Leaning in to Paradox

December 16, 2018, Advent 3C, Philippians 4:4-7

Traditionally the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. It gets its name from the Latin word Gaudete which means “rejoice” and is taken from the first line of the antiphon traditionally sung on this Sunday that comes from our Philippians reading, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” The focus on joy and rejoicing on this third Sunday in Advent began when Advent was seen as more of a penitential season like Lent. The third week focused on joy gave a reprieve in the midst of the season and was indicated by the color rose instead of the usual purple. Although over time much of the church has switched from purple as the liturgical color of Advent to blue to indicate the difference of the Advent season from Lent, recognizing it less as a season focused on repentance and more of one focused on hope and expectation for the coming of Christ, the rose color and focus on joy on the third Sunday of Advent has remained.

For many this focus on joy in the middle of Advent feels just fine because why wouldn’t it? After all, look at all the joy around us during this season. Christmas carols playing on the radio 24/7. Gifts being bought and given and advertisements telling you of just how much joy all these gifts will give us. Christmas trees, lights, and decorations everywhere you look. Parties and holiday gatherings filling up our calendars. The world around us seems to be on a joy overload. And yet for many, this time of year isn’t so joyful or joy-filled. For many, it is a challenge to muster up even a little joy and they feel out of place in this season where it seems like everyone else has no problem with embracing the joy of the season.

Recognizing this is one of the reasons we will have a Longest Night service this coming Wednesday night. Because for those facing the recent death of a loved one, depression, anxiety, addiction, illness, unemployment, debt, loss of a marriage or other relationship, or separation from family or friends, joy can be a hard thing to lean into at this time of year.

Just this past week we experienced a laundry list of things that offer a challenge to embracing the joy in this season:

  • The sixth anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting where 26 children and teachers were killed in Newtown, CT and where to add to their fear and grief of the anniversary, the school received a bomb threat.
  • The death of four people in a gun attack at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France.
  • The death of a seven-year-old refugee girl in custody of US Border Patrol after her family fled Guatemala seeking safety and a new home here.
  • The death of Firefighter Christopher Roy in the line of duty in Worcester, yet another December loss to a fire department that since 1999 has lost several firefighters in this month.

With so much going on in our lives and in our world, it can often be a challenge to muster up even a remnant of joy when it feels like there is so much sadness and pain overwhelming it. It can be hard to be authentic in our joy when it seems like it is what people expect from us, yet we just aren’t feeling it. We might even want to push back at all those pushing us toward joy in this season and tell them what we really think of their joy.

Our second reading this morning from Paul’s letter to the Philippians can also solicit that response from us, can’t it? Doesn’t it make you want to push back and rebel when you hear Paul exhort the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” and “do not worry about anything.” He sounds a bit like he might have paid a visit to one of our state’s newly opened recreational marijuana shops with such a laid back, joy-filled attitude. He certainly doesn’t sound very much like a crotchety New Englander suspect of anyone expressing a bit too much joy or happiness in this cold winter season.

All joking aside, hearing this message from Paul to rejoice in the Lord always and not worry can feel unrealistic at times in our lives. It can even feel cruel and like our faith asks us to ignore our painful reality. Or worse, it can make us feel as if we have failed somehow in our faith if we are unable to embrace joy in the midst of our painful reality.

That isn’t at all Paul’s intention or message though. Paul isn’t preaching the gospel so far removed from the struggles of life that he has adopted a “don’t worry be happy” attitude. In fact, far from it. Paul knows pain and struggle. He writes this letter to the Philippians from prison likely with the threat of a death sentence hanging over his head. He has been rejected and beaten for his faith. He wrote of some sort of unnamed affliction or “thorn in the flesh” that he just couldn’t get rid of no matter how hard he tried or how fervently he prayed. He suffered under his own sin doing that which he didn’t want to do and not doing that which he wanted to do.

And the Philippians that he is writing to, things haven’t been so great for them either. Sure, their relationship with Paul was a pretty positive one and they and Paul have been supportive of one another. However, in the letter Paul mentions that the Philippians have been caused suffering from opponents. And he writes that they have been the recipients of some alternative teaching that Paul says is false and warns them is a threat to their community. Finally, there is also a conflict between two female leaders in their congregation named Euodia and Syntyche, that though an interpersonal one seems to be affecting the congregation.

Neither Paul nor the Philippian church are without their own struggles, strife, and threats to the joy-filled life. They understand pain and suffering because they have lived it and are living it, yet in the midst of it all Paul calls them to rejoice. Not to rejoice removed from their reality, but to rejoice right there in the mess of all their pain and suffering.

Paul calls them to live into the paradox of two things being true at once, the both and as well as the already but not yet. He calls them to rejoice knowing that life is not easy, there is suffering and pain, and yet at the same time “the Lord is near” so all isn’t as hopeless as it might seem. They don’t need to worry, but can instead rejoice because what they are going through will not always be. The Lord is near. God is with them. Offering their prayers and supplications in the midst of their struggles and suffering God knows their experience and offers the peace which passes all understanding. The peace that guards their hearts and minds even in the chaos of whatever the world throws at them.

Paul invites the Philippians to lean into a promised new reality with God in joy though it isn’t quite here yet. Through gentleness, prayer, and supplication with thanksgiving he invites them to live in joy not in denial of their suffering and struggles, but in defiance of them. He calls them to embrace the joy that in spite of all signs to the contrary God is near and at work so they need not worry because God will redeem the bad and bring about good. They can rejoice because the peace of God which passes all understanding is theirs, so while they suffer and struggle they can cling to God who is present with them working to transform their current reality to a new and better future one.

Rejoicing invites us to step into the belief that God can and will bring the world we long for into being in spite of the fact that the world we see now looks like that promised world might be impossible. Rejoicing invites us to live in expectation of the not yet trusting that God will transform it into a new reality of what will be in God’s promised future. Rejoicing invites us to live in hope that God will not forget us in our suffering, but is near walking with us in it and ready for the time when the day comes to bring healing and wholeness. Rejoicing always then is not a denial of what is, it is simply a trust that God isn’t done with us yet and won’t rest until God’s vision of a new world and reality for all is made real.

So, when we lit the third candle on our Advent wreath today and it spoke of healing I don’t think it is that far from the traditional celebration of joy on this Gaudete Sunday. Instead, I think it is really much the same as through our persistent and insistent waiting in joy God is bringing about our healing from whatever it is that troubles or afflicts us and our world. Through orienting ourselves to the way of joy God is reveals to us that the Lord is near and God’s dream for us within reach. And through our joy God is at work reminding us that God isn’t done with us yet, but is present in the peace that passes all understanding guarding our hearts and minds for as long as it takes to bring God’s joy in all its fullness moves from our lived hope to God’s eternal reality for us. Amen.

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