Third Sunday of Advent

TEXTS: Luke 3:18-22 and Philippians 4:4-7

In many different ways John preached the good news to the people. (Luke 3:18)

Always be filled with joy in the Lord. I will say it again. Be filled with joy. (Philippians 4:4)

Good news! Be filled with joy!

Joy is a special kind of happiness which wells up from deep within the human soul. It is not superficial. And it is not complicated. Even a little child may know it. As someone has said, “Joy overflows in time, yet is the stuff of eternity.”

This special happiness is the dominant theme of the third Sunday of Advent. In chapter four of Philippians, Paul celebrates the truth that the Lord is near. In chapter three of Luke, John the Baptist preaches the good news to the people.

Joy is the overarching theme here. At least until Herod throws John in prison, and … Well, that’s a story for another day.

What brings happiness?

Most Canadians, I’m sure—if you were to ask them that question—would give answers reflecting the assumptions and illusions of North American culture.

What brings happiness? Most would say things like …

Wealth. Winning LOTTO MAX, or being a millionaire before the age of 30. Plenty of money equals plenty of happiness. Right?

Or being young; hence the multi-billion-dollar cosmetic industry which is focused on making us look younger than we really are. To appear youthful equals happiness.

Or good health. The gigantic market for health products testifies to our belief that good health guarantees happiness.

Or popularity. To be popular, to have admiring people around you, who flatter you. If possible, to be a sports star, or a movie star or a rock star … this is happiness!

Or a good marriage. To marry a person that you are in madly in love with … this surely is the very definition of happiness. Hence the happy ending the majority of people expect from cheap novels and romantic films.

Or having grandchildren! This remains a much-desired source of happiness for most of us who are parents of grown-up children.

Now, I haven’t paid Ipsos-Reid to conduct a poll, but I would suggest to you that all of these things would rate very highly on the list of Canadian assumptions about the sources of happiness.

You might wish to add a few more.  Like “success.” Or “power.” Or, for those of you who set your sights as low as I do … a bucket of fried chicken (with fries, gravy and cole slaw)!

Yeah. I’m really not that hard to please.

Now, before I proceed any further, let me acknowledge the good in most of those assumptions. They do have some validity.

For example, wealth. Wealth is not a bad thing. There is no virtue in grinding poverty; having some money certainly improves our sense of well-being.

Or youth. The energy of a young person is a considerable asset. Aging has its drawbacks.

Or health. Of course health is a good thing. Who would choose disease over health?

Popularity is not a bad thing, either. We all need to be liked and respected. Being unpopular is not fun.

A good marriage is a wonderful thing—and a love-match is a pretty good start.

And as for grandchildren … I think they’re awesome!

Be assured, I am not knocking these things. But I do ask the question: are they truly a lasting source of that profound happiness which we call joy? Can they be relied on to deliver what we want them to?

Sadly, the answer is “no!” An objective look at Canadian society flatly contradicts our widespread assumptions about the sources of sustainable happiness. The roots of joy are not found in wealth, health, popularity, youthfulness, marriage, or even grandchildren.

The evidence shows otherwise; evidence that we all can see and hear.

There are some “could-be” grandparents who boot their pregnant daughters out of the house because these young women insist on choosing motherhood. Not much joy of grandparenting there.

It’s the same with marriage. Apparent love-matches can turn sour before a year is up. Some of those who expected a life of unabated happiness wind up hating each other! And even in the happiest of marriages, the heart still seeks something yet more profound.

What about popularity? We all know that there are plenty of examples of lonely and despairing superstars, for whom authentic joy remains elusive. Some are even driven to suicide.

As for youthfulness … Look, we’ve all met many joyful elderly people. And we’ve all seen plenty of miserable young people!

The same can be said about good health. Some who are physically robust are spiritually desolate. On the other hand, some of the most radiantly joyful people you will ever meet spend their days on hospital wards or in extended care facilities.

Lastly, there is the biggest myth of them all: wealth.

Common sense shouts at us that wealth does not bring happiness. The world is littered with nasty, sour, and ruthless millionaires; who smile for the camera while their souls are as parched as a desert.

On the other hand, there are multitudes of ordinary folk with just barely enough money to scrape by, who are a sheer joy to be around.

What really disturbs me, is that I see many Christians getting caught up in the same illusions as the secular world. And what disturbs me even more deeply is that I find myself sometimes day-dreaming, getting sucked in by these illusions, tempted by these same false gods.

Christians know—or should know—that real joy is only to be found in the generous, supreme love of God in Jesus Christ. It’s called grace.

Joy is knowing the grace of God. Joy is knowing that you are treasured and cherished by the very Spirit who is the Source of our existence.

Joy means losing the anxiety which is bred by slavish religion, or arid godlessness. It means finding “the freedom of the glory of the children of God,” as Paul told the Romans (Rom. 8:21).

Joy is to know that in success or failure, in sickness or in health, poverty or wealth, youth or old age, living or dying, our lives are guarded by this amazing grace.

“Salvation” is the word commonly used to describe the ministry of Christ in our lives.

Salvation has two meanings: rescue and healing. Both of these apply.

Christ rescues us from all the illusions and bondages that the world would thrust upon us. More than that, Christ’s love heals the depths of our being. In fact, he is the love which restores us to health. He enables us to bask and delight in the affection of God. In Jesus Christ, we see the immense, rescuing, liberating, healing love of God—focused in one human life. He is Emmanuel—“God-with-us.” That is what we are preparing to celebrate as we draw near to Christmas.

So I return to the words of the apostle Paul: “Always rejoice in the Lord. I tell you again: Rejoice!”

You remember the story of Paul, don’t you? Because of Emmanuel, that devout but miserable fellow—Saul of Tarsus—became Paul, the joyful servant of the risen Christ. He had been a legalistic religious fanatic: proudly racist, fearful of those whom he considered heretics, anxious lest he break one of God’s commandments—and murderously hateful toward this new sect of Jesus-followers.

But when—on that road to Damascus—he was confronted with the blinding love of God in Christ Jesus, joy and liberty filled his being. Joy was the by-product of his new faith. It welled up unquenchably from the eternal, intimate presence of God.

Years later—after having been flogged on numerous occasions; shipwrecked while on missionary journeys; after having been spat upon and beaten, driven out of one town after another … After having been ridiculed by intellectuals; scorned by his fellow Pharisees; pelted with stones; and shackled in prisons …

Finally, when he was held under arrest in Rome awaiting his trial and execution, Paul was able to write to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi,” saying: “Always rejoice in the Lord. I tell you again: Rejoice! … The Lord is near. Have no anxiety about anything.”

Christian joy does not depend upon life’s circumstances. Its source is eternal. That, perhaps, is the message we most need to hear right now, as we speed down the hectic fast lane to Christmas.

So, if you haven’t already … please take some time to fuel up with the love of God. Fuel up on Jesus before you get back on the Christmas freeway. Fill your tank with the joy of the Spirit—then journey on in faith and hope and love.

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