Joy and How to Get It
December 15, 2002
Thessalonians 5:16-14; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Joy and how to get it. That is what all the readings today point to. “Rejoice always,” Paul tells us in a letter to the Thessalonians. Both John the Baptist and Isaiah show us how to find that joy when they say, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” God is coming and bringing joy. What we need to do is remove all the obstacles that might stand in God’s way—to “make straight the way of the Lord.”
This is where things get difficult. Because, as much as we want joy, it is not easy to remove the obstacles from the Lord’s way. In fact, it is one of the ironies of the holiday season that the very traditions that we use to build up our joy, can in fact block it. You know what I am talking about. We all have holiday traditions, expectations that we feel we must meet during the next week or so. We want to decorate our homes for Christmas. So we go out and buy a tree. We set it up. We put lights on it. We put ornaments on it. We hang up the wreath. We put lights on our roof, lights on our shrubbery. We set the manger out. We breathe a sigh of relief. We did it. It’s done. But, where is the joy?
We want to exchange gifts at Christmas time to show the gift that Christ is for us. So we wrack our brains trying to think what people want. We run to the mall. We buy presents. We take them home. We wrap them up. We put them under the tree. On Christmas morning we un-wrap them. We thank everyone for giving them to us. We throw the wrapping away. We take the gifts the mall to exchange them. We have honored the tradition. We did it. But, where is the joy?
It’s one of the ironies of this season that the very things that we do to increase joy at times prevent joy. We are so busy celebrating Christmas that we effectively block Christ’s coming. So the question is what can we do about this? How can we avoid the irony of defeating our own good intentions? It’s a good question, and you are fortunate that I have a suggestion. (It is just one of the innumerable benefits that are yours because you are parishioners of St. Noel and have chosen to come to Church this weekend.) I have a very concrete, practical suggestion of how you might deepen the joy of this holiday season. It has to do with Christmas dinner. You know, already, who is going to be sharing Christmas dinner with you. You have the list. What I am going to suggest is that this week you get in touch with those people, and ask them to bring something with them when they come to eat. Not a vegetable. Not a dessert. But a memory.
Ask the people that are coming to your Christmas dinner to bring with them an answer to this question: “What is your deepest memory of Christmas?” The question is intentionally vague. What “deepest” means is up to the person who answers it. Some might choose to share a memory of the Christmas on which they received the biggest present. Others might choose a Christmas on which they needed the most courage. Still others might select a Christmas on which they were most thankful or when they recognized what the true meaning of Christmas is. Whatever answers people bring are acceptable. Then make sure that sometime during Christmas dinner you provide a time to simply go around the table and let everyone share their memory. Some might do it in just a few sentences. Others might choose to embellish it a bit. It is, however, my conviction that if you do this simple exercise, you will deepen the joy of the holiday. More importantly, you will “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
Now, why do I say that? It flows from what we believe. We believe that Jesus is Emmanuel: God with us. In this season we celebrate the mystery that God became human in Jesus. We believe that God continues to be found in our humanity, in our relationships, in our connectedness to one another. So whenever we share ourselves with one another, whenever we tell one another what is really in our hearts, God is there. Joy is there.
That is why the holiday traditions do not work on their own. We can spend all kinds of money and time buying special foods and preparing them for Christmas dinner, but the joy is not in the food. The joy is in the people. The simple exercise that I am suggesting provides a way in which families can talk to one another. It allows them to see something of what the people they love really value. How important it is for children to hear what their parents value about Christmas. For all that we do for our children, how important it is to hear what they remember. What a gift it would be for everyone to hear what Grandma remembers, perhaps from a time before all of us were born. What a surprise for us to hear what our six year old remembers from last Christmas—a Christmas that we have already forgotten.
“What is your deepest memory of Christmas?” It is a simple question, but it is a spiritual question. Because when we reveal the truth that is within us, we reveal God within us. It is not the money that we spend or the traditions that we honor, but the truth that we share that “Makes straight the way of the Lord.” So take some steps to make sure that you have a way of sharing truth with the people you love this Christmas. Take some time to share yourself. It will not be a wasted effort. Because when we share who we are, what we value, what we believe with each other, we not only find joy. We also find Christ.
