Repeat the Sounding Joy
Text: Luke 3:7-18
Holidays make me nostalgic. Remember the good ole days when we did not have a collection of masks and bottles of hand sanitizer in our homes, littering our cars, and awaiting us at the entrance to the church? Remember the good ole days when we did not think twice about going to a movie theater or to a crowded concert or sitting inside a restaurant or attending a Christmas party and singing carols at the top of our lungs? Remember the good ole days when we debated the proper size and shape of the Christmas tree rather than whether we should get a vaccine that can keep us, our children, our grandchildren and our church friends alive?
On this Third Sunday of Advent, I’m not only thinking about the good ole days, I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, but, far, far more, I’m dreaming of a Post-Covid-Christmas. Can I get an Amen?!
And yet, even when that day does arrive, I am sure that John the Baptist will not make the final cut on anyone’s holiday party list. Neither will John be invited to sing a solo with the Cove choir or to stand in this pulpit and deliver the morning sermon.
It is not that John would be a boring party guest or that he would hesitate to sing with gusto or to preach with passion. It is more a matter that John is the guest most families feel compelled to invite to the holiday celebration all the while praying that he will decline.
Now, if John were not to get an invitation to the party, believe me, he would not be offended. Just listen to him preach for two minutes and you will see that he cares little about what his audience wants him to say and a great deal about what God is calling him to say. I mean, seriously, how many sermons have you ever heard, even hardcore Baptist fire and brimstone sermons, which begin with the preacher staring down the congregation and declaring, “You are a brood of vipers. Why in the world are you here?!”? Merry Christmas!
I want to know who in the church decided that John’s sermon in Luke 3 is the perfect gift for us to open on this Advent celebration of joy Sunday. Given the Grinch-like times in which you and I live and the endless fussing about everything from mandates to background checks to reproductive rights, I, for one would love to hear a rousing chorus of “Joy to World” far more than listen to this looney lunatic barking out more woes to add to an already long list.
Surely no one would fault us if we just happened to “forget” to invite John today. I can think of plenty of Scripture verses that warm the heart and bring good cheer to the soul without inviting Mr. Sour-Puss to the party. Maybe we all can revel in joy while John and the Grinch go grab some grub.
Well, that is where I started my journey with John this week. It is definitely not where I have ended. I have ended the journey not in Nellysford or in Covesville, not in North Garden or in Charlottesville, but miles and centuries away, pushing my way through a crowd gathered down by the riverside to lay my eyes on this odd duck and to listen to someone who actually has more joy to offer than I have room to take in. Who would miss John if he were not invited to church today? I would, for one.
Maybe I need to explain. After John opens his sermon with an insult and a lecture to his river congregation telling them to stop thinking themselves so special, no one turns on him, no one shouts him down, and no one shakes their heads, and calls for a cab. Instead, they ask John a question that I have probably been asked more than any other question in my ministry when people come face to face with the awe-filled call of God on their lives, “What then should we do?”
When asked this question, John resists the typical preacher-pablum, stuttering out something inane like, “Do whatever you can. God is happy with anything you can do, anything you might spare.” No, John says, “Well, since you asked, ‘what then should we do’, you can start by making generosity something that is more than seasonal, something that is a part of your spiritual DNA. You can start by giving more away and holding onto less.”
Mary Oliver has her own take on John’s answer in her poem: Storage.
When I moved from one house to another
there were many things I had no room
for. What does one do? I rented a storage
space. And filled it. Years passed.
Occasionally I went there and looked in,
but nothing happened, not a single
twinge of the heart.
As I grew older the things I cared
about grew fewer, but were more
important. So one day I undid the lock
and called the trash man. He took
I felt like the little donkey when his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For birds who own
nothing – the reason they can fly.
(Mary Oliver, Devotions, p. 7)
Looking for joy on this Third Sunday of Advent? John offers joy that is a slight variation of Oliver’s poem: “Don’t throw everything away. No, give it away. Share it. Write that check. Deliver that meal. Grab that Habitat hammer. Call on that person almost no one ever calls and no one misses when they are gone. More room in your heart for [joy].”
After his first answer to the curious crowd, others ask John, “What then should we do?” John, never at a loss for words, tells them, “Maybe you are asking the wrong question. Maybe your question should be, “What then should we do that would be in the best interest of others, not necessarily what you need most but what they need most?”
By the Jordan, John tells the crowd that the first question of faith is never the consumer’s question, “what’s in my best interest?” No, the first question of the faithful is always the grace-holder’s question, “What is in the best interest of others?” John tells them that when they start asking the grace-holder’s question, they will stop treating others as rungs on a ladder to help them climb higher and higher. They will stop grabbing only for what they want and stop fooling themselves into thinking that if they just had a little more, they would be so much happier, gleeful, and dancing on the moon.
I love the phrase toward the end of Oliver’s poem, It was Early. The phrase goes this way:
Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.
(Mary Oliver, Devotions, p. 72)
“What then should we do?” If you ask John the Baptist, knee deep in the Jordan or ask Tommy Viar singing his heart out at Cove, “How are you?” and the response would be almost identical, “Blessed beyond belief.” People who know that they are knee deep in God’s blessing are already heart high in joy and do not need to go running after more joy like mice in a maze.
Now, after John’s sermon, there is a buzz in the crowd. Everyone is whispering and nudging each other. They get all excited that John is the promised Messiah, the person God is sending to set things right and to make everything alright. John says, “Calm yourselves down. I know who I am. I am a child of God, but I am not the child of God. He’s on his way and whenever I think too much of myself, I get in his way. Trust me, whenever you think too much of yourself, the same thing will happen to you.”
If the question for the Third of Sunday of Advent is, “What then should we do,” I suggest that we listen to John and worry less about how life has shorted us and focus more on how God has blessed us, is blessing us, and will bless us as we become instruments of God’s blessing.
When you do this, when we see that we are already knee deep in God’s blessing we cannot help but sing the chorus to the carol:
Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.