"The Lord is near"-Sermon for Advent 3, James 5:7-10
Today we have arrived together at the third Sunday of Advent. And, this third Sunday in Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word that means rejoice. And we rejoice on this the third Sunday in Advent to acknowledge that this Advent season of joyful anticipation and hopeful waiting is quickly coming to its end…there is now only one Sunday left in Advent and then the real party begins…the lights go up…the Babe of Bethlehem takes center stage and our Christmastide celebrations begin in full force. The blue of Advent on our altar which represents a forward-looking hope…becomes gold and white…which are our celebratory colors in the life of the church…reminding us that our hope has, indeed, arrived. Thus, our songs of praise transition from “Come thou long-expected Jesus” to “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King”. At Christmas we remember that Christ has come to us…first as a new-born child…then as our teacher as he spoke to us of God’s loving purposes…then as our Savior, who goes to the cross to take away the sin of the world, then just three days later on Easter he comes to us as the first born from the dead, transforming the grave into the gateway to eternal life. And, even now, Jesus continues to come to us in everyday ordinary and extraordinary ways, by his living and active Spirit, bringing us strength and purpose and meaning and joy…in times of struggle and triumph…making us fully alive…providing the spiritual resources required for a life worth living. As the great Advent hymn rings out, “Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel has come to thee”. And I will add…come to the whole world…to you and to me. Though ten days or so remain till Christmas begins…today we rejoice that it is so very close. As James writes in his epistle, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” And, I would even dare to suggest, what we know to be true, which is that he is really already here. So perhaps our rejoicing can commence, even as, we wait, a little longer for Christmas…like, as James says, “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.”
So, I want to think a little more about rejoicing…about how we might rejoice not just on the third Sunday of Advent or, even, just at Christmas…but at any time of the year when we experience moments that lift hearts…that fill us with joy…for joy is surely not limited to occasions on our liturgical calendar or other festive times in the year. Rejoicing is, of course, the fruit…the outward expression…of the inward experience of joy…and joy comes in all sorts of packages. Kids running to give you a hug as they bluster in the front door at the end of the day…a new parent staring into a crib at a sleeping baby…a spouse getting a commendation or promotion at work…garlic simmering in butter…a walk in the woods…a hard workout…an unexpected call from an old friend…a Christmas bonus…a favorite song coming on the radio…the words I love you coming from the lips of a loved one…and I could, of course, go on. Our lives are blessedly full of moments of joy…little and large…all occasions for rejoicing.
But here is the thing…it is so easy…so very easy…even as we experience moments of joy to fear their ending…to forebode joy…to as Brené Brown says practice tragedy…to somehow steel ourselves emotionally for the moment when the other shoe surely drops…to be, in a sense, so afraid of experiencing joy…to believe that it is too good to be true…that we don’t deserve it…that it will not last…that joy is just a harbinger of something bad which must surely follow…that we end up robbing ourselves of the gift of a joyful moment or experience in the present. And, in doing so, we so often cut ourselves off from joy…the very thing we desire most of all…the thing we most need to live the life we want to live…a joyful life…a hope-filled life…a life that seeks to bring joy to others…as we share the love…pass it on…look forward to, not fearful of, the next moment of joy that strengthens our hearts when life is joyful and, more so, for when it is hard.
I want to share a clip from “Elf”, staring Will Ferrell, that sort of represents to me what foreboding joy looks like. As perhaps you recall, Ferrell’s character, Buddy the Elf, is a human adopted by Santa’s elves and, thus, as he grows into adulthood has a hard time figuring out how to fit in…a human in an elf world. In this scene, he is giving a go at being a sort of elf compliance officer…making sure that the toys work properly before being shipped out in Santa’s sleigh. As you might imagine, it does not work out well for him…here goes: (click here for video).
So, we have a tradition in our family to have “Elf” on in the background as we decorate our home for Christmas, and I was sort of half way paying attention while decorating our tree this year, when Amelia, my oldest daughter, got my attention as this very scene came on…because she knew it is one of my favorites from the movie…I laugh out-loud every time I see it. And, as soon as the scene ended, I immediately thought…that’s how we live life…a foreboding of joy…such that we live in fear of what is coming next…even when we know what’s coming next…and, in doing so, we go through life all balled up on the inside…all armored up…so we can’t really feel anything…missing out on the joy we might find in the present moment and, further, miss out on the wonderful and delightful surprises that might pop up in the near future.
Brené Brown writes, “Though I study scary emotions like anger and shame for a living, I think the most terrifying human experience is joy. It's as if we believe that by truly feeling happiness, we're setting ourselves up for a sucker punch. The problem is, worrying about things that haven't happened doesn't protect us from pain. Ask anyone who has experienced a tragedy; they'll tell you there is no way to prepare. Instead, catastrophizing, as I call it, squanders the one thing we all want more of in life. We simply cannot know joy without embracing vulnerability—and the way to do that is to focus on gratitude, not fear.”
So, the antidote to foreboding joy is to, instead, be grateful for it…to practice gratitude in the moment of our rejoicing. To say to ourselves, even as we rejoice, in the little things and the large things, I am so grateful for this experience…my heart is bursting wide open…thanks be to God. And then to make as a spiritual practice, in the everyday ordinary sorts of moments of life, counting our blessings…reflecting on our joys…remembering them and recalling them. For in doing so we begin to look forward to experiences of joy…not fear them…we expect them to come and welcome their arrival with open hearts and minds. Practicing gratitude actually creates joy, makes us more present when experiencing joy, and builds up in us the resources we need to call upon when things really are not joyful…but instead are hard.
So, as we rejoice on this third Sunday in Advent that harkens us on to the joys of the Christmas that is coming soon and very soon, I hope we all might find room for just one more Advent discipline which is, of course, practicing gratitude…practicing gratitude in the very midst of the joys of the season that wash over us. And, that we might begin to intentionally count our blessing as we move through our days…through this season and the next and then on into whatever might pop up in our undiscovered future…such that not even one ounce of joy might be taken away from us…always beginning with a profound gratitude for the blessing of Babe of Bethlehem, who comes to be with us…always and at all times…the one whose love was grafted into our hearts at the very first Christmas…the love that is the source of all our joy…both the little moments and the large. Amen.