[Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18]
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Triune God, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
My laptop computer has been out of commission for several weeks now, which is why my blogging has been sporadic at best. However, I discovered just the other day that there is an app for my Samsung smartphone that allows me to access the full functionality of WordPress in a mobile-friendly format. It’s actually quite intuitive to use. So, what you are reading was composed, edited, and published entirely on a cellphone. What a time to be alive, right?
Today begins the third week of Advent– one more candle to light on our Advent wreaths. The first blue candle is for hope, and the second is for peace. This is the week we light the pink candle, which stands for joy.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul tells us, almost ad nauseum, to rejoice.
The word is χαίρετε (khye-REH-tay). It’s an imperative verb– it’s a command. χαίρετε is very closely related to the noun χαρά (KHAR-uh) which means joy. So, rejoice, be glad, and be joyful are all good translations.
Another cousin of χαρά and χαίρετε is χάρις (kha-REESE), which we’ve talked about before: it’s the word for grace. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, the love beyond measure that God extends to us not because of what we do or don’t do, but because of who God is.
Truthfully, I was hoping St. Paul had used another Greek word, one that could be better translated as something other than “rejoice”. But, no. He used χαίρετε, which definitely means “rejoice”. No getting around it.
The holidays are not always a joyful time, for any number of reasons.
Some people can’t be with their families, or don’t have any family to celebrate with.
Others are stuck celebrating with families that are dysfunctional and toxic.
In families that have suffered the loss of a loved one, Christmas dinner is often filled with painful reminders that their grandpa or aunt or mother or son isn’t at the table with them.
In other families, a family member might be in rehab or prison, stationed far away in the military or the Peace Corps, doing missionary work overseas, or any number of other situations that would prevent their families and friends from seeing them on Christmas Day.
Many young gay and lesbian people have been disowned by their families of origin, and even if they have in-laws or friends who welcome and include them, they can’t help but feel the sting of rejection and abandonment.
Children in foster care or group homes may be spending Christmas away from their family of origin.
Not to mention, the world is reeling from a slew of terrorist attacks, gun-related tragedies, and natural disasters.
So many people have so many different reasons why it’s hard to rejoice this time of year.
Ideally, yes, this should be a time to rejoice. But there’s so much darkness and so much brokenness in the world. To so many, St. Paul’s command to rejoice seems silly at best, and downright insulting at worst.
Maybe that’s part of why I’ve never been the biggest fan of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I like Christmas, but it’s not my favorite part of the year. Maybe my third or fourth favorite.
You know what I really like? Advent. Advent is subversive. Advent sticks it to the man. Advent says “I refuse to engage with what the culture has done to Christmas.” Advent says, “I’m not going to jump the gun and start celebrating Christmas before I’ve even finished hanging up my Halloween costume.” Advent says, “Go ahead, Wal-Mart. Blare Bing Crosby as loud as you want. I’m still going to be observing a quiet season of contemplation and preparation, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
And Advent doesn’t just stick it to the culture, either. It sticks it to the weather. As fall turns into winter, with each passing week, the days start getting really short. It gets dark at seven, and then six, and then five. Before you know it, you’re driving home from work or school in the pitch dark. Week by week, we become more and more enveloped in darkness.
So what do we do, subversive Advent-observing people that we are? Week by week, as it gets darker and darker, we light more and more candles.
Note that the presence of darkness isn’t denied during Advent. We know it’s getting dark, both in the natural world because it’s December, and in a less literal way. It’s dark. It’s dark for all the reasons I named earlier, and probably lots more. Nobody– at least, nobody who’s being honest with themselves– is trying to say otherwise. It’s dark.
And yet, today, St. Paul tells us to rejoice. χαίρετε. Why?
We’re being told to rejoice because we get to stick it to the darkness.
We’re being told to rejoice because we know the darkness can’t win, that spring will come, that everything that lies dead and buried under frozen ground will have new life again.
We rejoice, even in the dark, even in the cold. We keep lighting candles in the dark, one more each week, in defiance of the growing darkness.
Then, on that final night, Christmas Eve, when it’s dark by four o’clock, we light that big white candle in the middle: the Christ candle. Then we put our good clothes on, go to church, and sing “Joy to the World”. We hear the story of the birth of Christ, born in a manger under the light of a star, the child who came to destroy darkness once and for all.
St. John was talking about Jesus when he said, “the Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome [the Light].”
We are waiting for the birth of Christ during this subversive Advent season. We are the voice in the wilderness proclaiming the coming of Jesus, our Hope, our Peace, our, Joy, and yes, our Light– the Light that shone in the darkness, the Light that shines in our darkness even now.
So, stick it to the darkness. Light a candle. Proclaim the Good News. Rejoice.