Advent 3, Year A
Advent 3, Year A
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“The Joy of Life”
Joy… What is it anyway? Where does it come from? What does it mean or is it even possible for us to live a joyful life? The following story, told by Anthony de Mello, sheds some light as to what joy is and what joy is not:
Among the Jews, the observance of the Sabbath, the day of the Lord, was originally a thing of joy.
But too many Rabbis kept issuing one injunction after another on how exactly it was to be observed, what sort of activity was allowed, until some people felt they could hardly move during the Sabbath for fear that some regulation or other might be transgressed.
The Baal Shem, son of Eliezer, gave much thought to this matter. One night he had a dream. An angel took him up to heaven and showed him two thrones placed far above all others.
“For whom are these reserved?” he asked.
“For you”—was the answer—“if you make use of your intelligence; and for a man whose name and address is now being written down and given to you.”
He was then taken to the deepest spot in hell and shown two vacant seats. “For whom are these prepared?” he asked.
“For you”—the answer came—“if you do not make use of your intelligence; and for the man whose name and address are being written down for you.”
In his dream Baal Shem visited the man who was to be his companion in paradise. He found him living among Gentiles, quite ignorant of Jewish customs; and, on the Sabbath, he would give a banquet at which there was a lot of merrymaking, and to which all his Gentile neighbours were invited. When Baal Shem asked him why he held this banquet, the man replied, “I recall that in my childhood my parents taught me that the Sabbath was a day of rest and for rejoicing; so on Saturdays my mother made the most succulent meals at which we sang and danced and made merry. I do the same today.”
Baal Shem attempted to instruct the man in the ways of his religion, for he had been born a Jew but was evidently quite ignorant of all the rabbinical prescriptions. But Baal Shem was struck dumb when he realised that the man’s joy in the Sabbath would be marred if he was made aware of his shortcomings.
Baal Shem, still in his dream, then went to the home of his companion in hell. He found the man to be a strict observer of the Law, always apprehensive lest his conduct should not be correct. The poor man spent each Sabbath day in a scrupulous tension as if he were sitting on hot coals. When Baal Shem attempted to upbraid him for his slavery to the Law, the power of speech was taken from him as he realised that the man would never understand that he could do wrong by fulfilling religious injunctions.
Thanks to this revelation given him in the form of a dream, the Baal Shem Tov evolved a new system of observance whereby God is worshipped in joy that comes from the heart. 1
Hopefully, as we gather here in this place of worship today; our Sabbath celebration will be one not of misery and feeling loaded down with burdensome details—but rather, one of joy, of rejoicing in the presence of God. Surely today’s psalm, first lesson and gospel set the mood for our worship. All of them give us a picture of what joy is all about. In all three passages, we cannot help but become participants in God’s Grand Symphony of Joy as we celebrate the saving, healing, and liberating work of the Messiah. Everyone is filled with joy because God acts decisively to: make the blind see; the deaf hear; the lame walk and jump for joy; free the prisoners; protect strangers, care for the needs of widows and orphans; and prevent the wicked from harming us.
In today’s psalm, we learn, once again, who our God is. The psalmist tells us that God is: our helper; the Creator of the whole universe; God is forever faithful to us; God is a just judge on behalf of the oppressed; God is the provider of food for the hungry. In short, when there seems to be so much “evidence against God” in this world; when all we seem to see, hear or experience is doom and gloom, chaos and evil, darkness and despair—precisely then, God acts to remind us that we are not ponds on the chess board. Rather, God acts to heal, restore and save us. God is still in control of our lives as well as the whole universe.
A king once owned a great diamond. It had no peer in the world, and he was quite proud of it. But one day it was accidentally scratched. The king called in all the diamond cutters in the kingdom, but all said that there was nothing that they could do to remove the scratch.
Later, a great lapidary arrived in the capital and said that he could make the diamond look even more beautiful than it had before the accident. With the greatest care, he engraved a delicate rosebud around the imperfection and turned the scratch into its stem. 2
In a sense, this is a parable of how God acts in the universe and in our personal as well as collective lives to heal, restore and save us. When we feel most wounded and helpless; sad and defeated; is it often not precisely at such times that our Saviour acts to deliver us? Certainly that was the case for the ancient Israelites, who had suffered under tyranny and oppression as they lived in exile in a foreign land. At times, they wondered and questioned whether God still cared for them and if God would ever help them out of their suffering. Yet, God did act mightily to heal, restore and save them by bringing them back to the Promised Land again.
We, like those ancient Israelites may feel that we are living in exile too. Will we ever be delivered out of our exile? Will we ever see the light of day again? Is there ever going to be an end to our suffering? Then, suddenly, things change, God acts on our behalf to heal, restore and save us. In fact, he has already done so way back in Bethlehem when he came into this world as a real live baby boy to live among us. And he didn’t stop there either. He still comes to live among us as we gather together in his name. He walks with us each day too, in the living of our lives. However, it doesn’t stop there—as we journey into the future, we look forward to the day when he shall come again to bring all creation to its final destiny and completion, including us.
It is living in relationship with Jesus our Messiah that gives us the gift of joy—trusting that no matter what happens to us, there is a rock solid joy, which sustains us forever. How does this joy take shape—what does it look like—in our lives? How do we bear witness to the joy within us? I believe, to put it quite simply, that joy means, joy is being fully alive. Joy is being aware of the beauty and gift of life in the intricate patterns of snow flakes; the smile of a parent or grandparent; the resilient squeal of a baby or toddler; the taste of fresh-baked bread; the smell of a rose in full bloom; the colours of a rainbow; the welcome of a stranger; the hug of a parent and child or husband and wife; the Sunday gathering of the congregation singing their hearts out such beautiful Advent hymns as: Prepare the Royal Highway, Rejoice, Rejoice Believers, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, Hark, the Glad Sound. Joy is: the LORD acting mightily on that day when prisoners are freed; the blind see; the deaf hear; the fallen are lifted up; strangers, widows and orphans are cared for. Joy is: all generations gathered together to praise our God forever and ever!
As we continue our Advent journey towards our Saviour’s birth; may our deepest longings and expectations bring forth a living joy—making us fully alive to the saving activity of our “God among us” each and every day, in every way!