Joy. 3rd Sunday of Advent

Let’s set things up by noticing two things in these readings that are, if not totally off the wall, at least a little attention-getting. The first is the imperative to rejoice in Zephaniah’s first reading and Paul’s second reading. They both contain this instruction, this command, to rejoice. What’s attention-getting about that is that they’re considering joy to be somehow a choice you can make. We might tend to think to be joyful is to feel a certain way, but if that’s what they meant they couldn’t command it. You can’t tell somebody to start having an emotion; they don’t work like that. You can’t tell somebody “I command you to feel happy!” So whatever they mean by rejoicing, it’s something you can make a decision to do.

The second attention-getting thing is related and it’s in Luke’s Gospel about John the Baptist. Luke says he’s proclaiming good news. But all John’s words that come before that are about judgment and repentance, and you might not associate repentance with joy.

When you think of repentance maybe you think of feeling bad, feeling sorry, feeling guilty. But those things - guilt, sorrow - repentance isn’t the cause of them, it’s the cure. So when John the Baptist says in one breath “you must repent,” and in the next breath calls it good news, that might sound like a contradiction to the world. Having to repent sounds like bad news. But it’s not, and you just know this if you’ve ever repented. Repentance is the promise that things can be better, that we can be better. That is good news. Repentance is setting our feet back on the path of joy. Good news indeed!

That’s why Advent and Lent, both penitential seasons with a focus on repentance, each have a special Sunday set aside to focus on rejoicing. In Lent it’s Laetare Sunday. In Advent it’s the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday. The Church, even as she calls us to repentance, wants to make sure to remind us that it’s a joyful thing.

How can we respond to this imperative to rejoice? I’m going to ask you to fire up your imagination here. And if you’ll really indulge me and come along for this experiment, I hope you’ll find it as powerful as I do. Maybe it’s a little silly, a little cheesy, but this really works for me, so I’m just sharing in humility. OK enough apologizing; you’re stuck here so you might as well give it your best imaginative effort. Here we go:

Imagine there are two rooms in your house. One room is bright and painted in colors that you find cheerful. There’s music playing there, whatever music you associate with happiness, and the conversation is positive and uplifting. It’s like it’s just a rule that’s followed here. People in this room always look for the best in each other, and always give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even though pretty much nothing is perfect, you’re always looking for something to encourage and celebrate, and you can always find something. When someone speaks, you listen to them with the intention of understanding and learning from them, and when you argue it’s in the hope of approaching the truth together. Sometimes, here as everywhere, people are not at their best — but when they aren’t, the reaction of the people around them is to want to figure out what’s hurting them and to help. The room is also not free from sorrow, far from it, and for those times there’s a medicine cabinet with drawers labeled “fellowship,” “patience,” “trust,” “forgiveness,” and “courage.” The artwork in this room celebrates the best of humanity, and speaks of joy and virtue and heroism and peace. It’s a place where, when people get a bit off track, apologies are given freely and quickly, and accepted just as freely and quickly, and we move on.  There are photographs on the walls of all the best times in your life and all the people you love and all the blessings you’ve been given. The walls are covered in these memories, so that everywhere you look you are reminded of what is good and beautiful. So, that’s what your mind is always dwelling on.

The photographs in the other room are different. They record and hold always before you your biggest mistakes, all the times you’ve hurt others, and all the times that you’ve been hurt. The walls are covered in your worst moments; everywhere you look you are reminded of what is wicked and ugly. These photographs are especially vivid because when when you let someone down in this room you never apologize, and if anybody apologizes to you, you carry a grudge and never forget it. What passes for artwork here is about despair and seems to say “it’s all pointless.” When happiness and levity try to break in, they aren’t trusted and quickly fade. You’re always looking for what’s wrong and not good enough, and of course you can always find something. As for sorrows, there is a medicine cabinet here too, with drawers labeled “drunkenness,” “pornography,” “self-pity,” “victimhood,” and “bitterness.” When someone speaks in this room, you listen… for a mistake you can pounce on, or something you can be offended by. You’re always looking for something to be outraged about. People here always assume the worst of each other.

