Third Sunday of Advent - "People Get Ready"
Today is the Third Sunday of the season of Advent--a day when we celebrate the joy of God's salvation. All week long we'll be focusing on joy in our daily devotions, and the PastorCast podcast that we'll be recording at the end of the week. You can find out more about all of those kinds of things on our website or in your worship bulletins.
So I spent some time this week thinking about joy, particularly how to define it. What does it mean to be joyful? To experience joy?
The dictionary definition of joy is simply this: feeling great pleasure or happiness, jubilation, bliss. There were other definitions as well, but they all kind of came back to the same thing--an over-the-top kind of feeling, a rush, if you will.
I think it's time to make a list, since it's Advent and all. You never get too old to make a list at Christmastime, am I right? This is the list of things that bring me joy, in no particular order:
Having my whole family together for cookouts. Traveling--anywhere, just traveling. Great food and drinks--I love to eat, brothers and sisters. Really dark beer and a good cigar. Writing with a really good pen--never underestimate that. When my football teams win. Coen brothers movies. Really, really hard and heavy rock music with crunching guitars and screaming vocals.
These are a few of my favorite things...
Here's where you get to make your own list. I want you to find some space on your notes right there and jot down three things that bring you joy. Then I want you to turn to the person next to you and share those three joyful things. Take just a couple of minutes. I'll wait!
How do we constantly experience the kind of joy that we feel in those things we mentioned? Is that even possible? Or are we sort of relegated to chasing moments of joy, and living off the highs we get when we feel them to get us through the lows when we don't? What does it look like when we experience constant joy?
That's what we're going to be talking about today--in the context of the season of Advent and the anticipation of the coming of the Christ.
What I want us to remember today if we forget everything else that's said is simply this: When there is true joy on the inside it makes itself known on the outside.
The passage of Scripture that we are going to be studying today is a bit odd to be reading before Christmas. Let's read it, and I'll let you see what I mean:
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
Like I said, kind of odd to read before Christmas, right? But here's the thing, we can't get to the babe in Bethlehem without first hearing from the rough preacher in the wilderness. John was a walking sign and symbol of prophecy. He even looked like Elijah, the prophet of old. He wore camel hair clothes, leather belts and he ate locusts and wild honey--which was the only way you could stay kosher out in the wilderness.
Everyone came to see and hear John the Baptist. The guy was a bit of a celebrity. The text that we just read indicates that there were three different kinds of people gathered on the day he makes his pronouncements in Luke 3. There were the crowds--which were probably just every day people, ordinary folks who travelled together from neighboring villages and even as far away as Jerusalem, which was about a day's journey away.
There were also tax collectors there. Just like today, tax collectors were a reviled bunch. Mostly because they abused their power and extorted more money out of people than they actually owed.
The text indicates there were also soldiers there as well. And we have evry reason to believe that these may have been soldiers who were the employ of the Roman Empire, or at the very least worked for the Temple, which was the same as working for the Roman Empire.
And John calls all of these people who came to see him, to follow him and perhaps even become his disciples... snakes. He calls them snakes. "You brood of vipers!" He exclaims to them, "Who told you to flee from the coming judgement." The image that he paints is a bunch of snakes crawling away like mad from a forest fire.
Can you imagine if that is how I greeted you all every Sunday morning. "Hey you bunch of icky, squirmy serpents! Welcome to church!" I don't think there would be all that many people left after a few weeks of that, but John the Baptist seemed to pull it off. They stuck around.
They also all ask him a question: "What shall we do? What shall we do to be part of God's kingdom, to make things right with God, to repair our souls?"
John keeps it simple. He preaches generosity, unselfishness and repentance. He tells the crowd to give out of their abundance. He tells the tax collectors to stop cheating people and to begin living for the common good. He tells soldiers to stop using their might and political clout for their own gain.
What John tells all of these people is this: When it comes to the kingdom of God, and what God wants from his people... it's about how you live, not what you say. It's about behaving, not merely saying you believe.
I think that a lot of us Christians would do well to think about John's teaching here. Let's be clear, what John is suggesting is not an end unto itself. He's not saying that fearing God and preparing for the Messiah is something that you can do merely by doing good things. But he is saying that if all you are doing is talking a good game, going through motions, focusing only on appearances... then you're doing it wrong.
