Matthew 11: 2-11
By Sheila Plant
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.
Today marks the midpoint of the Advent season and the sights and sounds of Christmas are all around us. In days gone by, this Sunday was known as “Stirring Up Sunday”-the Sunday when women everywhere would rush home after church to give the Christmas pudding a good stir, making sure that all the ingredients were well soaked in brandy or sherry. Once that was done, family preparations for Christmas could continue.
More importantly though, we light our 3rd candle on the Advent wreath today—the candle of joy and the Joy of God. We are called to keep alive the vision that provides us with hope and to seek the Peace of God—that special peace that only God can give; that peace that comes when we turn and walk in the path that Jesus has shown us. The lighting of this candle highlights one of the realities of the gift of joy—that reality which relates to the fact that while it cannot be sought, the gift of joy can be given or received by us.
So, joy is not something we can seek, but it is something that can overcome us when we are working to keep the vision alive. As we walk this path, joy happens to us as we gain glimpses of what God is all about. We encounter situations where we see God’s promises coming true and suddenly we have this great gift of joy in our hearts.
Imagine if you will for a moment John the Baptist—languishing in jail. Herod is about to kill him—and undoubtedly, he already knows this although the particular circumstances of his death are still to be shaped by Herod’s wife and daughter. John is uncertain about whether he has completed his ministry or not, uncertain about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah about whom he has proclaimed. He sends his messengers from the prison to ask Jesus that all important question: “Are you the one who is come or should we wait for another?”
Can you imagine the feeling that overcame him when the disciples returned repeating the words of Jesus: “Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. Blessed are they who take no offence to me.”
John must have been overwhelmed with joy when he heard that all he had yearned for as a child of Abraham was in fact happening. God was working a great work through Jesus, child of Mary. This was the kind of work that Isaiah spoke of in our Old Testament reading this morning.
Absolute joy! We should remember not to confuse joy with happiness. Happiness is something that our American friends pursue according to their constitution. Joy is not happiness or even contentment. Rather joy is overwhelming. It is what happens when we witness God at work—whether within our family, our church, our community or the wider world. We see the works of God being done and as we allow God to do his work through us, we are given the gift of joy.
The church I attended as a young child after arriving from England recognized White Gift Sunday. I remember proudly taking a tin of soup or a box of cereal wrapped in white tissue paper to the chancel steps. It wasn’t until much later that I learned the significance of White Gift Sunday. It was about doing the works of God, the work of caring and praying that joy may come and that the hand of God may be seen through those gifts we gave.
Although a specific Sunday may not be designated as White Gift Sunday, conditions in our society have deemed collecting gifts of food as a necessity—for distribution to a food bank. These collections and drives take place as often as necessary. Traditionally, we here at St. Luke’s have generously given to food drives for St. Matthew’s House. Since the summer, a dedicated group of volunteers have chosen to help in our Food for Life programme. We are reaching out to the less fortunate in our community to help them put food on the table. These volunteers not only give the gift of joy by doing God’s work and by caring about others, they themselves receive the gift of joy for the same reasons. Just ask them.
Joy is a wonderful thing and it can easily overtake us. It is not continuous , but it pops up whenever we see God at work—healing the sick, curing the lame, giving sight to the blind or proclaiming good news to the poor. It pops up when we do the work of God and we understand that God is actually do his work in many circumstances that surround us.
Everlasting joy, says Isaiah, comes on the day of Christ’s second coming:
“The ransom of the Lord shall come to Zion with singing and everlasting joy shall be upon their lands.”
There is a day coming—a day which we are called to prepare for—a day of eternal joy. It is a joy that we get a taste of in the here and now when we receive the gift of God at work and when we do the works of God. It is then that it becomes possible for others to have the joy of seeing him.
And so, on this Sunday of joy, as we light the 3rd candle on our Advent wreath, we thank you O Lord for the excitement and delight we experience at this joyful time of year. Help us to share your joy with others so that they too will be filled with your Spirit.