Now what I want to suggest is that there is a door between these two rooms and that you have more control than you think about moving between them. Somebody might say, “Get real, nobody chooses those bad things on purpose, that would be crazy.” I agree that sin is crazy. Dwelling on the negative is crazy. Everything about that room is crazy. But we choose it.

Why? That’s individual, you have to answer for yourself. But there’s something about being outraged that is sort of like a high, and people get sort of hooked on it. There’s something about looking down on others that masquerades as feeling better about ourselves. There’s something about dwelling on our pain and our tragedy that’s like a drug, and people get hooked on the idea of themselves as dramatic figures, misunderstood and alone and tragic.

A big problem with getting out of the room of despair is that we forget there’s a door. We think we’re just stuck there. I’m thinking of an experience that anyone who’s counseled people will relate to: someone comes in and they’re trying to explain why they’re so unhappy. And they begin describing what’s wrong with their spouse and their parents and their kids and their siblings and their neighbor and that jerk at work and those hypocrites at church and those politicians and that priest and that lady at the store… hmm. You think you’re unhappy because everyone and everything are so awful. The truth is you're unhappy because you just spent half an hour rehearsing the faults of other people. Happy people don’t do that. It isn't that they couldn't; it's that they don't. You’re hanging out in that ugly awful room. You think the solution is for everyone and everything to change so you can be happy. But the solution is for you to quit spending all your time in that awful place.

We come and go between these rooms every day. Think about those photographs on the walls. Do you dwell on what is good and beautiful in your life (and there's always some beauty) or on what is painful and ugly (and there’s always some pain)? When you disagree with someone, do you look for understanding and seek to approach the truth together, or do you look for outrage and try to crush them? When sorrows come, which medicine cabinet do you run to? When you see someone not at their best, is your move to judge and shun them, or to try to find out… “what’s hurting you? Can I help?”

John the Baptist’s call to repentance and his call to joy are one and the same. Joy is not something you luck into, or sit around waiting for someone or something to dump in your lap. Joy is making your way from the room of sin and despair to the room of beauty and grace, maybe dozens of times a day. We knucklehead humans keep finding ourselves in the wrong room again, sometimes we’re not even sure how it happened, how did I get here again? If you want to, maybe try this sometime: repeat this imagination experiment, visualize the two rooms as vividly as you can, and then… just imagine yourself walking through that door. You do have a choice. You can choose to focus your mind and your heart on what is good and beautiful. You can choose to look for the best in others and in yourself. You can choose to seek comfort and happiness in the things God gives, instead of in the devil’s false medicines.

Someday there will be no more passing between rooms; someday your choice will be final. That’s what C.S. Lewis was getting at when he speculated that from the hindsight perspective of the Saints in Heaven, their lives on earth will have been the beginning of heaven. And from the hindsight perspective of souls in Hell, their lives on earth will have been the beginning of Hell.

Advent is a call to repentance and joy, and part of that is repenting of joylessness and all the things that sustain it. Humor me, please, as I try to fend off some really bad possible misunderstandings. None of this sermon is meant to trivialize anyone’s struggles, as though any unhappiness in your life is all your fault, as though the only help you need in your sorrow is for someone to tell you to just get over it. Neither am I referring to psychiatric illnesses that are more about chemistry than choices. But a lot of things are about choices, and that’s what this is about. It’s definitely harder for some people than others. It’s harder for all of us at some times in our lives than others. Repentance and joy are about using whatever choice and whatever power you do have… even if they’re wounded and limited, it’s not none, it’s never none.

And every once in a while, maybe just take a pause and a deep breath — especially if you’re angry or unhappy or upset or just frustrated to your last frazzled nerve — take a pause and ask yourself, honestly now… which room am I choosing to hang out in? And if you don’t like the answer, take another deep breath, repent, and walk through that door. Repeat as necessary. To repent, and to rejoice, are the same thing.


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