Celebrating a Just Christmas
December 11, 2005
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Christmas is about justice. But that is not an association that we often make. When we think about Christmas, we think about love and peace and joy. We do not think about justice.
But Christmas is about justice because Christmas is about the Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. In what does this Kingdom consist? Isaiah tells us in today’s first reading: “To proclaim good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to announce liberty to captives, release to prisoners, a year of favor from the Lord.” This is in what God’s Kingdom consists, setting things right in the world, working against everything that is unjust, giving to each person the dignity that that person deserves, assuring that every person has the necessary means for life and happiness.
This is God’s Kingdom, and Christmas is about the Kingdom because Christ is about the Kingdom. The first sermon that Christ ever preached in his native town of Nazareth was a sermon preached upon this text from Isaiah. Jesus announced to all who would hear that his mission was to care for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, to make a difference in the world, to set things right. So it is Jesus himself who places justice at the center of the Gospel.
Now if this theme of justice is so central to Jesus, why is it so absent from our approach to Christmas? It is hard to answer that question. But there are clear examples that some Christians knew that Christmas and justice belonged together. Just look at the origins of the Christmas card. The first Christmas card was sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, an Englishman. He was the first curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He had a wide circle of friends. Like many other English people, Sir Henry practiced the custom of sending Christmas letters to those he knew. But as his circle of associates grew, that task became overwhelming. Rather than limiting the number of friends to whom he would write, Sir Henry decided to commission a card that would express his greetings for the holidays. This first Christmas card was small, about three by five inches. But what was significant was its design. It was divided into three panels. The central panel showed a joyful family gathering around an abundant table. Underneath the scene was written: “A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you.” But this central panel was framed by two other panels. On the left was a scene of the hungry being fed and on the right was a panel of the poor being clothed. The first Christmas card knew that Christmas was about justice.
Just how much this realization has slipped from our consciousness can be demonstrated by looking at the Christmas cards we send and receive. Even if we set aside those that have squirrels and reindeer and snowmen on them and examine only the religious Christmas cards, they center almost exclusively on the person of Christ and on scenes from His birth. Our Christmas cards betray no awareness about the Kingdom that Christ came to establish or about the call for us to build that Kingdom through works of justice.
So here’s the challenge for you and I, who hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah today: How will we include actions of justice in our celebration of the holidays? What will we do to set things right in our world? Now, there is nothing wrong with making the focus our Christmas a time with family and friends in warm celebration. But, like that first Christmas card, we should not forget the two side panels that frame the central scene. As we gather together with those that we love, with an abundance of food, with an excess of Christmas presents, we are challenged to remember those who frame our celebration: those who do not have enough to eat, those whose families are broken, those who are oppressed or imprisoned, those who have to scrape together the little they have to buy even one simple gift to celebrate Christ’s birth.
What actions will we perform for the poor, the oppressed, the alienated as a part of our Christmas celebration? We cannot remember Christ’s birth if we forget His ministry. We cannot keep Christ in Christmas if we ignore His mission. We cannot honor the King if we sidestep the Kingdom. Be simple, be concrete, but be committed. Identify actions that will testify to the truth of the season. Act as one who knows that Christmas is about justice.
What Do You Expect?
Nov. 14, 2008
John 1:6-8, 19-28
A woman who was an avid conservationist, was driving up the Florida coast together with her five year old son. She saw a sign which said: “Naturalist Camp.” She presumed it had something to do with conservation and so she pulled in. She and her son began to walk towards the beach but as she looked around, it became clear that this Naturalist Camp was really a nudist camp. Before she could get her wits about her, a group of people on bicycles, stark naked, came riding down the beach right in front of her and her son. She didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing and just waited to see how the boy would respond. In a moment he turned to her and said, “Mom, those people on the bicycles, they were not wearing safety helmets.”
The young boy missed what was obvious about the people on the bicycles because he had other expectations. For him, the important thing about being on a bicycle was wearing a safety helmet. I think we can have similar patterns in our lives. Sometimes we have such clear expectations of something that it causes us to miss the other things that are happening around us. Sometimes we set our minds on what we think is going to occur so forcibly that we miss other things that are taking place right under our nose.
