Joy – Advent III

On this third Sunday of Advent we look once again to the qualities that are present in the kingdom of God. Now, Quakers function with the uncommon understanding that the Kingdom of God, through the Holy Spirit isn’t a future event to be anticipated, like some second shoe to fall. According to our reading of the scriptures the Kingdom of God has come among us and within us. But, fortunately, that isn’t the complete story because we also hold to the idea that in our spiritual pilgrimage the Kingdom of God claims ever more territory as our lives come into harmony with God’s intention for all of creation. So the kingdom has come, the kingdom comes and the Kingdom is yet to be fully realized.

The Joy of Christmas is a gift that comes of opening to the work of Christ in our lives, making us into the person God intends us to be and then, against what’s popular and expected of us by our culture, being obedient to the concerns laid on our hearts to continue God’s efforts to restore creation.


 

“they shall obtain joy and gladness…

sorrow and sighing shall flee away”

On this third Sunday of Advent we look once again to the qualities that are present in the kingdom of God. Now, Quakers function with the uncommon understanding that the Kingdom of God, through the Holy Spirit isn’t a future event to be anticipated, like some second shoe to fall. According to our reading of the scriptures the Kingdom of God has come among us and within us. But, fortunately, that isn’t the complete story because we also hold to the idea that in our spiritual pilgrimage the Kingdom of God claims ever more territory as our lives come into harmony with God’s intention for all of creation. So the kingdom has come, the kingdom comes and the Kingdom is yet to be fully realized.

 

The third Sunday of Advent has been traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for “rejoice.” During these Sundays in Advent, we look deep within to examine our hearts and rearrange our lives and values to accommodate the presence of Christ. There is a sense of longing for God’s mercy as we see ourselves in the light of God’s love and grace. In the kingdom of God, there is light and that light shines on the ways we fall short of God’s intention for us. We are sometimes grieved that our lives have not always reflected the presence of Christ within us.

 

But, as I was beginning to say, especially on this third Sunday of Advent, the kingdom of God, wherever it takes root, is characterized by joy. This is a joy that sustains us in a world where things are not right. We sang, “Joy to the World the Lord has come.”  The world may not yet understand or embrace the coming of the Lord, but we who have embraced the kingdom of God by faith know that the kingdom has come, is come and yet will come in ever more full measure.

 

Our reading from Isaiah points to an amazing joy. In the midst of the desert, where nothing can grow, and life is lived in the extreme, God comes with blessing and the desert is transformed. Today and for us it is a metaphor of God’s working in the world and in our hearts and lives. It concludes with some very special and appropriate language.

 

Isaiah 35:1-10 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

 

3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

  

5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

 

We have all seen the classic bit in movies where a man is crawling along the desert floor, inches from death’s door. His lips are swollen and cracked—tongue parched and dry dust clinging to a brow baked beyond perspiration. In the distance, one can faintly hear the melody, “Cool, clear water” and even the thought of water brings mental anguish. Then the fleeting embers of hope are fanned by the image of an oasis just ahead—only to be crushed as the mirage disappears and despair comes crashing in!

 

Isaiah is telling us that there is a spiritual equivalent to the desert. Only it is your heart that is cracked, your soul parched and dry and your dreams shattered. It is the dark night of the soul when it seems as though daybreak will never come. The image of the desert – the wilderness – is a powerful metaphor in the biblical drama. Moses and God’s people – 40 years wandering in the wilderness… John the Baptist comes as a “voice in the wilderness…Jesus struggled in the wilderness – tempted forty days. The desert is barren, lifeless, unknown and dangerous. People die in the wilderness. It is just as dangerous to encounter the treachery of a spiritual wilderness. It is a symbol of hopelessness.

Today our wilderness comes as anxiety, insecurity and fear. Sometimes it is family or health or just staring life in the face and coming up wondering if anything makes sense.

 

Our culture props up the destructive illusion that pain and personal trials are to be avoided at all costs and that immediate relief is necessary when life brings difficulty. We have developed tools for denial and anesthetics for all who would join the crusade to do away with life’s trials at all costs. Some are legal, some aren’t. Some times it’s hard to tell the difference. This is, by the way, nothing new.

 

The Jews sought to fabricate the vision of Isaiah by attempting to remove anything from Jerusalem that might destroy happiness. They believed that Jerusalem, by its very nature and composition, was obligated to be the joy of all the earth. In order to distance any speck of pain, disappointment or unpleasantness from Jerusalem they literally built an accounting center outside of Jerusalem. When you needed to look that your financial situation that is where you went. And that was so if you were to find the bottom line disappointing, you would not be disappointed in Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is the ‘joy of all the earth.’ Of course the fact is that you don’t create joy by chasing away the blues.

 

There may be valuable lessons to be learned in the desert, and though suffering can bring redemption, few go to the desert willingly, but sometimes God calls us there, as he called the Israelites there, to shape us into the person God wants us to be, the people God wants us to be. Think about it. Through the power of God and the leadership of Moses, the children of Israel were freed from Egyptian slavery and were on their way to the Promised Land. To get there Google-Maps routed them through the wilderness. They didn’t like it! In Exodus 17 we read the dialogue of the people quarreling with Moses. Grumbling they asked: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” They had expected to go directly from Egyptian slavery to “Milk and Honey”—they did not expect a forty year “lay-over” in the wilderness. And here is the crucial thing about hope and healing: There is no way to get to the promised land apart from the desert journey!

The beauty of Bethlehem had to be born in the crisis of Calvary.

The joy of Easter had to undergo the pain of death.

The pearl is born of an oyster’s wound.

And a diamond of a lump of carbon’s crushing!

