what values were important to pass on to the next generation: Honesty topped the charts (43%), followed by kindness (29%), a strong work ethic (11%) were the top three. There is such a deep desire to communicate and share with one another what is most important in our lives. To find in others what is important in life. However, we must find it in ourselves through our faith formed by the Spirit of Christ.
As we draw closer to Christmas, Advent reminds us of two things. To cultivate the gift of joy. We don’t have to live in the wilderness or be an ascetic to be filled with joy. Joy is the afterglow of being in the presence of God – the experience and awareness of which we are called to cultivate as part of our walk of faith. Like Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I will say, Rejoice.” Joy is directly related to God’s grace – which is freely given to us. So all we have to do is just as for it. Be open to it. Let it in. Joy is the reason John could joyful in the wilderness and a just King or Queen could be joyful in his or her palace. A billionaire can be joyful as a beggar.
Joy transforms us – Joy is created in the character of God and Joy was born in the person of Jesus Christ. Advent wants us to have the grace of Joy, to be joyful, to rejoice, to rejoice always, in all situations. To acquire the spiritual maturity and insight to know what this means. Without Joy, we cannot be ready for Christmas. Without Joy, we have half a life. We are created for joy.
Second, Advent wants us to be messengers. We may not be angels or prophets, but we can spread the word of God. If we can develop the well of joy within our hearts, if we live filled with expectation that God has more for us to do, that God can do all things through us, God strengthens us, then we too become people of integrity. We can live our lives so that our outsides matches our insides. Our words flows from our hearts. People will sense the urgency and power behind what we say and do. People will sense the joy in our Spirit in if we carry burdens.
Like John, we recognize there is one greater, who baptizes with Holy Spirit and Fire. However our Advent exhortations, whatever they be, a word, a deed, a song, a prayer, as long as they are done with integrity of spirt and with joy, will have the power to stir a soul to longing, perhaps to awaken a being to question, what shall I do?
We are God’s message, So be God’s love note to someone. Stir up expectations, questions long unasked, possibilities unexplored. Be that message. So Rejoice! You may be that one messenger of integrity, that one messenger of hope, that one messenger of truth, that one messenger of joy that speaks fills someone’s world with expectation this Christmas season. Don’t worry. As Pope Francis said, you have a traveling companion with you, should you get stuck on a word or two. Jesus, promises us the Holy Spirit whenever we need it. Most important, It is the joy of your countenance, the peace of your spirit, the gentleness of your heart, the goodness of your character, and the righteousness of your deeds that speaks louder than before you can articulate a word. So be joyful. Rejoice. Proclaim the gospel – and as St. Francis once said – use words if necessary. Amen.