December 14, 2003   Shirley Macemon
  Finding Joy
Luke 3:15-18

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Today is the third Sunday in Advent--Gaudete Sunday, literally Sunday of Joy. The season of Advent originally was a 40-day fast--that would have had us starting in mid-November. But in about the 9th Century, under Nicholas I, a shorter Advent--only four weeks, was instituted. The third Sunday marked the mid-way point, and in the Roman church, it was that Sunday that marked the change in vestments from black or purple to rose-colored, and a change in the liturgy from merely inviting the faithful to adore "the Lord is to come", by calling on them to worship and hail with joy, "the Lord who is now nigh and close at hand." If we were a high liturgical church, all of our responses would, once again, include constant Alleluias.

Our lectionary during Advent strikes me as, well, a bit schizophrenic. Gospel passages center around John the Baptizer until the very last minute. John, of course, is clearing the way for Jesus' adult ministry. But for all the rest of the world (the non-commercial world, whatever small portion of the world that is...) Christmas is about the baby--so at the same time we're talking about the grown up John and Jesus, we're also hearing about their mothers--Elizabeth and Mary, and their father's, Simeon and Joseph. Mary's parents stories are from extra-biblical sources, but also add depth and texture to the fabric of the story.

I find it hard to think about John the Baptizer and Joy at the same time. John, the gospels tell us, was a fairly in-your-face, harsh and hostile sort of guy. It told it like he saw it, and he saw the world in pretty grim terms. Listen to John's welcome to the crowds that came to hear him preach:

"Vipers and snakes" John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Somehow, I suspect Staff-Parish would have a few words with me if I welcomed all of you on Sunday morning by calling you Vipers, implying that you had no "worthy fruits". Or that if you claimed right of place or pew because of longevity, history or lineage, I used an allusion like John's "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." I suspect either we'd have a much smaller congregation next week, or you'd working with the District Superintendent to get a new pastor. Even John didn't get away with that kind of language very long--he insulted the wrong folks, and lost his head for it.

But for all that "tell it like it is", John preached joy, and lived that joy. And you're muttering to yourself: John was a guy who ate locusts and hone, lived in the desert, preached repentance, and you're claiming his was a life of Joy? I'm not even sure he was happy...

But happiness has little to do with Joy. Joy found in God--Joy found when we repent--that is, turn toward God, is found when we are not the center of our own universe. It is found not by "having fun", but Joy, as Paul Tillich claims, is "Joy is nothing else than the awareness of our being fulfilled in our true being, in our personal center." When we turn to God, there we find Joy--our true being and personal center in a ground greater than ourselves, and outside ourselves--in God.

As I have been thinking about this message, about Finding Joy, I've run across many stories of the faithful, doing and being faithful. One has continued to come back to me over and over. Jenee Woodward calls herself an "scholar of Church History and Biblical Studies", and had planned for a career in that field in higher education, after taking some time off to start a family. Plans aren't always what we think they are going to be. Phillip, her youngest, was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. The financial, physical and emotional energy that goes into her son's care (and the care of her older daughter,) has precluded further formal education, but it hasn't kept her out of ministry. Jenee runs and owns a website, Textweek, a lectionary- based site with links to other sites all over the world. Jenee specifically looks for a variety of materials--full worship services, prayers, responses, hymn selections, artwork, across the theological spectrum. The result is a masterful and usable resource tool that is supported completely by donation.

Jenee wrote of Phillip's challenges at Christmas time last year:

As many of you know, my son has autism. He is 10 years old and is severely handicapped by his disability. Our family learned to slow down at Christmas a number of years ago when he was unable to tolerate *any* of the celebration. He could not handle the changing scenarios - the twinkling lights, the changes in grocery store displays, the changes in the sanctuary at church, presents appearing under the tree, the tree ITSELF, and the moved furniture. He would fall on the floor and scream, unable to move, afraid to open his eyes, almost constantly from Thanksgiving until well after Christmas when it was all over. We carried him through that time his head covered with his coat so we could get through the grocery store, or sat with him huddled in his room, carefully ordered EXACTLY the same since summer, with no Christmas trappings.

Worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was over-crowded and yet hushed, not a good combination for an autistic child. Christmas celebrations at home were a nightmare. Phil would scream and cry as each package was moved and (gasp!) unwrapped. As frightened as he was when each new thing appeared, he was equally frightened when it changed or disappeared. We'd try to find him a present he'd enjoy, but he'd merely scream and cry in panic at the intrusion on his carefully ordered world, and the gifts would sit ignored until he outgrew them and we gave them to some little boy who could appreciate them.

He wanted nothing. He would look straight at toys we thought he would like, and he would not react at all. He asked for nothing. He anticipated nothing. He just screamed and cried at all of it. It is no bliss to have a child who doesn't get it - who doesn't want anything and doesn't want to have anything to do with Christmas commercialism - or it is only bliss in some romantic fantasy. In real life it is a surreal nightmare.

This year, right around Thanksgiving, we once more asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas. Our 14-year-old daughter sat down and made out her list. And our 10-year old son, for the first time in his life, answered the question. "PlayStation 2," he said. "I want PlayStation 2 Christmas." We just about fell over. His sister gave him a piece of paper. She wrote "Phil's Christmas List" at the top. He wrote, "PLAYSTATION TOW" under her heading. "At Sam's," he said. "Go to car."

So, we drove to Sam's. He has never looked at anything there, never seemed to notice that Sam's has anything he might want. But he led us right to the PlayStation 2 sets, picked out the bundle he wanted and put it in the cart. "Open at Christmas," he said. He watched gleefully as we wrapped the package, and then he solemnly placed it under the tree. So, a PlayStation 2 game set sits there, wrapped, with his name on it, and he waits to open it. "December 25," he says. "Open PlayStation 2 December 25."

Last night we'd returned from yet another Christmas rehearsal with our daughter, Phil found a Best Buy ad in the paper and turned immediately to the PlayStation games. He circled "Harry Potter" and "John Madden Football", handed the ad to Bob, and said, "I want Christmas." There were tears in my eyes. It's such a small thing, but such a truly amazing thing. It's one more bit of hope that he will be able to function in some semblance of society as an adult one day - that he might be able to live just a BIT more independently, and one day want the things he needs to survive enough to work for them. Consumerism might be "the enemy", but a kid who understands none of it is only a hero in a Chicken Soup For The Soul story.

This Advent season I am grateful for being able to appreciate what complexity and miracle is involved in such small "selfish" acts as wanting something for Christmas and expressing those wants to another person. I'm grateful that my son is able to enjoy all of the commercial cultural trappings of the holiday this year instead of running from them screaming. I'm grateful for the many ways Phil helps me stop and look again, even at my most "Christian" conclusions. And I'm especially grateful that my son helps me see Christ's humble birth, over and over again, even in the midst of nightmares and worries I could not have imagined 10 years ago, even in the midst of Advent.

Looking for Joy, outside of ourselves. Looking for a sense of grounding and being in our Creator, through whom we are wonderfully and magnificently made. Finding God's joy, in loved ones, in the small things in life that turn out to be--well, life changing.

Finding Joy, the Alleluia of the season, in the One who comes and is already in our midst.