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And We are Filled with Joy

Ordinary Sunday 29: 18th October, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Baruch 5:1-9; Ps 126; Phil. 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

One of the great themes of Advent is Joy. It is a word that rings out from our Advent lectionary both this week and next.

In the Book of Baruch, perhaps written by a disciple of the prophet Jeremiah, there is a cry of hope for those who have been deported to Babylon: "Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. ... For God will lead Israel with joy" (5:5,9).

The chorus we sing as a response to Psalm 126 says it all, for Jews and Christians across the centuries: "The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy."

And then there is Paul's letter to the Christians in Philippi, written from prison to the first European church he founded. From the vantage point of his prison cell, he would have been reflecting on the suffering he experienced in those early days, being stripped, beaten and imprisoned. And yet he writes: "My brothers and sisters, I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now" (Phil. 1:3-5).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "joy" as a noun: "a vivid emotion of pleasure, arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction" and also as a verb, in a now archaic sense: "to joy" coming from the Latin gaudere, meaning "to experience joy" or "to rejoice". William Blake uses it in this way in his poem "The Little Black Boy" (The Poems of William Blake, ed. W.H. Stevenson): "And round the tent of God like lambs we joy." I think we should resurrect "joy" as a verb.

Bishop Robert Morneau in a delightful little book, entitled Growing in Joy (NY: New City Press, 2006) usefully defines joy as a virtue: "the virtue of joy is a habitual action that leads to the enlargement of life for oneself and others" (p. 7). For George Bernanos in The Diary of a Country Priest (NY: Macmillan, 1937) joy is "a carnal form of hope": "Joy! A kind of pride, a gaiety, an absurd hope, entirely carnal, the carnal form of hope, I think, is what they call joy" (p. 236).

We may read about joy in the Bible, or define joy in a variety of different ways, but it is not really a cerebral thing. Joy is generally an experience; something we feel within ourselves, or do ourselves, or recognize when we see it in others. And it can come from the most unexpected places.

Recently I went to visit a retired priest who is dying. His son told me that he may only have weeks to live, so I thought I had better call in and say goodbye. He was frail, but mobile, and we shared a delightful cup of tea and a chat. My friend pointed to a hospital bed that had been put in his study to help him sleep at night, and told me of the care he is receiving from his dear wife and the dedicated doctors and nurses who make home visits. Then he said something that almost knocked me off my chair: "I am so filled with joy!" It took me by surprise. How could this man, so close to death, fighting for each breath, riddled with painful cancer, possibly make such a statement? As I drove home I too was filled with joy; it was contagious.

"The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy."

Jürgen Moltmann, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen, describes Christianity as "a unique religion of joy" (See article here...). As the Churches worry about shrinking congregations, or fight over matters of doctrine, or ecclesiology, or morality, Moltmann's statement might seem a bit counter-intuitive. But I think he has a rather important point to make, for that very reason. He notes that: "Today in the wealthier societies and the rising middle classes, we are living in a 'fun society' (in German: Spassgesellschaft)." Seeking after and having "fun" is very different from "joy". We can find momentary fun, if we have enough money, through a wide range of entertainments, but they never satisfy: "fun is short-term and serves amusement. ... True joy is only possible with one's whole heart, whole soul and all one's energies. ... True joy opens the soul."

Christianity is a unique religion of joy, Moltman argues, because it is centred around feasts: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, St Peter's Day, the Assumption, All Saints Day and so on. Moltman is a Protestant theologian, but this is something we hold very dear in the Anglo-Catholic tradition; on feast days we celebrate a solemn, beautiful High Mass, and then we share a meal and wine and laughter as Christians have done since the first century. It is not about shallow fun, it is an act of Christian fellowship that generates joy. We do not deny the reality of suffering in our feasts. On the contrary, the solemnity of Advent prepares us for the joys of the Incarnation; the sorrow of Good Friday for the joys of Easter Day.

Moltman writes: "Why then is Christianity such a unique religion of joy, even though at its center stands the suffering of God and the cross of Christ? Because we remember the death of Christ in the light of his resurrection, and we remember his resurrection in the splendor of the divine, eternal life that is embracing our human and mortal life already here and now. ... Where sin is powerful, God's grace is much more powerful (Rom 5: 20), for Christ has died but how much more is Christ risen and has overcome death (Rom 8: 34). So pain too will be caught up and gathered into joy, despair into hope, and temporal death into the joy of divine life."

"The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy."

So, I encourage you this Advent, in preparation for Christmas, to joy (as a verb)! Rejoice. Give thanks for God's blessings as an Advent discipline. Actively open your life to the Holy Spirit, with all your body, mind and soul. For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy and peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control (Gal. 5:22).

It is a hard thing, to joy. We may feel far from rejoicing. Or we may be tempted to take the short-cut to fun.

There is a rather beautiful encouragement to joy in The Diary of Anne Frank. In hiding from the Nazi persecution, and in the face of constant fear, she wrote:

When I lie in bed and end my prayers with the words, "I thank you, God, for all that is good and dear and beautiful," I am filled with joy. ... I don't think then of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains. ... Look at these things, then you find yourself again, and God, and then you regain your balance.


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