This seems to be the issue in today’s gospel, as the priests and Levites come and discuss with John. They are trying to figure out who John is and who Jesus is. But they are having difficulty because they already have expectations of what the answer will be. John, himself, recognizes this. He says, “There is one in your midst who you do not recognize.” His listeners do not recognize Jesus because they had already made up their minds what they were looking for.
Now the message of the season of Advent is that God is coming to us. God is coming into our lives; God is making the crooked ways straight and the rough places smooth. If we believe that God is coming, we must not let expectations blind us to God’s arrival. Many of us here find ourselves in a financial situation that is not as good as last year. We might already have made up our mind that this Christmas is not going to be as meaningful or as joyful as previous Christmases have been. But we believe that God is coming and we must not let our expectation of a lesser Christmas distract us from the new thing that God might choose to do. Our God is a God of abundance and so God can bring us joy regardless of the size of our bank account.
There are some people here this morning who have lost someone they loved in death. As the customs of the holiday unfold, they feel a sense of emptiness and loss because the people they care for are not with them. Now grief is real and it does affect us. But we must not let the expectation of what we are going to experience in the upcoming weeks hold us back. We must not presume that we will have nothing to celebrate. We must not let our darkness cover God’s light. God is coming, and our God is a God of hope. God can raise our spirits even in those times when death touches our life.
All of us have stresses and tensions in our families. Problems can be caused by divergent personalities, divorce, or resentment. As we look forward to the times when our families will be together over the holidays, we might carry the expectation that it’s going to be painful or a waste of time. But our God is coming, and our God is a God of healing. God can raise up moments of love and care even in families that are undergoing stress.
Our God is coming. Isaiah in today’s first reading says that when God comes God will bring glad tidings for the poor, healing for the broken hearted, liberty for captives. Let us then believe that God is coming, and let us not let our expectations or worries distract us from God’s arrival. Let us let go of our worst fears and open ourselves to the new thing that God can and will do in our lives. God is coming. Open your hearts in welcome.
Getting Out of the Way
December 11, 2011
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Throughout the New Testament, John the Baptist is always pointing to Jesus. It seems that John is intent to move the attention of others off of himself and onto Christ. Today’s gospel passage is a perfect example of this. As people approach John, he says, “I am not the prophet. I am not Elijah. I am not the Christ.” We hear him constantly speaking in this manner. Now, we can approach these disavowals of John as an interesting historical fact of the first century. But to do so would be to waste the gospel, because everything written in the gospel is written for our benefit. So all of these protestations of John are not written so that we can clarify John’s past relationship to Jesus, but so that we can clarify our present relationship to God.
A couple of years ago, I went to a workshop by the Franciscan preacher, Richard Rohr. During that workshop, someone stood up and asked him a question. He said, “Father Rohr, I am a devout Catholic and I hope someday with God’s grace that I will attain Heaven. But, it would really help me if I had some idea of what Heaven is like. I know that it is more than pearly gates and angels singing. So, what is there in our tradition that describes heaven? Can you describe Heaven for me?” Father Rohr responded, “That is a difficult question. There really is not much of anything in the tradition that describes heaven.” But then he stopped and said, “No, there is one thing. There is one thing that is very clear in our tradition about heaven. Heaven is not about you. In heaven, God’s power and glory are so clear that each of us, while remaining ourselves, are nevertheless taken up into God’s love.”
Now, Fr. Rohr’s answer is extremely important because heaven is a model for earth. Therefore, if it is true that our relationship to God in heaven is not about us, it is also true that our relationship to God on earth is not about us. When I say that it is not about us, I am not saying that we are inconsequential or worthless. God has given us real talents and abilities and expects us to use them. God has made us sons and daughters and given us great value. But when I say that our relationship to God is not about us, I am saying that God’s role and God’s action are primary. We play a supporting role. It is not about our plans. It is about God’s plan. It is not about our power. It is about God’s power. It is not about our glory. It is about God’s glory.
Since all of this is true, the most fundamental step we need to take as believers, is to get out of the way. You see, God is acting in our lives and in our world, but we cannot be a part of that action if we become stuck on ourselves. And believe me there are a lot of ways to become stuck on ourselves. We can become stuck because we think we are so important. We can become stuck because we believe that we are worthless. We can become stuck because we think we are so holy. We can become stuck because we believe we are such sinners. We can become stuck because everyone admires us. We can become stuck because everyone ignores us.
