The third Sunday of Advent, like each of the Sundays in Advent, has a traditional theme. The first week we talked about hope, last week about peace, and this week we focus on joy. And as we get closer and closer to Christmas, joy seems to surround us. It’s there in our Christmas carols, and on our cards and decorations. Joy feels natural this time of year.
And so it is easy to hear texts like the one we read today from the letter to the Philippians and agree. Hear the words again: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
It’s easy to see why this is the text that churches read on this third Sunday of Advent. Who doesn’t like to hear about joy this time of year? As we light our candles, we can boldly proclaim our joy in our words, and in our prayers, and in our songs. Christmas is almost here, and we are joyful.
But, what about those times when joy feels hard to reach? What do we say then?
The third Sunday of Advent will always be linked to that question for me, and here’s why. Three years ago I was getting ready to preach about joy. It was the Friday before the third Sunday in Advent. I had been married less than a month before, and I still hadn’t come down. I was on top of the world. Joyful beyond words.
That day we were at the grocery store buying things to make Christmas cookies. And when we got home I was planning to write a sermon that would have rivaled George Bailey’s joy at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
And we had just cleared the check-out line when I looked down, and there was a text from my mom. It just said: “It’s so horrible about all those children in Connecticut.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but within minutes the full horror of what had just happened in Newtown, Connecticut started to sink in.
The next two days, like most clergy I know, I went back and forth between the TV screen, and a blank computer screen. Because I knew I was supposed to preach about joy, but how do you talk about joy in the face of something so terrible?
I think that in the church we sometimes don’t do a very good job of acknowledging the realities of the world. We talk about hope, and peace, and joy, and love. But do we also talk about the hard things that are happening in the world? Things like violence? Things like tragedy? Things like refugee crises? Things that defy understanding?
Too often we don’t. We gloss over them and focus instead on brighter or happier stories. And then we wonder why people worry about whether they will be welcome in church. Because if we don’t acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world, and instead just say “be joyful”, how can anyone tell us their stories? How can they talk about when they are mourning? How can they talk about when they are depressed? How can they talk about losing their job and scrambling to make ends meet?
To deny what is happening in the world is not a Christian response. It’s the opposite of a Christian response, in fact. Because Christ never told us to not tell the truth about life. He never told us to only be happy or carefree or bright all the time. Instead, Jesus told us to bind up the brokenhearted, tell the truth, and stay near those who suffer.
That’s one reason we have our Blue Christmas service here. We know that hard things happen, and that sometimes it might feel like there is no room for that in the Christmas season. Because some years the holidays are just plain hard. We understand, and we make room for that. Because whatever you are going through in your life, you are welcome in church. And you are welcome to carry those things that are hard into this space as well. Because if you can’t bring them here, where can you bring them?
And, at the same time, the church has an obligation. And that is to not just acknowledge the brokenness of the world, which we must do, but to also go one step forward and proclaim that it doesn’t have to be that way. There is another way. And in Advent we point to that fact, and we point with hope to the future, and to the way Christ is coming into this world.
The passage we read from Philippians reminds us of that:
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. 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.
Scripture doesn’t promise us easy lives, or lives without pain. But it does promise us that those things do not have the last word. And the best way to illustrate it that I know of is to talk about the color of a candle.
You may notice that today’s candle on the Advent wreath isn’t purple like the other three. It’s pink. The traditional color for Advent is purple, which is meant to represent what is royal, like the coming Prince of Peace, but also to show repentance, and the turning away from what is and towards something better. And churches used to take this very seriously, and the four weeks before Christmas for centuries were very somber and penitent.
But the story goes that in the midst of the dark winters and more reflective Advents of years past, churches thought that about now people needed a little glimpse of what was coming. And so they made the third candle pink, which is supposed to be sort of a mix between the purple of Advent and the white of the Christ candle that we light on Christmas eve.
And they called this Sunday “Gaudette Sunday” which means “rejoice”. And so, we light the pink candle because just as the white mixes with the purple and transforms it, we are waiting for Christ’s light to break into our world and bring the joy that feels so elusive. We stand here in the real world, at the junction of where pain and hope meet, and we look for something better. We long for joy. And we say, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, oh come God, and be with us.
And we do something else too. We proclaim, just by being here, what joy really means.
We testify that the joy that comes with Christ sticks around. It’s there in the best of times, but it’s even there when times are hard. You can be a joyful person and still cry alongside the world. Because being joyful means you know it isn’t supposed to be that way, and you believe it can be better.
On Christmas Eve we read these words from the Gospel of John: “The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In other words, Christ is the light of the world, and the worst that the world can do is still not enough to extinguish that light. And if that light cannot be extinguished, than neither can that joy.
I was thinking about that last Sunday. Many of you know that Heidi was ordained to the ministry in Boston. What you may not know is that choosing that particular date was a declaration of faith for her, and of choosing to live into joy in what is often a hard season.
Heidi has given me permission to share this story with you today. It starts 23 years ago in upstate New York. Heidi’s dad had entered a severe stage in his very real battle with an illness called addiction. And, not knowing what else to do he ended his own life. Ever since the first week of December has been a difficult one for Heidi; one in which the darkness of the world seems to snuff out all of the light.
But it’s for that very reason that Heidi chose last Sunday, the Sunday that came in the first week of December, to hold her ordination to the Christian ministry. It was by that very decision that she proclaimed that the light still shined, and would shine, and that darkness would not overcome it.
Last Sunday was a day filled with joy. I’ve been to a lot of ordinations, and I’ve seen joy, but this was incredible joy. And in a real way, I truly believe that joy was so tangible there because the one being ordained knew real pain, and knew real darkness. And because she would not let those things have the last word. The candle always does, after all, shine brightest in the darkest of nights.
And so, here we are, on one the shortest days of the year. The longest darkness. And we are here because somewhere inside of us we believe that it is true. We believe that the light will always overcome the darkness. And we believe in the miracle that is about to come into this world.
And so, our job as followers of Christ is to spread that light, and spread that joy. Because joy is different than just a feeling. Joy is a way of living as people following the light of Christ into the world. Claiming joy is an act of faith, and living with that joy is an act of revolution in a world that could use a little joy right now. God’s gift of joy is there for us all to claim, not just in the good times, but especially in the bad.
And so, and as we watch and wait this Advent, be witnesses to the light of Christ, and the joy it brings. And live as the people who believe that this joy, and the child who brings it, can change the world. If you do that, you’re halfway to Christmas already. Amen.