Today in the Spirit: Advent 3B

By

It is the Advent 3B selection of readings that really puts the joy in “Joy Sunday.” All four readings include either an explicit exhortation for God’s people to rejoice in the Lord or a testimony of joy from the narrator’s heart. Since all that Mark has to say about John the Baptist before Jesus’ arrival was in last week’s Gospel reading, Advent 3B offers a choice between two readings in the Gospel of John. John 1:19-28 is John the Evangelist’s narrative of the Baptist’s denying that he is the Christ (similar but not identical to that of the Synoptics). John 3:22-30, the Church’s preferred selection, contains the stunning testimony of John the Baptist explaining why he is happy to learn that Jesus is baptizing, too, and that all are going to him (26). The Baptist replies,The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete” (29).

The assigned OT reading out of Isaiah 65:17-25 will cause worshipers in Advent to consider the cosmic, universal picture (For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth) that lay over and behind the physical exaltation of God’s particular people in the world (for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness). The appointed Psalm 126 places songs of joy in the hearts and mouths of the people of Israel as they look forward with certainty to a return from exile and restoration of prosperity. You will remember that, at the end of Pentecost in Year A, we followed a sequence of readings from 1 Thessalonians. Now, just a few weeks later, we are to hear the final words of that letter out of 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, including Paul’s exhortation, Rejoice always. Interestingly, the Collect this week is the only one for a Sunday addressed to “Lord Jesus Christ” by name. The prayer places all “ministers and stewards of [Christ’s] mysteries” in the Church today in line with the prophets of old, asking that they “may likewise make ready your way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient toward the wisdom of the just.”

Sponsored

I will concentrate this week on the theme of joy and rejoicing in my commentary on the readings.

The Collect

O Lord Jesus Christ, you sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise make ready your way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient toward the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world, we may be found a people acceptable in your sight; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I Create Jerusalem to Be a Joy (Isaiah 65:17-25)

“For behold, I create new heavens
    and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
    or come into mind. 
But be glad and rejoice forever
    in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
    and her people to be a gladness. 
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
    and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
    and the cry of distress” (17-19).

The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
    the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
    and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord (25).

Joy transforming. Not everything new in our experience is a cause of rejoicing. Everything new from God, however, is without exception a transformation for the better, much better. In this passage, we see, first, at a cosmic level, new heavens and a new earth. While there is much that is glorious and beautiful about the universe as it is, we cannot help but become concerned with the level of weeping and cries of distress. Paul reminds us that not only human beings but creation groans inwardly in the present age (Romans 8:20-21). And then, at the level of community living, in animal and human society alike, look at what this passage describes: The wolf and the lamb shall graze together. We rejoice in the complete absence of predatory behavior.

See how the text presents Jerusalem as the forerunner of the whole new creation: But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. That is us, brothers and sisters. As difficult as it may be to believe at times, we, the Church of Christ, are the community that ushers in a joyous transformation everywhere. As we wait for the fullness of a new universe, we can be the place the human community looks to find dog-eat-dog no more, but lions and ox grazing equally and contentedly from the same trough of the body and blood of our Lord. We can be glad and rejoice forever in the new thing the Father has started to build by his Son, Jesus Christ.

Today, Holy Spirit, in my desire to see everything made new, let me rejoice in the sight of the beginnings you have made in the Christian community of which I am a part.  

Shouts of Joy (Psalm 126)

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
    we are glad.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
    shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    bringing his sheaves with him.

Joy compounding. Notice the phrase shouts of joy appears three times in this short psalm, once in the initial section before the prayer in the center and twice in the last section. Here is a good example of the Hebrew prophetic past tense found in many OT passages. The psalmist, singing from the perspective of an Israelite in exile, has heard the word of hope from the prophets (like that of the first reading in Isaiah); then so certain is he of fulfillment that he writes of the return to Zion as if it has already happened: When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. From this magnificent beginning, joy compounds in the psalm. Shouts of joy come from the people of Jerusalem. Their delight, like a contagion, spreads to the nations. Envisioning the peoples of the world coming to YHWH is like the people of Israel carrying her sheaves from a great harvest, with shouts of joy to overcome all memories of weeping in the past.