Through all of this, John the Baptist says, “It is not about you! Get out of the way!” How do you become a good parent? By being present, by being loving, by being wise. But also by believing that God loves your children even more than you do and that God is already leading them to growth. How do we become successful in business? We do our research and act with integrity. But also believe that whatever we do is somehow being used by God as a part of a greater plan. How do we decide which college we should attend? We visit the schools and talk to family and friends. But the we trust that God will lead us to the right place.
If God were simply a creation of our own minds, then we would be in charge. But God is real, powerful and active. That is why we need to keep reminding ourselves, “I am not the prophet. I am not Elijah. I am not the Christ. I am a voice crying out, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord’”.
Make ready, then. Set yourself aside, and let Christ come through you.
The Voice in the Wilderness
December 14, 2014
John 1:6-8, 19-28
John the Baptist was fearless. Even when people questioned him as they do in today’s gospel, John continued to speak out. Even when people ignored him, John continued to testify. Without a powerbase or any influence in the structures of his society, John continued to proclaim. He was “a voice crying out in the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord.”
John saw his role as representing the voice of God in the complicated world in which he lived. As such John is an example to us, because as Christians our job is to represent the voice of Christ in the complicated world in which we live. And that world gets more complicated every day. This week a Senate committee released a report on torture, otherwise known as Enhanced Interrogation Techniques—techniques that were used in the wake of 9/11. The report has spurred a wide debate in our country. No one denies that our government used brutal and inhumane techniques in order to extract information from prisoners who were under its control. No one denies that the motivation for doing this was to obtain information that would protect our country. But what is being debated is whether the use of torture can be justified.
As I listened in the media this week to the back and forth debate over this report, I could not but notice how many voices were arguing whether torture was effective or not, whether it worked. But there were few voices arguing whether torture was right or not. It seems to me that the voices of Christians, of you and I, should be raising that question. Even if we can gain useful information through torture, should we being doing so?
I say this because there simply is no doubt where Jesus would stand. If Jesus were part of a CIA planning group on the use of torture, we all know where he would come down. His clear teaching of non-violence and of the dignity of every human being, would make him opposed to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. Since this is clear, is it not our responsibility to represent his voice in the national debate? Now people will say that Jesus did not live in the world in which we live. He did not have to face the horrors of modern warfare or extreme terrorist groups. This is true. But, Jesus knew violence. He knew the violence of his own world. His very cross was the preferred method of torture of the Roman Empire. Others will say that Jesus was just a simple rabbi. He had a romantic and unrealistic belief in the power of love and forgiveness. Perhaps. But, if we see Jesus as our Lord, if we are baptized in his name, if we worship him in this place, is it not our responsibility to represent his point of view.
I am not asking that we march on Washington or even write to our government representatives, though you might choose to do that. What I am asking is that we carry the teaching of Jesus in our hearts, and that we speak out that teaching in the office, in the lunchroom, around the table with our family and friends. When people begin debating whether torture works or not, we should be the ones who ask whether torture is right or not. If we do that, some people will judge us as naïve and overly pious. Others will say that Jesus’ teaching of non-violence is too simplistic for our complex world. But their judgment of us should not be our concern. Our calling is to represent what Jesus would say. John the Baptist is no longer with us. That is why it must be our voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
December 17, 2017
John 1:6-8, 19-28
John the Baptist is the major character of today’s gospel, and we should not fail to notice the bizarre way he responds to the question that is posed to him. When the priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask him, “Who are you,” John could have responded, “I am John, son of Zachariah,” or, “I am a preacher.” But that is not his answer. He says, “I am not the Christ.” When people asked John who he is, he responds by saying who he is not. As strange as this is, it is consistent with the picture we have of John in the New Testament. John’s constant purpose is not to point to himself but to prepare the way of the Lord. John is not interested in saying who he is but rather who Christ is, adding that he, John, is not the Christ. John says this even clearer a little later in the gospel when he tells his disciples, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease.” John’s purpose, then, is to become smaller, to take up less and less room so that there is more room for Jesus.
