We Were Born for Such a Time as This

On this Sunday when we light the candle of joy, I noticed how three of the four suggested lectionary readings talked about joy and rejoicing.


In the words of 1 Thessalonians, which we will hear at the benediction, we read, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” 




In Psalm 126, which inspired the call to worship, there is almost a chorus of “shouts of joy”: When God restores the fortunes of the people—shouts of joy; seeds sown with tears are reaped—with shouts of joy.


In Isaiah 61:

I will greatly rejoice in God,
   my whole being shall exult in my God,
who has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
   and covered me with the robe of righteousness.


What’s the difference between happiness and joy? We may use the words interchangeably. When I looked this up online, here’s what I found.


“Happiness is based on what is happening around us. Joy is based on what is happening within us.” [Margaret Minnicks, June 4, 2014.]


According to the website Diffen:

Joy is a stronger, less common feeling than happiness. Witnessing or achieving selflessness to the point of personal sacrifice frequently triggers this emotion. It can come from feeling spiritually connected to a god or to people.

Causes: Spiritual experiences, caring for others, gratitude, thankfulness. [Notice these are all things we can practice.]

Happiness is about outward expression of elation, whereas we experience joy as inward peace and contentment.

Joy is a byproduct of a moral lifestyle.

The opposite of happiness is misery. The opposite of joy is fear.



Fear. That caught my attention. The opposite of joy is fear.

Which brings to mind what the angel told the shepherds: “Fear not! I bring you good news of great joy.”


So to make room for joy in our lives, we have to work through the fear. We can develop joy as a spiritual discipline so that we continue to live in joy

even as unjust budgets are passed,

even as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is thrown open to drilling,

even as California burns with wildfires exacerbated by climate change,

even as the number of people experiencing homelessness is rising,

even as Black lives continue to matter less than White lives,

even as LGBT couples can be refused a wedding cake because the baker condemns their sexuality.

It’s not that we disregard these injustices; it’s that we are committed to addressing them—in our own lives, in our own communities, in the world at large. Doing this work of justice brings us joy. Centering our lives in a just God brings us joy.


I’m preaching to myself here as much as to anyone else. If fear is the opposite of joy, how often does fear hold us back from the work of justice, the work that can bring us great joy? All the time, I suspect.


There is pressure at the holidays to be happyhappyhappy. As we now see, that’s different from being joyful. Practicing the spiritual discipline of joy is not about being some Pollyanna. “Oh, everything’s always fine, life is great!” Even when it’s not. It’s not some shallow attitude that denies and suppresses all the misery and awfulness that life can dish out. No, practicing joy is profound, and we can do it even when the world is crashing around our ears.


Let’s take a look at the passage from Isaiah, because it tells us a few things about rejoicing and practicing joy, even in the face of intense challenges.


Isaiah 61 is part of what scholars call “Third Isaiah.” Your Bible doesn’t make this division—the book is just called Isaiah—but scholars consider that there are three voices writing over a period of about 200 years. First voice is pre-exile. The second dates to almost the end of the exile and speaks with great hope about how God will make the return journey easy: God will bring the mountains low and fill in the valleys, make the crooked roads straight so that the long trek across the desert back to Jerusalem will be a breeze. But Third Isaiah writes after the people have made that long trek. It was not easy, and no one ran out to meet them or even expected them. There were all these people who had gotten on with their lives, and Jerusalem was in ruins.


There was division: How do we rebuild? Who gets to continue to live in Jerusalem—the people who have been there all along, or the children and grandchildren of those who left 50 years ago? How do we live as God’s people? Do these two groups accept each other or start a war?


It is in this context of profound devastation, division, and chaos that Third Isaiah writes,

I will greatly rejoice in God,
   my whole being shall exult in my God,
who has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
   and covered me with the robe of righteousness.


What? Is he even paying attention?


Yes. He is. Profoundly. Because listen again to what he says before that, what gives rise to these words of joy and rejoicing.


The spirit of God is upon me,
   because God has anointed me;
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners; 
to proclaim the year of God’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn; 
to provide for those who mourn in Zion.


Third Isaiah finds joy in answering God’s call to bring good news, to liberate the captives, release the prisoners, rebuild the broken city, replant the gardens. And over 500 years later, the writer of the Gospel of Luke recounted that Jesus quoted these words from Isaiah as a way of launching his own ministry. We, too, may find that they continue to resonate in our time. God has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives.


Isaiah speaks of the year of God’s favor. This is the year of jubilee, every 50 years, when land was to be redistributed to its original owners, debts canceled. The idea was that no one could get too poor or too rich without this periodic rebalancing. (Not sure it was ever actually implemented.) So here he is, returning with exiles after 50 years, talking about redistributing the land so that everyone has what they need. And when the people practice justice, God will lift them up as an example to the nations—not because they are better than everyone else, but because they are modeling the justice that God wants everyone to practice.


Imagine rebalancing the wealth today. The top 1% in this country have more of the wealth than the bottom 90%, and the gap has only widened in recent decades. No one yet knows how the latest tax bill will play out, but it does not appear to bode well for the lower or middle classes. And of course it’s not an entirely done deal yet. It seems to rely on the idea that if we give rich people and wealthy corporations a lot of money, they will not hoard it but will put it in circulation and share with the rest of us. When the state of Kansas implemented huge tax breaks, it was such a disaster that eventually the Kansas legislature—Republicans and Democrats together—overrode the governor to raise taxes.


Isaiah says the spirit of God is upon him. We talk about Jesus being God-with-us, the divine in human form. But Isaiah is saying something along the same lines: the spirit of God is upon me. God is working through me.


That’s what we celebrate at Christmas—that’s the Messiah we are waiting for: the divine working through us. And in the midst of oppression, taxation, brokenness, what are we called to do? To bring good news. To rejoice. To proclaim a God who is all about justice, liberation, salvation, healing, love … and joy.


We are the ones born for such a time as this. We are called to rebuild the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations, repair the ruined cities. We are called to replant Eden, to make a desert into a thriving, life-giving garden. To sow with tears and to harvest with shouts of joy.


God says that the people who practice justice will be known to all the nations through the generations. Could we be such a people?


In the reading today from the Gospel of John, John bears witness to the light, baptizes with water in preparation for the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. He devotes himself to laying the groundwork for God to make something happen. He is very clear that he is not the Messiah, but that God is working through him nonetheless.


How can we bear witness to the light, even and especially in such a time as this? How do we remember to practice joy, not in a fake, shallow way, but with our whole being?


The dark times, the greatest challenges, make us deeper, more profound—dare I say more joyful—human beings. Many of us have been through times of deep mourning. As difficult and painful as they are, and as much as we would not wish them on anyone, they make us grow. Death is a necessary part of life. It creates room for what is waiting to be born. We become more compassionate toward those experiencing loss.


Advent is a time of preparation and waiting, a time when we can take stock of our spiritual lives. Like a Mari Kondo decluttering of the soul, we clear away what needs to die and open ourselves to what is life-giving, to what brings joy. Only then can we bear witness to the light, spread the good news of great joy.


Around the year 1513, Fra Giovanni wrote this Christmas message:

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take Joy.

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away. [Quoted in Tasha Tudor, Take Joy! The Tasha Tudor Christmas Book (New York: Philomel Books, 1966), 9.]


Take heaven. Take peace. Take joy. Take them as seeds already planted within us, a new Eden that we can cultivate, nurture, and grow. Grow heaven—in here so that we can grow it out there, too. Grow peace—in here and out there. Grow joy. Everywhere. Amen.


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