Joy begets joy, beloved in Jesus. Setting our hearts firmly on the revelation of future joy from God’s word sows into us visions of joy we can imagine for the present. Focusing only on what’s happening on the surface of our lives yields only unrequited pain, burden, and sacrifice. Trusting that Jesus is with us and that, by his own hand, the gospel goes forward in our circumstances, we catch the joy. Seeing something of the positive impact our Christian witness has on other people, like the Israelites seeing joy from the nations, adds to our joy. Restoration leads to harvest for Israel, and our salvation in Christ serves as his harvest in the world. 

Today, in the Spirit, witnessing joy build on joy in this psalm, I ask you, Jesus, to help me see my life as you see it and rejoice.

Rejoice Always (1 Thessalonians 5:12-28)

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (16-22).

Joy together. Once again, here we find all these verbs appearing in the imperative plural, so “Rejoice always you all,” etc. What could Paul be looking at in his mind’s eye as he is writing these words? A sole person lifting their hands in praise, or on their knees in prayer, or walking around with thanks on their lips at all times? No. Reading the entire passage, it is obvious that he is picturing the whole community interacting together.

Devotionally, let me say here again that there is nothing wrong with each one guarding their own hearts and keeping tabs on their internal attitudes of devotion and thankfulness, but to be constantly thinking, “Am I rejoicing at this moment?” or, “Am I giving thanks now?” is hyper-introspection. The better questions to raise in response to hearing these commands from Paul are these: Can my church community be fairly characterized as joyful in the Lord? Is this a community in which the downhearted are lifted up? And, am I free to express my joy in Jesus in the worship and fellowship of my church community? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then this is contrary to Paul’s teaching, and one has to wonder if it is time to look for a new church. The Puritan Bible commentator Matthew Henry wrote, “Holy joy is the oil to the wheels of our obedience” (emphasis mine).

Today, Holy Spirit, build my church community to new heights of consistent joy in worship and fellowship; together, we might live up to what Paul enjoins in this passage about rejoicing. 

This Joy of Mine Is Now Complete (John 3:22-30 or John 1:19-28)

John [the Baptist] answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:27-30).

Joy complete. John the Evangelist refers to joy being made complete (Greek πληρόω, literally “to make full”) six times in his writings (John 3:29, 15:11, 16:24, 17:13, 1 John 1:4, 2 John 12). This could be just a Greek way of rendering the more Hebrew-styled phrase filled with joy (as in Matthew 28:8). Joy that is complete in John need not mean a feeling that never leaves you. (From Matthew, we learn joy left the Baptist when he later landed in prison, 11:2ff). And yet we find here that there was no higher joy for John than to realize the bridegroom had come and that his coming fulfilled John’s purpose in life—to be a forerunner to Jesus, a friend in the Messiah’s shadow. What else but this can adequately explain his humility in watching the sudden decline of his own highly successful ministry?

Devotionally, as Christians, we must ask ourselves, what is my highest joy in life? And then give an honest answer. Is the fulfillment of Jesus’ purpose for you enough to conclude that you are the happiest you could ever be and that nothing more is needed? Yes, this presupposes that you know, as the Baptist knew, what the Lord’s purpose for your life is, but even without all the specifics, we know certain things: that the Son of God has been revealed, that he has paid the price for our sin; that he has commanded us to follow him; and that he has given us the Holy Spirit to make us devoted to him. God’s love has been poured into our hearts, writes Paul, through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:5).

So, Holy Spirit, pour into my heart such love for Jesus that, through the ups and downs of my life circumstances and the onslaught of temptations to love lesser things, I may find with the Baptist that my joy is now complete by pleasing him.   

Today in the Spirit

Reflections and related content, sent straight to your inbox.

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

Comments

Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments