Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dare We Rejoice?

She came up to me at the end of a joyous Christmas service. She had just returned from a mission week in Haiti, one of the poorest places in the Western world.

“How dare you, with all the suffering and hunger in the world, speak of joy? The joy of this service was offensive.” I could see her point. With all the suffering in the world, how dare we Christians express joy? Our joy seems in sensitive and uncaring.

In recent years, we preachers have been encouraged do "share your story," to expose ourselves and our struggles to the gaze of the congregation, to preach "inductively," inviting the congregation to link its experience with our personal experience in democratically shared conversation, to be “authentic,” that is, self-revealing in the pulpit.

Little in Advent scripture supports such preaching. John the Baptist, at least in John's introduction of him (John 1:6-8, 19-28), is intent on convincing us that, "He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light" (John 1:8).The Baptizer's Jordan congregation is too sunk in old configurations of power, old officially sanctioned readings of the texts, to see anything new without the aid of external light.

Perhaps that is why there is so little real joy in our congregations. If we do experience joy, it is too often the ersatz high of a merely emotional rush brought on by an effective music program--joy induced by a pleasing soprano voice backed up by a pre-recorded tape. If the only theology we have to preach is of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps variety, then we are doomed. Doom produces gloom. In our better moments, we know that the ultimate sources of our mourning are more than psychological--they are political, social, maybe even cosmic. This society tries to convince us that if we are hungry for something more than present arrangements, if we gaze at the full shop windows and can't find anything we really want, if we wander through the shopping malls in a daze, it is a personal problem, something amiss in our psyche, something in need of corrective therapy.

What if our problem is more than psychological? What if what's wrong with us is what's wrong in the whole society, something out of kilter in the cosmos? What if our pain will be soothed by nothing less than the advent of God? The offer of anything less is cheap substitute, a set-up for even greater despair.

Real, full-throated, full-orbed, let loose joy is a gift to those who have heard the testimony that our God comes.

Which returns us to the question with which we began: How dare we, in a suffering, hurting world rejoice?

The question has within itself an answer. Dare is the right word. If we Christians are joyful, ours is not the simple-minded, bubble-brained cheerfulness of those who deny the world's hunger and pain or who think that somehow, it's all for the best. Joy is to us a gift, a Christmas gift of a God who is never content to leave us be, who intrudes, offers, creates.

Sometimes the Spirit intrudes, gives voice to a joy not of our own creation. Sometimes a light surprises our all too accustomed darkness for the first time in a long time, we see. Sometimes we experience so much of the near presence of God that we never stop rejoicing, and even in the worst of circumstances, we dare to give thanks.

"Dare to believe it possible." The one who calls you if faithful, and he will do this" (I Thess. 5:24).

Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied" (Luke 6:20). This Sunday in Advent, let us dare to rejoice.

William H. Willimon

9 comments:

His Path Through The Wilderness said...

Thank you for this beautiful reminder. I often think about how Jesus was probably full of laughter and joy even in the midst of his cross-life. He had many reasons to be sad and despairing. But he was not morose; people of every stripe were attracted to him. It was his message combined with his being. A welcoming, gracious, truthful, joyful God is he.

Angela Shier-Jones said...

All of which explains why the Eucharist is so named - and why Christians the world over will seek to rejoice at the birth of Christ by celebrating the sacrament. The gift of joy that God gives is not afraid to pierce as well as placate and soothe our longings and deepest sorrows.
Thank you for this reminder of tranformative joy.

dt parker said...

It is in the midst of preaching in the midst of suffering that I have seen the greatest joy.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services in a rough county jail facility.

Funerals of saints who presence will be dramatically missed in congregations where their joy was the strength of the church.

I am remindned of pictures of the Kobon and Haruai tribes, as poor as Haitians, as they receive the first New testaments in their langauge - have walked 30-50 miles to a regional celebration. (By the way - their offering in thanks for the presents added up to more than a weeks pay for every man woman and child - about $1 each)

Joy is not defeated by poverty or suffering. (In that it is so unlike "happiness") Indeed, it is there we might be most able to realize the incredible presence of God, and understand the comfort and joy He brings.

Danny said...

Your posts reminds of the recent CNN story of the man who was freed after 35 years of being in jail wrongfully. Wolf Blitzer and others kept asking him, "Are you angry at your captors?" expecting some long drawn out answer or some kind of "authentic" story. He answered them in as few a words as possible.

"No."

"Why not?" the report asked.

"Because I had God on my side."

"So you're not angry?"

"I can't be."

I liked that phrase. I can't be. The call of God to joy is something quite powerful.

g lake dylan said...

the people of God are to rejoice in the One who is our joy. no, we do not rejoice in the ups and downs of Wall Street, Main Street, the Congress or the White House. Joy found in those things is fleeting and bound to disappoint. So, our joy is in the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. God is our joy because God has created us. God is redeeming us. God is bringing all things into the perfecting of God's realm. In such is our joy and reason for rejoicing!
Pr. Gary L Lake Dillensnyder, OSL+
E PA Conf.

Joshua said...

This is a tough word, but a true one. Our hope is built on nothing less...I'd say our joy too.

That said, I think Jesus felt the struggle of how hard this can be on our Earth. There can be joy in weeping too.

prashant said...

A welcoming, gracious, truthful, joyful God is he.

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