Now, it is important for us to realize that John does not want to become smaller because he has low self-esteem. John does not dismiss himself or his message. He considers his mission important. That is why he stands crying out in the wilderness. But, despite the importance of his calling, John chooses to be less so that Jesus can be more.
Now, this attitude on the part of John poses a question to us: Would our lives become richer, would we be more happy if, at times, we chose to be smaller, if we chose to take up less room? You don’t need to be married long before you figure out that in every relationship there are certain hot-button issues. When these arise, it takes a great deal of effort to avoid a stand-off. These issues can concern the use of money, the raising of children, or the way to deal with in-laws. John the Baptist suggests that when these hot buttons emerge, we may choose to become smaller, to step back from what we demand or what we expect. Doing this does not mean that our position is wrong or the position of our spouse is correct. It simply means that by choosing to be less, there may be more room to live.
We might be pushing a son or daughter to use their talents, to work harder, to study more. We do this because we love our children. We want them to be successful and to become all that they can be. But our efforts at times are ignored or lead to confrontation. John the Baptist wonders what would happen if we choose to become smaller, to ease up on some of our expectations. We might do this, not because what we are asking is misguided, but because if we took up less room, there might be more opportunity for some new thing to emerge in our child.
The customs of this holiday season are important to all of us. We use gifts, food, and social gatherings to express who we are and who we love. John the Baptist suggests that perhaps we let our holiday traditions grow smaller, that we choose to have less gifts, fewer parties, and smaller traditions. We may choose to do this not because any of these things are wrong, but because if they took up less space, there might be more room for us to reach out to those who struggle, those who have less than we do, those who do not belong to our family and friends.
John the Baptist comes to us in today’s gospel and he does not ask us to let go of our goals or what we think is important. But he does remind us that sometimes we can take a step forward by taking a step back. There are times when we can become more by choosing to be less. There are opportunities where we can find happiness by becoming a bit smaller. Now, in a world that is constantly pushing for more and more, John remains a voice crying in the wilderness. But the promise of his message also remains. For when we choose to become smaller, we, like John, can be making room for Jesus.
The Larger Vision
December 13, 2020
John 1: 6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11
One of my favorite quotes comes from an old movie called Steel Magnolias. In it Bette Midler plays an outgoing, aggressive character who is always seeking to be the center of attention. In one scene in the midst of an intense conversation with another character she stops and says, “Enough of me talking about me. What do you want to say about me?”
We all have the temptation to focus on ourselves, to make everything about me. We spend our lives concerned about my family, my job, my friends. We get caught up in my plans and my dreams. It is easy to become stuck on my mistakes, my losses, my pain. Now, of course, we do need to pay attention to ourselves and meet our responsibilities. But living a life focused on me, if nothing else, keeps our world rather small.
This is why we need the witness of John the Baptist, because John’s life and mission were not about him. When the priests and Levites in today’s gospel ask him, “Who are you?” He admits that he is not the Christ, not Elijah, not the prophet. He is a voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” So, John’s role was not to point to himself, but to point to one who is greater and whose mission is larger. What John wants us to understand is that if we wish to follow Christ, we have to allow Christ to stretch us, to enlarge us, to refocus us on a vision that is bigger than me and my concerns?
What is that vision that Jesus has in mind? You can find it today in today’s first reading from Isaiah which Jesus uses it to describe his own ministry. He says that he has come to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord. This is what Jesus’ ministry is about, and he wants us to be a part of it. That is why Jesus keeps stretching us, so that our concern is not just about our own families but about the families of the poor. This why Jesus keeps trying to enlarge our vision, so that we are not just caught up in our own personal dreams but are able to identify with the dreams of prisoners and those who are held captive by hate and prejudice. Now, accepting this vision of Jesus is not easy. It requires that we appraise ourselves of the factors in our society that are the cause of poverty and discern what are we called to do to help reduce the impact that poverty has on so many. It calls us to have the courage to enter into the debate in our country about racism and understand how this evil continues to hold back so many Americans from the freedom our country promises.
Fundamental to Jesus’ larger vision is the conviction that we are all connected to one another, that the joys of any person are my joys too, that the need and pain of any person are also my concern. This is why Jesus keeps stretching us to recognize our connection to the least among us. This why every Christian needs to learn that it’s not about me. It’s about us.