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Practiced in Joy

(a sermon for January 10, 2021, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Text: Isaiah 60:1-6)

I remember the moment as though it were yesterday.

It was the fall of 1982, I was living in Houlton, up in Aroostook County, Maine and serving as student pastor of the church up there while commuting back and forth to seminary classes in Bangor. I actually hadn’t been in town too long; in fact, I was still in the process of trying to get “settled in” at the church and in the community. And one day, I’d gone to the local drug store to buy something or other, and as I put my items on the counter, the cashier looked at me for a moment and said, “Aren’t you that new minister at the Congregational Church?” Surprised by the question and nervously looking around to make sure she wasn’t talking to somebody else, I stammered back, “Yesss… that’s me… I guess.” 

And immediately, as I was soon to discover was and is a fairly common thing up in “the county,” this woman started talking to me like she’d known me all her life!  She wasn’t a member of my church, she said, but she knew folks who were, and “those ‘congregationals’ are good people… especially dear old Mrs. Smith… she used to be my kindergarten teacher, you know!” And isn’t Houlton a wonderful little town… you’re really going to like it here!  And that’s how the conversation went: we talked back and forth like that for a good ten minutes and finally, as I started to leave, this woman, still smiling from ear to ear, said to me, “Well, it was really nice to meet you; you have a nice day, and God bless you, pastor!

I’d barely made it back out to the street when it hit me like a thunderbolt: she’d called me pastor!  For the very first time in my life, somebody had recognized me as “the minister!”  Even all these years later, friends, I cannot adequately express to you how that felt. Understand, it wasn’t that there was this perfect stranger who had recognized who I was; nor did it have anything to do with being able to puff out my chest and say, “Look at me, everyone, I’m the new minister in town!” Rather, it was the sudden realization that for the better part of a decade (since I’d been 15 years old, in fact!) everything in my life – spiritually, academically, even socially – had been focused on a singular calling, a calling that I sensed to be of God, a calling that I should become a church pastor. And now, here I was, standing on a sidewalk in the middle of downtown Houlton, having been recognized as just that! It’s no exaggeration to say that I was now standing on the threshold of the rest of my life, and the realization of this filled me with an incredible joy unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

Now, after close to 40 (!) years in my vocation as a church pastor, I can tell you that I’ve felt that same kind of joy on many other occasions, most certainly on the day of my ordination, but also in the midst of other, seemingly random times and circumstances over the years: worship services, weddings, even memorial services; times when it’s been clear that God is present and at work, and I’m suddenly aware that I’m just where I’m supposed to be at that moment. And it’s not necessarily “happiness” I’m talking about here, per se, nor is it some fleeting joy that passes with the moment, but rather a joy that’s pervasive and lasting because it’s been a long time in coming. It’s a joy that’s greatly anticipated because it’s a joy that’s been well-practiced.

But, then, you know what I mean, don’t you?  It’s like when a child is born: it’s not just the joy of the birth you feel – although that’s very real – but it’s also the culmination of nine months of this child’s of growing in the womb; it’s the joyous relief that comes in finally knowing that all is well and the baby is healthy. Same thing applies for those who are seeking to adopt: the joy that’s felt in that moment when everything comes together for a family is a joy that had its birthing, so to speak, long before the birth itself. 

Recent events notwithstanding, much the same can be said about the permutations of an ever-changing world: I’m put in mind, for instance, of a newspaper photo I saw recently, one that dates back to 1994, of Nelson Mandela voting for the very first time in a South African election after years of apartheid rule in that country.  It’s basically your standard-issue news photo; except that in it Mandela has this look on his face of a kid on Christmas morning as he performed the very simple act of placing a voting card through a slot into a wooden box. There was a profound joy in the act of voting, yes, but even more so because this represented the fulfillment of generations’ worth of hope and struggles for freedom. So when the joy finally came to pass, Mandela and so many others in South Africa knew it for what it was; nobody had to tell them what to feel or how to react, for this was a moment they had anticipated for years, even amidst the times and situation when there seemed to be no hope that such a moment would ever come to pass. When the moment finally came to pass, you see, they were well-practiced in their joy!

Well, that’s what this morning’s scripture reading is all about: joy well-practiced and joy fulfilled: “Arise, shine;” the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Lift up your eyes and look around… then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”  I love this passage; everything about it carries an air of proclamation and triumph. And although these words were written many generations before the birth of Christ, it does seem to bring something of a fitting closure to our re-telling of the Christmas story over these past few weeks. Did you notice that there’s even talk of kings “coming into the brightness of… dawn” and of camels – “a multitude of camels,” we’re told – bringing gold and frankincense? Sounds familiar, and one reason that this passage is traditionally read, along with the story of the Magi, on the Day of Epiphany. But even though this passage is full of celebration and triumph, we need to understand that for those for whom these words were originally intended, life was anything but triumphant.

