Finding Joy in John the Baptist
As with last Sunday, so with this, we're face to face with John the Baptist. The Collect focuses on him which is fitting sense Advent is a season of repentance, but this morning we lit the pink candle which sparks a note of joy, but how do you find joy in John?
Of the four Advent candles, the pink one is the only one to specifically mean something. It's a case of going from liturgy to wreath. What I mean is that the Advent wreath only dates to the 19th century. Long before it came the season of Advent and the historic Introit and Collect reflected the pink candle. The first line of the Introit was "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice." The Collect rather than praying that we may "serve You in holiness and righteousness," asked God to "lighten the darkness of our hearts."
The 3rd Sunday in Advent is a respite in the penitential season of Advent. The purple of Advent which stands for repentance is lightened into a pink which strikes a note of Christmas joy. The Collect and Introit with their notes of lightening darkness and rejoicing are the ones appointed in The Lutheran Hymnal. Lutheran Worship, the hymnal that came out in the 80s, switched to the ones found on your insert: away from rejoicing and focused on John the Baptist. The Lutheran Service Book split the difference. It returned to the 16th century Collect of The Lutheran Hymnal but kept the Introit of Lutheran Worship.
There is no denying that even though the 3rd Sunday in Advent was a lightening of repentance, historically the Gospel lesson for this Sunday did focus on John, and so we're back to finding joy in John. My first impression is that with John there is no joy. "No joy" is a term the military uses. A pilot reports, "No joy." A search team radios back, "No joy." It means the pilot didn't hit what he was aiming at; the search team didn't find what it was looking for. So even though we lit the pink candle, after hearing about and from John the Baptist is our report "no joy?"
Well, what did you come here today looking for? Did you come to this 3rd Sunday in Advent looking for positive thinking? How about, "I'm okay you're okay?" Maybe you came looking for the much talked about but seldom seen Christmas spirit. I know this spirit. It's the feeling that comes over me when I hear "Sliver Bells," "Jingle Bells," or "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" even though I've never heard silver bells, rode in a one horse open sleigh, or seen chestnuts roasting anywhere.
What did you come here today looking for? If you're looking for what is not here, there will be no joy because you can't find what's not here. You won't get joy out of this sermon let alone service if what you're seeking is feelings, spirits, and things in line with the world around you. The spirit of the shopping mall, the holiday TV special or Christmas past isn't here, so if that's what you're searching for "no joy" for you.
What are you aiming at? Did you come here aiming for the "perfect Christmas?" Are you aiming to be able to say "great" when people ask, "How was your Christmas?" Are you aiming at all the things the world is aiming for this time of year: just the right gifts, food, family, parties, lights? Then there's is no joy for you here either. You can't hit these shooting from here. If you're aiming for what Jimmie Stewart ends up with in "It's a Wonderful Life," Scrooge gets in "A Christmas Carol," or "The Miracle on 34th Street," you are aiming for what the world has, and you can't hit it from the church.
The joy of the world is not found here, so if that's what you're aiming at or searching for all you can report is "no joy." There is no joy here but there is jubilation. Our English word "joy" comes from the Latin gaudere where our English word "gaudy" comes from. Gaudere refers to showy, outward splendor. That's what Christmas commercials are bursting with: from the Budweiser Clydesdales trotting into town to Target having everything but the elves of Christmas. But showiness, outward splendor is not found in John. Remember last week? He was described as clothed in camel's hair and eating locusts. Let's see Budweiser make a Christmas commercial with locusts or Target do so with camel's hair clothing.
Joy in the sense of gaudiness has never been what we aimed at or searched for, is it? Try putting the concept of gaudy in Psalm 30:5, "Weeping may endure for the night but gaudiness comes in the morning." How about in Psalm 4, "Thou has put gaudiness in my heart more than when their wine and grain increased." How about in John 16, "A woman giving birth to a child has pain, but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her gaudiness that a child is born into the world."
