December 8, 2019, Loving Joy, by Reverend David Tatgenhorst
Matthew 3: 1-6, 11-15 “While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy: Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight! John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life… “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kin-dom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to that One I’m a mere stagehand—the Coming One will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. That One’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives, place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false will be put out with the trash to be burned.”
We take a moment for reflection and prayer now. Let’s reflect on the call from our reading to change our lives. Take a moment to think about something you would change in your life if you could.
Loving Joy, 300 Years
From Mt. Adams, a hill next to the Ohio River on the east side of Cincinnati, you can see the whole city. There’s a church there from which you can take in the whole view. It’s a holy place. People walk the steps on Good Friday, saying prayers on each step. When I was 15 years old, I had friends who could drive and one morning near Christmas that year we got up at sunrise and went up and looked out over the city as the light dawned.
Right after Christmas a few of us were going on a trip to Haiti on a church mission trip and we had no idea how that trip was going to change our lives. Yet together looking out over the city we opened ourselves to God’s love. Lights were on in the houses and apartments of the city and in the cold morning we watched the sun get brighter and the lights go out. We felt alive. We felt joyful.
I wonder if you can remember life-changing experiences in your life – a time when you have felt God moving, when you have felt your heart opening to deeper love and possibility. Clearly people who went out to see John the Baptist were ready to turn their old life in for a kin-dom life, a life in God’s realm. Something was moving. This weird guy in the river lit a fire in them and they felt changed from the inside out. They felt challenged and open, vulnerable in the wilderness and ready to live differently.
As we hang up the decorations and lights and prepare for the celebration of the birth of the Christ child, it always feels a little odd to read about John the Baptist, who isn’t decorating anything. His message is austere and he calls the people to confess, repent and be ready to follow Jesus no matter what happen. It seems odd, but this confession and repentance is part of the preparation for what God is doing, at least as much as the hanging of lights and buying of presents – probably more important.
For us confession and repentance may seem as strange an idea as if John the Baptist walked into this place dressed in camel-hair and offering us a taste of locusts and honey. It doesn’t fit with the season. We think of Lent as more a time of repentance and preparation – as we look toward Good Friday, the cross, and Easter. But Advent is just as much a time of preparation, a time meant for noticing God’s activity in our lives and preparing for God’s new possibilities.
After that heart-opening Christmas on Mt. Adams in the 15th year of my life, 1968, I went with a small group of United Methodists down to Grace Children’s Hospital in Haiti. Some of us experienced a two-thirds’ world country for the first time – the smell of sewage in the streets and the sight of hungry people everywhere we went. It was shocking and eye-opening. But the most startling part of the whole experience was the hope of the people, the smiles on their faces, the loving joy among the people.
We have been talking about joy this Advent season, and trying to distinguish between happiness – which we seek after, which is outside of us, and which is temporary; and joy – which we find comes from within, and is more of a constant. Somebody said it this way. “Happiness is when your face is smiling. JOY is when your heart is smiling.”
Well, that’s what we found in Haiti that surprised us so much. Here we were, affluent US folks, not even realizing how privileged we were, traveling in a country where most people were living on a dollar a day or less. People struggled with the basics of food and a place to sleep. To us, this was not a place of happiness. And yet we found people smiling with their hearts, expressing a welcome and love to us that felt sincere and surprising, and eye-opening.
It touched my heart and I think it was an experience that led directly to me deciding to dedicate my life to growing community, to finding a way to repeat the sounding joy.
Sometimes I guess it makes me a little grinch-seeming for Christmas. But I really am more interested in the authentic deep-down joy of Christ’s coming, than the temporary happiness of an ornament or a Christmas gift. Those Christmas symbols have their place – happiness is a wonderful thing.
It’s just that the richness of God’s loving joy is a greater gift, a fire that burns in our gut to bring loving joy to all God’s people. A loving joy that sustains us through any sadness, any difficulty, any broken-hearted time. Sustaining a connection to that joy requires some quiet. It requires repentance and turning back toward the Living God from time to time. It requires the healing of God’s community.
At the end of my trip to Haiti, the group I was with went up a mountain next to the city of Port-au-Prince. We looked out across the city and prayed for the people of the city. We watched the lights of the city go off in whole sections of the city because they had to ration electricity and keep it on for hours at a time for different people. We prayed in thanks for the love we had received. We prayed in thanks for the joy of the people.
We find that joy when we reach out to somebody who needs us. We find that joy when we let go of our grievances. We find that joy when we give the love that we wish we would have had. We find that joy deep inside where our baptism took root and God is actively loving us – even now. This is God’s good news. Joy to the World
Responsive Song 3059 Love Has Come