This is another portion of Old Testament scripture that can and should be viewed in a couple of different contexts: historically, it was addressed to Israel in the years just after their exile to Babylon, returning home to Jerusalem only to find that city in ruins and their life as hard, if not even harder, than before. And spiritually, of course, we view it prophetically, anticipating the coming of a Messiah; of light entering into a darkened world in the person of Jesus Christ. It’s the promise that God’s glory will be seen in the midst of his people, that the life of those people will be restored and that they will be honored among all the nations. And so, when the prophet says unto Israel, “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” it’s a promise that is, in fact, “not yet,” but which is so very real, so very close, so immediate to them in that moment that their joy is already full and triumphant in its expression.

And so, when Jerusalem is restored and when the Messiah does come, it will be the fulfillment of something they already know, not unlike how we know before it happens that the sun will rise in the darkness of the eastern sky to bring forth the dawning of a new day.  When God’s presence brings joy and hope into the darkness of their despair, their oppression and grief, they will know that presence for exactly what it is; no one will need to tell them what to do or how to act – they will rejoice! – for they will already be well-practiced in joy!

Actually, you know, it occurs to me as we come to the end of yet another Christmastide, that perhaps this is part of our problem regarding Christmas, and for that matter regarding our faith in these days of confused situations: the fact is, friends, we are not practiced in joy! Oh, we’ve heard the familiar words of Christ’s birth and of light coming into our darkness, but are those words real to us and do they stay close to our hearts? We’ve celebrated the promise of joy to the world, alright, at least as much as time and pandemic would allow us this year (!); but is the truth of it that this joy has gotten put away as quickly and easily as do our decorations come the first of January?  

How does this happen to us, friends?  How does the Advent of God into our world become something we could put in a box and place up into the attic?  Isn’t that word of promise and hope as much for us now as it was for Israel so long ago!?  “Arise, shine!  For your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you!”  Have we forgotten that the glory of the Lord comes to us even now in the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ? That Christmas is merely an expression of what we know to be true as God’s people 365 days a year and in every year of life now and eternally? And that “peace on earth, goodwill amongst all people,” is more than merely some verse on a greeting card but the very principles by which you and I are called to live and, might I add, to govern ourselves? 

Now, perhaps more than ever before in our history, we need to proclaim that joy is ours in the coming of the Lord and that it is made manifest in the Lord’s love and his sacrifice and his mercy and his goodness and his salvation; but also that it must be practiced in the way that Christ lives within us and among us… in the way that his work is our work… as persons, as a people and most especially as the church.

We know all-too-well that we live in a world severely lacking in hope and woefully unpracticed in joy. And as though we needed another reminder of this, the horrific events at the Capital Building in Washington this past week served to show us, amongst other things, that in such a sinful and divided world as this, peace on earth does not always prevail. Truly, amongst the great ironies (to say nothing of the great sacrileges) of the violence that took place on Wednesday is that it happened on January 6, the Day of Epiphany, our Christian celebration of God’s light being revealed to the world in Jesus Christ. And as sad as it is for me to say, especially as someone who truly loves and believes in this country, it ended up as a stark reminder that our first allegiance and our hope as believers can never be unto the government – no matter who we voted for – or even unto the nation itself, but our allegiance can ever and only be unto God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

That said, however, there is something important for us to remember as the world seems to be spinning out of control; in truth of fact, the same message that we’ve heard again and again in recent weeks: that GOD IS WITH US as we go into the world. To quote Halford Luccock, the great 20th century Methodist commentator, the first words of the Christmas message from the sky were, “Fear Not!” and those still are good words for these days of “jittery,” fearful apprehension. And they are words we need to take to heart right about now.

Fear not, friends, for God is with us in the uncertainty of life in these times.  Fear not, for whatever struggles come our way as persons, as a people and as a nation in this year to come, we are not alone, but in the presence of a Savior who will carry our burdens on his shoulders. Fear not, for even in those moments when the darkness the world surrounds us, we have been given a light that will burn brightly and can never be overcome.  Fear not, for we will be given the vision and strength not to truly love one another as the Lord has loved us, but also to love those who the world has chosen not to love.

Fear not; in fact, rejoice!  For despite all worldly appearances to the contrary, your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!  Christ is working in us, through us and around us even now; and that is reason enough to be practicing the joy of it in all that we do. Beloved, let us be well-practiced in joy, so that when the Advent of God comes in its fullness we will know it for what it is, and no one will need to tell us what to do or how to act.

We will simply rejoice!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 

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