Our message for this week was a bit tough to spit out. It should have been all upbeat and happy and, well, you can read for yourself. The scriptures were: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-13, and Luke 3:7-18. The title was appropriate, “Finding Joy.” And, of course, it wasn’t exactly like this when I spoke, but as close as any script is. Here goes.
Two weeks ago we lit the candle of Hope and heard a message about anticipation and the hope that is associated with the Advent season. We were reminded of the birth of the Christ Child and how we will be celebrating the anniversary of that birth on Christmas morning. We were encouraged to anticipate the excitement of the season, and to hope for the return of Christ and in our own way to facilitate or to promote the return of Christ for others through our actions.
Last week we lit the candle of Peace, yet the message seemed to focus more on the lack of Peace in our world. We were reminded that if there is to be peace in our time, we need to be the instruments through which it finds its way to earth and in our midst. Then we closed the service with a meeting of where to send the monies we had collected so we could offer some means of sharing hope and peace with others. Then we had to decide if we were having a service on the 24th. I was so encouraged by the looks on your faces when you realized we were talking about if there would be a service on Christmas Eve. That was such an exciting thing for me to see. I felt like you voted for life, for continuance as a church, and I for one am glad you did.
Then as we gathered in the basement for food and fellowship, I was also excited to see the way we interacted and how ready and willing everyone was to get to work to turn our sanctuary into a festive and joyful place for the final weeks of the Advent and Christmas Season. Now it wasn’t so exciting to realize that we couldn’t find some of the pieces. Our tree pole was missing and one of our nativity sets has gone into hiding, but we were able to get a tree in place and decorated by some elves I guess, and the rest will fall in place as we go.
We didn’t get to the caroling, though, and I must admit that on Monday morning, as I was contemplating this week, it struck me that I need to confess a few things to you to assist us in going forward together. First off, I am a project planner. I am an overall organizer. I like to think up things, ideas, plans. I loved writing lesson plans and unit plans. I organized our town’s Centennial Celebration and reunions….
But…., yes there is always a but. I am not a details person. I want to get this out on the table and say, help and thank you. I really need to say a very big thank you to those of you who have already recognized my issue and gone behind me to pick up the pieces every now and then. I should have called the Health Care Center to let them know we weren’t coming last week, and I just didn’t think it was a big deal, later I found out it was and by then I wasn’t sure what to do about it. Here is where I will say help. Don’t be afraid to mention that a call would be a good idea. Don’t be afraid to ask if something was covered or done. Don’t be afraid to remind me to mention something at the joys and concerns time, I might have the paper in front of me and forget to say it. I know what it feels like to be in the pew and feel overlooked or forgotten. Not my intent. Nagging is permitted.
So we have gotten through the Hope candle and the Peace candle now we are on the Joy candle. Our songs today are all about joy and rejoicing. Our liturgy has been about being joyful, upbeat, looking for the good or offering to make things better. Our first two scripture lessons and the scripture read in the Advent candle lighting are all about joy and rejoicing, we are here in this beautiful sanctuary and everything today is so happy and so upbeat, but… Oh no not another one of those things…. The scripture we read in the gospel lesson from the book of Luke had the first thing we heard from John the Baptist being “you brood of vipers…”
Who picked this reading for today? How could this possibly fit into the Advent season on the day when we light the candle for joy? How are we supposed to find something worth talking about when the passage starts out with “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Here we are back to the idea that in this season that should be so happy and full of excitement there is also has a dark side. With all the glitter and glitz and shiny lights and colored ornaments of the season, there are shadows and sadness and depression.
Two weeks ago when I mentioned the depression that some people experience during this season because they are alone, I was thinking of so many others, but not myself. Maybe I watch too many of the cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies, but I have this idea of Christmas as a time when the whole family is together whether we agree on churches or politics or even on how to make the dressing. We are going to be together and that is what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown. I never once thought that James and I and Paulina would be just the three of us for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and that most likely we won’t be seeing the little ones at all. I guess not everyone believes it is a good idea to travel in the Dakotas in the winter with a tiny baby. I wish I had known this sooner. James and I never got that memo.
When I got that news on Friday afternoon that the Clarks will be staying at home for the holidays, I felt like someone blew out my candle marked joy. I felt like the Grinch had just slithered down the chimney and stolen the Christmas tree. I even felt a little like Scrooge as he was watching his past, and they were dancing and singing, and he couldn’t join in. His joy was over.
And then last night I picked up one of the booklets that I had taken home to start getting some ideas for the Christmas Eve service and there on the lesson that would be for today was another set of scriptures about rejoicing. It was from I Thessalonians 5:16-24. The first three verses of that passage sort of hit me. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Let’s hear that again. (Read again with underlined being noted.)
So, if that wasn’t enough, the little devotion that went with this passage had a “Think about it” section. The author threw out a question about the rejoice–always part. Are we to rejoice in all things, like even if we have a flat tire? Or what if we don’t get our way about how Christmas should go? If we take this “think about it” as it says, we would rejoice even if the tree pole is missing. It would be ok if we skipped caroling and didn’t tell anyone? (And I have it on some pretty good authority that there was someone who really needed a long visit much more than hearing some songs that day, and maybe there was some intervention with that lack of calling). I am still not so sure about rejoicing without grandchildren in the house, but I guess it hasn’t happened that way yet, so I will still hold out some hope. And maybe there is a reason behind this plan, a purpose I don’t understand yet.
We are to turn to God in all things. We are to be grateful for all we have, and we are to be God’s hands on this earth. The gospel lesson today didn’t stop with John calling out the leaders and others in the multitude who came to learn from him. It wasn’t just about what was wrong with those who showed up to hear his teachings. It was also a lesson in what he was teaching. John came not as the Messiah, but to point the way to the Messiah. John came to prepare the people for the teachings of Jesus. John came to show the way. John gave some very specific instructions on how the people were to act towards others, and those instructions are not listed as historical facts. Those instructions are there for us too.
John’s answer to the first person who asks what should we do? is fairly simple. If you have two coats and someone else has none, share. This instruction is about feeding and clothing those who are unable to do so for themselves, and I am guessing we are not supposed to judge others with, “They have a dog.” And we are not supposed to think that people are poor just because they are poor money managers. . Helping others are things that most churches and church members are concerned about.
The second and third person who asks what should we do? are a little more difficult, a little more subtle. The second person is a tax collector and John says they are not to collect more than what is due. Well maybe not an issue, we don’t work in that profession, but what does that say to us in business? Should we always be looking out for our own bottom line? John says: collect no more than what is prescribed for you. And the third are soldiers, those in power/those in authority. To them John says not to exhort or take things because of their power. Don’t take gain from your status, by coercion, don’t be a bully to get what you want. In other words don’t tell someone you won’t love them because they won’t do what you want (like come home for Christmas). Hmmmm! Who warned you, you brood of vipers?
Perhaps God’s message of Joy this morning is that we really are to rejoice in ALL things. Perhaps we need to understand that God really wants what is best for us, and that we need to see the positive of what we are given. Perhaps the message today is that we are not supposed to be preparing for Christmas during this season with the attitude of “what can I get? Or What do I want?” But instead we should be focusing on our gratitude for all that we have. I think I said this a couple of weeks ago, but Advent and certainly this week of Advent, needs to be about an Attitude of Gratitude. Perhaps our closing song should have been “Count Your Blessings.” Really, in order to light the candle of Joy in our lives, we need to stop and count our many, many blessings, and know that God loves us and wants only what is best for us. Let’s try to do that this week, no matter what comes our way. Amen!!