This third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been known for its emphasis on Joy and the exultation to Rejoice! As Advent is a season where we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, this Sunday encourages us to anticipate the joy of a new born baby, and in that baby the very presence of God among us.
It has been many years since my own children were born but the memory of their births remains vivid in my mind. What a privilege for a father to be able to share in the birthing of his children, but also to support my wife through the very real pain of giving birth. I still remember the joy and wonder that flooded over me in those times as I held these tiny bundles of life, so fragile and vulnerable.
What memories do you have of moments of sheer joy and wonder?
I ask that question deliberately, because so often our joys and wonder get squashed by the more dominant notes of anxiety, frustration, anger and despair in our lives. It’s as though these negative emotions can at times loom large in our lives and overshadow those moments that shine light and life into us. When that happens it’s helpful to hear what our Sunday readings hold out to us as a guide to living well.
The prophet Zephaniah urges – if not commands – his people to sing and shout for joy. It might seem a bit odd that we are commanded to ‘Rejoice!’ It might seem even odder to know that Zephaniah lived at a very bleak moment in Israel’s history where the dark clouds of war were looming on the horizon. Zephaniah was a reformer who fiercely highlighted corruption in high places and challenged the low moral standards of his day along side his contemporary Jeremiah. For him to urge people to sing for joy sounds incongruous but it is really about turning people once more to put their trust and hope in God not in their own achievements.
Sometimes we just don’t feel like singing. We might come to church on a Sunday having had a disagreement with our husband or wife or with our children, or we might have read something in the Sunday Paper that annoyed us, or just got out of the wrong side of the bed that day, and we just don’t feel like singing hymns or praying. That’s all very natural and normal but it’s what we do with that that really matters. How do we deal with these things in our lives in a way that is redemptive?
The brothers of the ecumenical community of Taizé in France speak openly about these things and how they deal with these conflicting emotions. As a general rule that say, ‘let your will lead your emotions’. What that means is that we always have a choice. We can choose to allow our emotions to rule how we behave, or we can choose to lead our emotions in a different direction. For example, coming to church when we don’t feel like it is a choice, a deliberate decision to be present to God even when we don’t feel like it. Choosing to sing is another choice and it may be that in the act of singing something happens in us that unlocks our heart and opens us to the presence and love of God. It’s no guarantee but it points us in the right direction.
There is a motto which says, “We choose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.” When the Bible invites us to be joyful, it shows us the source. This joy does not depend only on passing circumstances; it comes from trust in God: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice…. The Lord is near.”