 

Ignatius of Loyola was still a layman when he began taking notes on his own spiritual experiences. These became the foundation for his spiritual exercises which have become a classic 450-year-old primer on prayer and contemplation. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius offer a personal encounter with the divine that frees persons to be more themselves. The 30-day retreat calls for spending five hours a day in prayer meditating on a person’s own experience of sin in week one, on Christ’s life and early ministry in week two, Christ’s passion in week three and the resurrected Christ in week four. The aim is to have Jesus and the gospels shape a person’s life. For many it is a soul shattering experience. The changes people make in their lives after the experience are unpredictable. It is willfully entering the wilderness seeking personal transformation. The changes in the lives of Ignatius’ followers led them to open orphanages, a house of refuge and a school.

 

A hundred years later early Friends approached the spiritual life in a surprisingly similar way.   Friends often spoke of the Light.   This Light was identified with Christ, or the Spirit within. Among early Friends it was experienced like a searchlight which entered the dark places of their lives where it searches out sin and brought into relief all of a person’s inward motives and outward acts. As they opened themselves to Christ’s Spirit for redemption, every act and motive was branded as the fruit of self-will. This, as Stephen Crisp wrote in his journal, would bring a person close to despair– for even a person’s own best effort to understand or move out of their situation by repentance or self-commitment were also nothing more than acts of self-will. The result is an impasse, a spiritual dead-end. The aim of early Quaker preaching was to bring people to this place where the Spirit of Christ could break them open and drive them to spiritual despair. For the survivors the overwhelming emotional response was joy, and a spontaneity which enabled the reuniting of their ideal self with the self they knew themselves to be. The letters of Friends reflect quite intensely their sense of victory over obstacles to faith through Christ, their freedom to face whatever outward suffering lay before them.

For early Friends this inner experience had less to do with forgiveness and reconciliation than with surrender to the truth this relentless Light would reveal, a resulting crucifixion of self-will, and a new responsiveness to the leadings of the Spirit. While they embraced the idea of atonement for past sins through the death of Jesus yet they asserted the inadequacy of belief about some past external act of ransom without an inner experience of transformation. This which they believed had happened within them would happen throughout the world. Christ had come, they said, to teach his people himself and was bringing in his kingdom by an inner Armageddon, “the Lamb’s War”. In his Epistles, Paul speaks of this same spiritual upheaval in Romans 6:13, 1st Corinthians 15:31 and Galatians 2:20. He spoke of it as a dying to self and it isn’t a one time experience. It is an ongoing part of a Christian life.

Dying to self means coming to life as never before. In the Journals of Friends we read how this same Light would, after a period of waiting and openness, begin to prompt positive acts. Self-made commitments were useless and could actually get in the way of resisting these ‘leadings’ of the Spirit. Friends testified to having an emotional strength from within that they employed as they countered injustice. The truth to which the Spirit leads is always in terms of human relationships and direct action. Wm. Penn’s said: ‘True godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.”

It may be difficult for us today to imagine standing with early Friends as they joyfully went to jail for refusing hat honor or the loss of their property for refusing to pay tithes or for refusing to swear or serve in the military. Standing against slavery, for women’s suffrage, against war, for compassionate treatment of Native Americans have all cost Friends dearly.   Over the years Paul and Silas, singing in prison, have been our mentors. You can’t get to the Promised Land without going through the desert.   If called upon, could you walk joyfully to the gallows on Boston Common with Marmaduke Stevenson or William Robinson, or Mary Dyer or William Leddra because of some leading you have from the Spirit? But just such a leading called and has continued to call many from homes, family and business in order to live in obedience to some concern or ministry the Spirit has laid on their heart. Do we, even now, understand how important to the shape of our Nation was that act of obedience?

Peter Pearson wrote of the Boston martyrs that ‘they walked along in pure retired cheerfulness to the place of execution, triumphing in the strength of the Lamb over all the wrath of man and the fury of the beast…’ “Thus”, he wrote:” the faithful witnesses sealed their testimony for the Lord against the Dragon’s power, and blessedly departed with praises in their mouths, entering joyfully with their beloved into Everlasting Rest.”

Peter wrote the gentile Christians in Asia Minor urging them to ‘stand fast’ under great persecution and in whatever sufferings they were called to endure for their faith they could rejoice. 33Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6In this you rejoice… Remember Paul tells the Galatians (5:22) that the second fruit of the Spirit is joy. You also might notice that this promise of joy comes a couple of chapters after he spoke of the need to die daily to self.

 

Schreck was in a book store trying to finding how to ‘make a Christmas’ for his family, something about which no ogre has a clue. The storekeeper had just the book: Christmas for the Village Idiot. She showed him several pages which included, among other things, decorating the house, a Christmas tree and reading the Christmas story.   She hands him the book and pushes him out the door saying “Christmas – Christmas – happy – happy.” Our culture has really given into the notion that the goal of Christmas is ‘happy – happy’. But Happy Happy isn’t Joy. Isaiah helps put into perspective what the Advent of the eternal king will bring into being. On our best days our motivation maybe to make someone else happy – our maybe make our own selves happy by doing for another. And that’s good.   As we prepare for Christmas it could be helpful to remember that Joy can’t be fabricated. We find we have it when we are living at one with Christ’s Spirit in our lives. It is in the wilderness or desert times that the genuineness of our faith is tested. Genuine faith does not simply believe IN God… it also BELIEVES God! believe God when God tells me, “I will never leave you or forsake you!” The Joy of Christmas is a gift that comes of opening to the work of Christ in our lives, making us into the person God intends us to be and then, against what’s popular and expected of us by our culture, being obedient to the concerns laid on our hearts to continue God’s efforts to restore creation.

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