December 11, 2011
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Good morning and welcome to this, the third Sunday in the season of Advent. Our wait for the coming of Christ continues.
Typically, this Sunday’s theme has been one of joy. What exactly is joy? We hear of people being joyful and there is even a well-known hymn that has joy as its focus—“Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of Glory, Lord of Love.” Remember that one?
In my research, I hit the web and found a good explanation of joy by author Mike Ratliff. He writes that the secular perception of joy is “lasting happiness.” However, the Bible interprets joy very differently.
In fact, God commands His people to be full of joy. That’s good to know isn’t it? Psalm 37:4 talks of joy, along with Philippians, which we read from today.
Joy, says Ratliff, is both an outcome of our relationship with the Lord and our source of strength for our obedience of him (John 15). Nehemiah 8:9 says the joy of the Lord is our strength. God desires for His people to be strong in Him so He graciously gives us joy as we cooperate with Him in our sanctification, which is the process of becoming holy.
The joy of the Lord is the source of our fulfillment. Christ-likeness deepens for those who have determined in their heart to walk the walk by faith and live for God’s glory alone.
When the believer walks in this way, their joy filled heart produces true worship of their Lord. This worship is true worship because it is in spirit and truth (John 4:24). This means worship is completely God-centered, fully intent on His glory. In this manner, there is no hint whatsoever of this being simply entertainment. The worship focus is entirely off us, as humans, and focused on blessing the Lord. When we lift up our voices in praise, that joy is revealed. Imagine if in our singing, we were heard to say blandly…. Joyful… joyful… we adore thee (drawn out and slow as it is sung).
This worship that comes from the joy within our hearts cannot be fully contained in the context of a service. Yet, spirit filled worship leads us to deeper and deeper hunger for the spiritual life.
The joy we experience springs naturally from a heart of repentance, which is why this week’s readings continue their focus on John the Baptist. You recall John was the last of the prophets of the Old Testament tradition and came out of the desert baptizing and preaching a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.
There are several lessons to be learned from this passage. First, those baptized must be taught. That requires those who are equipped as teachers to teach. In today’s world, much of John’s message still applies, especially when we look at the life of faith. Yet, there are still some who come to the Church and request for a child to be baptized next week. Proper preparation and instruction of candidates is essential if we expect them to make a decision for Christ in their lives.
Second, those who profess and promise repentance must show some evidence of it in their lives. Here, again, we want to guard against simply stating things with our lips that we do not carry out in life. One of the greatest critiques of the Christian faith is that Christians go to Church and are taught how to live a life of faith, but then do not live that life when they leave the service. Thankfully, I can say to these same folks that the Church is not a place for the perfect. As Jesus reminded us, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 23:23)
Finally, this passage shows us that those who desire to do their duty must desire to know their duty and enquire concerning it. The first good word that the Apostle Paul said after his conversion experience was “Lord, what will you have me do?”
What will you have me do? It is the eternal question for all the baptized while we have breath on earth. I find it fascinating that John’s message was delivered to the people gathered, the publicans and the soldiers. Presumably, the Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders of the day, did not feel they needed to heed any message from John. Our message today is also one that applies to all, and that includes those within the Church itself.
Perhaps we will find the answer to the question of purpose when we re-visit the very words of Jesus in the Synagogue, when He read from the scroll and sat down to teach. The words from the prophet Isaiah applied to Jesus and they apply to us. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The Spirit of the Lord is within each of us who are baptized, and it is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of our sin, who brings us to seek forgiveness and to repent and who moves within us to accept forgiveness when offered. It is the Holy Spirit who anoints us for our daily ministries at work, at home, at school, at play, in the neighbourhood, around the city or anywhere we may go. We have good news to share, that God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe will have eternal life. Obviously, there are many ministry opportunities He calls us into—whether it is binding the brokenhearted, liberty to captives, or release to prisoners. We each have at least one spiritual gift given by God to be used in ministry and to His glory.
All of these teachings contain truth for us even today, as we recognize that all of this starts with the need of the human heart to repent, to turn away from those things which we do or fail to do that ultimately take us away from God and His love for us. We need to guard ourselves from belief that we have the only truth and all will go well if only others listen to us.
John must have been a powerful preacher, as the many who heard his message actually thought he might be the very Messiah they were waiting for. He answered that the one who was coming would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. It is this same Holy Spirit predicted who is ours today. At our baptisms, we received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus fulfilled His promise to never leave us orphaned. He is as close as our breath. The Holy Spirit, working within us, is the One who brings us to true repentance and joy.
In this season of Advent, we must focus on the spiritual. Then, we need to understand any growth in faith comes largely as a result of the grace of God in our lives. God’s grace can perhaps be best understood when we are able to recognize our frail human nature and shine the light on the darkness that occurs in our lives from time to time. These tests and trials of our lives are God allowed circumstances that are tremendous tools in His capable hands to grow us in grace. As we turn away from what is dominating us, giving us pain or struggle we are urged to turn to God instead and place our hope in Him. God, in fact, draws us to do this. “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) When we do this, with a spirit of repentance and help of God, we will find joy.
As Ratliff reminds us, when our joy is in anything or anyone other than the Lord, it can be stolen or taken away because everything apart from God is simply temporal. When our joy is in the Lord, it cannot be stolen or taken away because He is eternal and what He promises to do He does (John 16:22, 23).
What is joy? A better question might be “What is the joy of the Lord?” The fuel that drives the engine of our worshipping hearts is the joy of the Lord. Our worshipping hearts keep us focused on the Lord for our fulfillment. As we delight in Him, He grows us in grace. This, of course, is more than simply being religious. Rather, it is walking through every moment of every day living for His glory. The joy of the Lord both empowers that process and grows from it.
Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi said it best concerning our life of faith. It is our task in this life to preach the gospel to others. So, Frances said, “Go…preach the gospel, and, if necessary, use words.”
As we wait, let us preach the gospel with our very lives in tune to the life of Christ within us. In the process, may we find that joy that passes all understanding and may we bring that joy to others.