Gaudiness is the target the world sets before you and sets you in search of. Jubilation is why we lit the pink candle because you can find jubilation in John. Jubilation comes from the Latin jubilare which is an exultant cry. Early Christian writers used it with the sense "'to rejoice in the Lord as the hunter in his quarry'" (A Browser's Dictionary, 214). If you're not a hunter, you might have a hard time getting this. It's not that the hunter thinks, "Yes, there is the thing that I get to kill." No, he thinks, "There at last is the animal I've sat here freezing, wet, and miserable for. There at last is the animal I've walked miles for. There's the quarry I've waited and waited for." It sets the heart to pounding and the blood to racing.
John will bring you jubilation; listen to him. He cries out much like Jimmy Dean does in "Big, Bad John." After the mine caves-in, after the trapped miners have all but given up, big, bad John uses his huge frame and mighty strength to lift the beam and the miners cry out, and you can hear the jubilation in the line, "There's a light up above!"
But there's a difference with John's cry. It's not there's a light up above but there's light down below. John testified that the true Light was coming into this world. You know how downcast, how moody, how despairing some people can be when there is day after day of heavy cloud cover? If you do hunt, you know how unnerved animals become when a thunderhead spreads darkness across the land in the middle of the day. John testifies that this present darkness which comes from the grip of Sin, Death, and Devil on fallen mankind is broken; the Light has come.
The Light of God shines on earth in the Person and Work of Jesus. Not just love came down at Christmas, but Light did. Light always overcomes darkness, right? You light one single candle and the accursed darkness is driven back. Jesus drove back the darkness of Sin, Death, and the Devil by taking on our sins, dying our death, and by willingly being delivered over to the Devil. With His means of grace Jesus shines forgiveness into our sinfulness; life into our death; and drives back the Prince of Darkness. Baptism clothes us with the Light. Absolution puts the Light into our ears. And in Communion we endarkened people eat and drink Light.
There is Jubilation in John; there's reason to light the pink candle today. John lets us know that God is still on speaking terms with the world. After 400 years of silence from when God last spoke to the prophet Malachi, finally we hear in Luke 3, "The word of God came to John in the desert." Of course, it's even better news than this. John doesn't just hear a word from God; John announces that God's Word had come in flesh and blood. The one the prophets promised, the Church waited for, and sinners longed for was at last here.
Did you come here today aiming to hear a Word from God? Did you come to Divine Service on this 3rd Sunday in Advent in search of the Word made flesh? You've found your quarry! You've hit your target! Jesus speaks to you today. To you who can find nothing in body or soul but sin, Jesus speaks forgiveness in Absolution. To you who can find nothing but Death and damnation in your body or soul, Jesus speaks life and salvation: Body to body, Blood to blood. You may indeed have walked in here guilty and dead, but you walk away forgiven and alive, and if that isn't cause for jubilation what is?
One more thing, one more reason to light the pink candle and give a cry of exultation: John brings light to the desert; John brings God's Word to the desert, and he brings God's Water here. Desert regions burst into bloom when water hits them. John is bringing Water where there ought not to be any; John brings God's Water to people who don't deserve it because he precedes the One who will win the Garden of Eden back for sinners. God the Son comes to where we've been cast out of Eden for breaking God's laws, and He picks those broken laws up and keeps every one of them.
Go ahead take some time. Run down all the laws of God you haven't done and can't do. See if you can find one that Jesus didn't do. Can't? Is not there jubilation in finding yourself in Jesus out from under all those laws that accuse you? And who bore the punishment for the breaking of those laws? You know: Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. John can bring a Water into the desert that forgives sins and gives the Holy Spirit because Jesus won the right to send baptismal Water to all nations, people, and places. There in that font is the Water you've been seeking for; the forgiveness you've aimed for.
It may seem hard to find joy in John, but it's not only there this 3rd Sunday in Advent. It's always been there. It in fact was in John before he was even born. Don't you remember? Pregnant Mary goes to visit pregnant Elizabeth, and when the mother of the Lord's voice is heard by Elizabeth, John leaped for joy in her womb. John, like every great theologian after him from Paul to Luther knew that the bottom line of the true God is joy. Not the gaudy joy the world sell this time of year, but the jubilation that God for Jesus' sake doesn't will to leave sinners in darkness, in silence, or thirsty. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20111211); John 1: 6-8, 19-28