John might say, "Don't confuse sitting on the limb with being a fruit."
I like that analogy. It sounds a lot like something Joyce Meyer would say, which makes it infinitely cooler.
So how does all of this apply to us?
According to John's exhortation (and much of Jesus' own teaching) every one of us who would follow the Messiah is called to bear fruit. This is a pretty Christian-y thing to say, honestly. What it means essentially is that what is on the outside reflects what is on the inside. The only way to really know if a fruit tree is really healthy is when it bears fruit.
But what does it look like when we do? I've heard lots of people argue about this over the years. Some Christians will say that someone's life is "bearing fruit" when they keep the rules, particularly the ones that have to do with morality. Others might say that "bearing fruit" has to do with winning souls for Jesus, or doing good in the world.
What John essentially describes here is something kind of different.
When our lives bear fruit it looks like joy--the joy that comes from God. Because when there is true joy on the inside it makes itself known on the outside. And it makes itself known on the outside through generosity, unselfishness, repentance, humility and sacrifice for the sake of others and the world. In other words, it looks a lot like the way Jesus lived and moved in the world.
So if bearing fruit is a sign that you are a Christian--then why aren't Christians known for their joy?
I think there's three main reasons why most of us who call ourselves Christians are known more for arguing about what we are against and won't do than we are for being filled with the joy that comes from God.
First, far too many of practice things that steal our joy. We have bad habits of negative self-talk--the stories we tell about ourselves often tend toward the negative. We also succumb to fear, which leads to anxiety and even anger.
Some of us spend way too much time and energy complaining about all of the things that are wrong in the world and in our lives. We spend too much time gossiping. Many of us live in the past, and fear the future. The list goes on and on.
Second, I think that many of us mistake happiness for true joy, and so we spend a lot of energy and time pursuing things that make us happy--or that we think will make us happy. Happiness is fleeting. It's temporary. It might make you happy to buy new clothes today, but tomorrow they'll be slightly less new and you'll be less happy than before.
The same goes for cars, TVs, and even smart phones. There's a reason why Apple and Samsung and all of the rest of the smart phone manufacturers come out with new phones each year. They know that we're tired of our old one--even though it's probably perfectly all right.
Happiness is fleeting, but joy is deeper. True joy is something that doesn't come and go--it's always inside of you and it flows out of you like a river into the rest of the world.
Third, I think that many Christians find joy eludes them because they become the kind of people they say they're not. They might decry the inhumanity of the joy-stealers around them, but in reality they are the ones who are stealing everyone else's joy by being negative, self-centered, angry, combative... by now you get the picture.
Listen to me, the only worse thing than not having joy is stealing someone's else's.
Finally, we need to understand that Peace and Joy go together, and not just on the Advent wreath--they go together in our hearts. When we try not to fight all the time or hate others... When we decide that we are going to live generously with our entire life... When we act unselfishly in our interactions with the world around us... When we repent in humility of the ways we've kept people from seeing God, and experiencing his Son... When we live like Jesus...
We experience the Joy that comes from Peace and we find Peace in the true Joy that comes from God.
I heard a story about an old holy woman, who was known for her inner peace and outer joy. She spread her infectious joy every where she went. One day she was on a short pilgrimage and encountered a poor traveler, who asked her for some food. She opened her bag to give him some, and he saw a beautiful jewel inside the bag next to her food. "Give me that stone instead!" he exclaimed. And the old woman did, she smiled and with no hesitation handed it over to the man, who snatched it and hurried off. He knew what it was worth and could not wait to change his fortunes.
The next day as the old woman was traveling slowly down the road she met the man again. He'd been sitting by the side of the road waiting for her. "Here," he said to her as he handed back the jewel. "You gave me what I thought was so valuable, but what I realized later is that you have something even more valuable that I want." "And what could that be?" she asked him. "The ability that you had to give me the jewel without hesitation. That is the most valuable thing I think I've ever seen."
Do people see Jesus in your joy? Do you show so much joy to the world that people wonder if maybe you've lost your mind? If not, then maybe it's time to start living and practicing the true joy that comes from God.
When there is true joy on the inside it makes itself known on the outside.