I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,Isaiah 61:10
How many of you remember back when the candles on the Advent wreath were purple and pink? And do you remember which Sunday we lit the pink candle? It was this one, the Third Sunday of Advent. And we lit the pink candle today because this Sunday was known as “Rejoice Sunday,” or in the traditional Latin, “Gaudete Sunday.” This is the Sunday when traditionally we are invited to take time out of our Advent Preparations, and to rejoice.
Many years ago, Advent was known in the church as a “little Lent.” Just as Lent is a time to prepare spiritually for the festival of Easter, Advent was always a time to prepare spiritually for the festival of Christmas. Penitential seasons tend not to focus on joy. They focus instead on our need to repent and prepare the way of the Lord. But whether the season is Lent or Advent, there is much to rejoice about. Even in penitential seasons, we can and should rejoice. So, the church set this Sunday aside in our Advent season to be a joyful one – to light the pink candle, and to rejoice.
Times have changed, of course. We usually use blue candles now on our Advent Wreaths to emphasize the hope of the season. And we don’t think of this season as a penitential one too much anymore. We don’t even relate Advent and Lent to each other very much anymore. But it is still the case that Advent is a season of spiritual preparation. And it is still the case that it is leading up to a truly joyous festival, the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior. So, while the pink candle may be gone, we still hear in our readings today this invitation to rejoice:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,” proclaims Isaiah in our First Reading, “my whole being shall exult in my God.”
And Paul, in our Second Reading, tells us to “Rejoice always.”
And so, on this Third Sunday of Advent, I invite each and every one of you to rejoice – Rejoice in the Lord today. Let your whole being exult in your God. Rejoice and give thanks. For this is the season of joy.
Joy Is Not Happiness
But, even as I say that, I want to point out the obvious: That this is not always easy to do. It’s not always easy to rejoice. You may be feeling overwhelmed with stress today, or struggling to keep it all together. Or, perhaps, just going through the motions, trying to get through the season. You might be hiding behind your smile, or behind your mask, pretending that this really is the most wonderful time of the year, even though you don’t feel that way. You may have cares and concerns that are quenching your joy. And to be told to rejoice today may be adding to your cares, not taking them away. This may all just be adding to a nagging guilt that you have, as you try to simply get through this quote-unquote “most wonderful time of the year.”
If that is the case for you, I want to simply remind you that joy is not the same thing as happiness. You don’t have to be happy to be joyful, which is a good thing, because happiness is very fickle, isn’t it? As one of my favorite singers, Billy Joel, once put it, “We are always what our situations hand us. It’s either sadness or euphoria.” Circumstances that are often out of our control cause us to be happy or sad. That’s true. But euphoria, or happiness, is not the same as joy. Just as optimism is not the same as hope. And intellectual belief is not the same as faith. And affection is not the same as love. As Christians, our lives are not always happy. But we can always have joy. The Christian writer, Henri Nouwen, describes it this way:
“We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but in the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together.”
We know, even when life gets us down, that our God loves us and promises to be with us. And this can fill us with joy, even in the midst of our sorrow. But Henri Nouwen goes on to say:
“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.”
Nothing can take God away from us, and so we can always choose joy. We can choose joy knowing that it is deeper and stronger than any surface happiness or sadness that we may find in this world. Joy is our way as Christians of refusing to let the headlines in our world win. Joy is our way of looking at the worst this world can offer, and seeing it in the shadow of the cross. And the cross is God’s way of reminding us that God’s love for us, and our world, is stronger than any unhappiness that we will ever find in this world. Joy, in many ways, is the key to the Christian life. Along with faith, and hope, and love.
And all of these keys to the Christian life have something else in common: They are all gifts of the Holy Spirit. We don’t earn them. We don’t achieve them. We receive them. They are gifts. But they are gifts that can also be nurtured and strengthened through practice. We can nurture our joy, and Paul shows us how in this second reading:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
Think of this as a way to practice joy – a way to learn how to rejoice always, and to grow in our joy.
How? Well, first, Paul tells us that we can grow in our joy by praying always. And I think that what Paul means by this is that our joy comes through staying connected to God. Regardless of what is happening in our life, we can always stay connected to God. And when we do, God will help us to find the joy that is buried beneath our cares and concerns. We can rejoice always by praying without ceasing.
I think that it is important to hear this during the Advent season in particular, because Advent is not always a season when we think about prayer, or when we focus on our spiritual life. Lent is more often the time when we focus on our prayer-life and our life in Christ. Usually not Advent. And that’s why I think that today’s passage from First Thessalonians is so important. It reminds us to pray without ceasing. To stay connected to God, when things are going great, when things are going terrible, and all the times between them. And when we do that – when we stay connected to God through ceaseless prayer – we can always find cause to rejoice, and we find ourselves growing in the joy of the Lord.
Give Thanks in All Circumstances
Second, Paul tells us that we can grow in our joy by giving thanks in all circumstances. Gratitude has a way of nurturing joy. Being thankful helps us to rejoice, and we can always find reason to be thankful. We believe in a God whose love for us knows no bounds. A God who promises to provide for us and care for us always. A God who created the entire universe, but still cares about us enough to count the very hairs on our head. What an amazing, loving, awesome God we have. How can we not be thankful? And when we are thankful, we grow in our joy. Just as when we pray without ceasing, we grow in our joy.
Do Not Quench the Spirit
And, third, Paul tells us that we can grow in our joy by not quenching the Spirit. And we do this, Paul says, by not despising God’s Word, by holding fast to what is good, and by abstaining from every form of evil.
The image this gives me is of a candle, like the candles on our Advent wreath. And the Holy Spirit is the flame. The flame is already lit. God has made sure of that. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. But we must be careful not to put this divine flame out. Don’t quench or extinguish the Spirit, Paul tells us. Nurture it by staying rooted in God’s Word, and holding on to what is good. Be careful what we expose ourselves to, what we think about, and read and watch. Hold fast to what is good, and what is good always comes from God. When we do this, we keep the Spirit glowing in our life, and we grow in our joy.
The joy of the Lord is our strength, God’s Word reminds us. And this joy is the most wonderful of all gifts. A gift that we receive with joy, and that we can nurture with joy. And when we do that – by staying connected to God through prayer, by being grateful in all circumstances, and by caring for the gift of the Holy Spirit – we find ourselves rejoicing, no matter our circumstances. Because we are rejoicing in the Lord.
Today, on this Third Sunday of Advent, and always, let us rejoice in the Lord, who is always faithful, and whose love for us is always stronger than anything in this world. Thanks be to God. Amen