Out of all the Biblical characters Advent lifts up for us as a guide, John the Baptist is the one perhaps we would least associate with joy, the theme of this third week. Remember we talked about John last week: how his message of repentance is the procurer to peace in our lives. Today our gospel calls us to look more closely at John, whom Jesus calls as “Greater than any person ever born.” So, what does John have to teach us about following Jesus and having Joy?
At first glance, John and joy seems an unlikely pairing. John is the prophet who recalls the fiery, colorful Hebrew prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah; who are bold, confrontational and passionate, but not necessarily joyful. John’s the wild one who lives in the desert of Judea, dressed in camel hair, a leather belt about his waist, and lives off locusts and wild honey. And there in the desert the word of God came to John. So, John began his work around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in order to prepare the way for the One who is to come who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
John was not one to mince words. His comments from last week are still ringing in my ears: “You brood of vipers!” Remember how last he yelled at those coming to be baptized whom he felt were less than sincere. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Bam! Talk about a 1-2 punch.
John taught that those with two tunics and extra food should share with those who had none. He instructed those who collected taxes that they take no more than required to. John advised soldiers not to take bribes or accuse people falsely, and to be content with their pay. When people began to contemplate that John was the messiah, or Elijah or great prophet returned, John denied it all, saying, "I baptize with water," John replied, "but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie."
John did not hesitate to confront the politically powerful. He publicly rebuked King Herod for adultery, which led to his arrest, imprisonment and ultimate beheading. Other than Jesus, John is the only other New Testament prophet whose birth story is told. The angel Gabriel told his father Zechariah: “for he will be great in the sight of God. … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth”
But Gabriel also added this message about John: “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.” It is the John who jumps with joy in his mother’s womb when Mary, the mother of Jesus, enters the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. At the end of his career, as Jesus began his public ministry, and imprisonment and death around the corner for him, some of John’s disciples come to him complaining about Jesus; followers were leaving John and flocking over to Jesus. Shouldn’t John be jealous of this upstart? John dismisses it at once, explaining his relationship with Jesus “The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
John’s is a life bookmarked by joy and infused with joy. Joy enabled him to live boldly and hold nothing back. As a result, John poured his life into his mission of setting the stage for Jesus. John knew who he was and he knew who Jesus was, before anyone else. Such knowledge can only come from beyond: it comes from realm of grace, the realm of joy.
We more easily think of joy in the context of celebration, feasting, dancing, abundance and everything going right; not a monastic, severe, subsistence lifestyle like the one John led. Jesus differs from John in that regard; for Jesus is depicted as eating and drinking and enjoying the company of outcasts – so much that his detractors call him a “glutton and drunkard.” Yet both Jesus and John are examples of Joy-filled men. So, it is not the lifestyle as much that we should look at, but the life that is present in the actions. We have probably all been at parties or gatherings where there was plenty of celebration, but very little joy. We all probably know people or groups who are not afraid to denounce evil and oppression, who shun the consumer lifestyle (and will boast of it to your face), but who demonstrate little joy. And we also know people who seem to radiate goodness and joy not matter the circumstances of their life. My stepmother is such a person, who despite the loses in her life, including two children, is a joyful person. It is healing to be in her presence because she is able to let joy and peace flow freely.
John is an example of someone who stands, like Jesus, for justice, righteousness and joy. Joy is just there, because God’s life is truly there in the depths of us. Joy is a fruit of the spirit, a byproduct of God’s indwelling life that would fill us and guide us, if we would just let go and let it. John had to be a joyful person, for why else would people flock to him, someone whose lifestyle was so different from theirs? It was John’s joy, which radiated from him, and gave him the firmness of his convictions, that people responded to and hungered for. It was joy that gave John’s preaching its depth and power.
Advent would have us consider John and joy together because too often, those who preach repentance, those who stand for social justice, often have a hard time communicating joy in their message or experiencing real joy in their lives. The task of confronting sin and oppression takes its toll. The statistics are staggering, and the work seems endless. As we have been stating for months, we live in troubled times, difficult times, lean times. Times where it is hard to lean into Joy. Yet without the cultivation of joy, the work John did, indeed the work we do, becomes unbearable, not just for ourselves for others. Mahatma Gandhi observed that “Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant or the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service that is rendered in a spirit of joy.” Billy Sunday, the great evangelist, also observed, “The trouble with many men (people) is that they have got just enough religion to make them miserable. If there is not joy in religion, you have got a leak in your religion.”
On the other hand, joy, without doing the prophetic tasks of hope building and peace making, without the context of unconditional love, becomes empty and trite. Advent teaches us we need to hold it all together, hope and peace, love, and joy. John is our witness; John is our model in this advent season of someone who was both joyful and prophetic.
Joy is always there, available to us. Joy is not contingent on the circumstances of our lives. Joy is not contingent on how well or poorly we are doing. Joy is not contingent on our age, our intellect, or anything outside of you or me. Joy is there in the recesses. Joy is not to be contained but released. We can hold back joy, we can lock joy up so that it never is visible, and we can choose to access joy only when our moods are positive. The work ahead of us is to deliberately access joy and release joy in all we do. The task for us is to make joy more present in our lives. The best gift we can give ourselves, no matter what struggle we face, health, relationships, goals we set for ourselves, be it for career or for personal growth is to experience joy. It is not surprising that Jesus, when he began his public ministry, deliberately selected the passage from Isaiah; a passage that integrates joy and justice: “I will bind up the broken-hearted, release the prisoners, proclaim good news to the oppressed; but I will also give them garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; everlasting joy shall be theirs.” Can we give ourselves both justice and joy?
It is said both the Koran and the Talmud teach that we will be held accountable for every permissible pleasure life has offered us and that we have refused to enjoy during our earthly sojourn. So joy is a holy right, even an obligation. The Upanishads, writings sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, add:
That which is Whole is joy.
There is no joy in fractioned existence.
Only the Whole is joy. (VII. 23)
John would point us, like Jesus, to the whole. God wants us whole, complete, filled with Joy.
So, this is our task at hand, as we draw closer to Christmas and as we plan for a new year, and as our church enters a new chapter of its life as a congregation. To be whole, like John was, like Jesus was – so that access to the depths of our being is not blocked by fear. To be whole, so joy can flow through our work, through our pleasures and through our words. So, joy can be released and proclaimed in us, as Jesus intended. Let us lean into Joy and may we gift our church and those we meet with joy this holiday season. Amen.