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St. Paul’s Congregational Church

December 13, 2020; Advent 3B

Refocus, Restore, Rejoice

Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8-11; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Did you notice the shift in tone and imagery from the lament and confusion of the first two Advent Sundays today? There is a different energetic, confident tone to the readings, taking realistic note of destruction and pain, but giving voice to a determination to rebuild and restore a broken world. God’s Spirit is at work anointing people to this future-building and the dominant image in our readings is Joy. The traditional name for the Third Sunday of Advent is “Gaudette Sunday” from the Latin word for rejoice – today we lit the pink candle in our Advent wreath.

How, though, can we rejoice this year amidst all the troubles of this pandemic filled world? What is real joy, anyway?

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy is hidden in compassion. The word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” It seems quite unlikely that suffering with another person would bring joy. Yet being with a person in pain, offering our simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty, such such experiences can bring us deep joy.

“Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family. Often this is a solidarity in weakness, in brokenness, and woundedness, but it leads to the center of joy, which is sharing our humanity with others.”

“True Joy is to feel our shared vulnerability and feel compassion for another. It is to walk beside and seek to be with those in our communities who are suffering.”

How can we feel joy in spite of the sorrow, the anxiety, the chaos, the loneliness that’s so rampant around us? Sounds Pollyanna-ish, doesn’t it? But it’s not – none of us can or will deny the pain of our times – but Isaiah tells us God has anointed him to deliver a message of consolation to give hope to the disheartened, to expedite the release of captives, and to console the bereaved since their grief and mourning is about to be transformed into festive joy.” And God has anointed us too – we are called to refocus. The Spirit will do the work, Isaiah writes, ...but through the person….everything this prophecy predicts hinges on the anointing of the person. God does not speak restoration into existence or wave a magic wand. God empowers a person to do the work that will bring about justice and restoration. Through the Spirit of God, the people of God perform the work of God. Through the Spirit, we become instruments, as well as recipients, of the good news. And we can be joyful about this!

This week on one of the news programs I often watch, the guest was Leslie Jones – a comedienne who I hadn’t been familiar with before this – what in the world was she doing on Dateline Washington? She was brash, she was quick and a little loud for my taste until she said this: “We gotta choose joy! We gotta take care of each other!”

She’s right, isn’t she. Joy comes when we become instruments as well as recipients of the good news! Joy comes when we don’t deny the pain of our times joy comes when the people of God perform the work of God! We’re called to make a choice – refocus, restore, and rejoice.

On Thursday I needed to get gas and I stopped where I often do – the attendant and I greeted each other – he was a little quieter than usual but then he said, hard to believe Christmas is just two weeks away – this is a tough year for so many people. He went on to describe how many people barely have the money to put gas in their cars, how many have asked him if he knew where they could get help feeding their families – we agreed that the Bloomfield Social Services Department was doing a great job offering assistance – but it’s not always enough or people don’t know how to access that help. He told about one family who stopped for gas and asked for just $5 worth – now, these days that doesn’t get a lot, does it. He very quietly filled up the car and went to retrieve the free turkey he’d picked up and handed it to the family along with a full tank of gas. He smiled a little wistfully and said, “There’s so many like that family - imagine if everyone helped just one.” We agreed we’re called to take care of each other.

There are signs all around us these days - let’s refocus and see them and not only be recipients but also instruments of that good news!

Kelsey Creech is a second year student at Andover Newton Theological school and wrote a reflection on the third week of Advent Joy which I share with you:

“The scene on the border is complex. It is a place filled with pain and sorrow and despair, but also a place for joy. That joy, I believe, is the mark of resiliency.

“What a task it is to write about joy while also bearing witness to pain and injustice. As I write this, I am reminded of the children we saw play, of the beautiful works of art along the border wall, and of the meaning found in the co-ops we visited. The joy present in these spaces stood starkly in contrast to the rest of the landscape. The works of art commemorated and stood opposite the stories of unidentified migrant lives lost as they searched for new life in the Arizona desert. The co-ops juxtaposed themselves directly opposite the border of the courts where people who attempted to find new life in the United States but had their search cut short and canceled were criminalized and sent back. The laughter of children playing jump rope seemed nearly impossible after hearing of the situations that forced their parents to migrate in the first place. Amidst the pain, sorrow, and despair, there is joy.

“I cannot of course describe to you the exact feelings or thoughts of the people I met. On a narrative tour, you learn the stories, but you do not learn the intricacies of the people you meet. I can, however, describe to you the sparkles in the eyes of the children as they played jump rope, safe inside their gated compound. I can detail the beauty of the art along the border and the catharsis of viewing art dedicated to commemorating and speaking out against injustice. And I can celebrate the hard work of the women of the compound we visited who prepared enchiladas for us and sold me a beautiful, bright green bag which I now carry everywhere. In these spaces, I can attest to the joy I witnessed in others and share what it taught me about resiliency.

“The desert is dry and hostile, but life is resilient. Cacti bloom, albeit for short periods of time, and javelina, little pig-like creatures, make the arid space their home, foraging for food and water in the desolate landscape. Against the odds, life finds a way. Our borders are dry and hostile, but life is resilient. Children play and laugh, when they find safe spaces, and adults, filled with the complexities of adult memory and emotion, make the hostile border their home, supporting each other and finding ways to process their past and present. Against the odds, life finds a way.

“This is the joy of humanity, a group resiliency that shows up when we are in community with one another.”

In the midst of a disappointing return from exile, the Spirit of the Living God gave Isaiah a vision, not only of what he would proclaim to those who mourned, but of what their restoration would look like—"the year of the Lord’s favor” manifested before their eyes. And the vision alone was worth rejoicing. The promise was enough to give God praise. The anticipation and expectation was a gift.

Advent refocuses on the gift of what is to come. Not like the anticipation of a child wondering what presents will greet them on Christmas morning under the decorated tree. What if we were as eager for the kin-dom of God on earth as that child is for a new doll or electronic device? What if we looked forward to the changes that the Spirit works in us as fervently as we hope for a change in our at-home condition?

The Spirit is upon us, because the Sovereign One has anointed us, calls us, and empowers us to bring the good news of restoration, hope and justice to a world that needs a change in condition now. Let us refocus, let us restore, let us rejoice! Amen!


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