I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that this Christmas season, joy is in short supply. Fear and worry seem to loom a lot larger in many people’s lives. The world has been a scary place this year. It’s not just terrorist incidents and war in the Middle East. There’s also the economy, and the number of people who have lost jobs, or had their income cut significantly because of what’s going on. There are the increasing worries about climate change and the controversies about the best way to deal with it. There’s the refugee crisis and our awareness of the millions of people around the world who have had to leave their homes in fear of their lives. And on top of all this of course, there are individual things some of us may be experiencing – financial stress, serious illness, family difficulties, and such – all of which are present in our church just like any other community.
How can we celebrate ‘joy to the world’ in the face of all this? ‘Joy’, in our minds, tends to overlap with ‘happiness’, and ‘happiness’ is often connected to what’s ‘happening’ to us. But the truth is that in the New Testament, joy is not usually inspired by happy circumstances; more often than not it’s in spite of circumstances.
Today we’re celebrating the Third Sunday of Advent, and it’s traditionally known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday, from the Latin word for ‘joy’. The note of joy in our scripture readings for today is strong. In our epistle Paul says ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). And in our Old Testament reading we hear Zephaniah – a prophet who for most of his book has been foretelling judgement against Jerusalem – suddenly switching gears and finishing his prophecy on a note of jubilation: ‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!’ (Zephaniah 3:14).
We rejoice because of the past; we look back to that incredible time in human history when God became a human being and came to live among us in Jesus. We rejoice because of the future. Yes, we’re well aware of the continuing presence of evil in the world, but we rejoice because of God’s promise that one his kingdom will come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and we will all live together in justice and peace forever. Because of these two focal points – in the past, and in the future – we can live in joy in the present, between the two comings of our Lord. And when we look at our reading from Zephaniah we discover more reasons for this outrageous sense of joy and celebration amongst God’s people. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). As we’ve seen, there’s already plenty for us to rejoice about. But let us also remember that this is only the beginning. Let us look forward to the day of our great homecoming, when we together with all God’s people will know the fullness of joy forever. And what a day of rejoicing that will be!