The Practice of Joy

St Andrew’s Anglican Church Indooroopilly 


Advent 3 

Sunday 16 December 

Zephaniah 3.14-20 

The Song of Isaiah 

Philippians 4.4-7 

Luke 3.7-18 

The Practice of Joy ©Sue Wilton  

Last week I began the sermon with the words from the  Gospel. I decided against beginning today’s sermon with  “You brood of vipers!” After all, it is supposed to be the  Sunday of Advent where we allow our joyful anticipation of  the coming Christ child to break through. Being threatened  with the wrath to come seems rather out of place. John the  Baptist seems to be comparing his ministry to the imminent  ministry of Jesus and effectively saying, “You ain’t seen  nothing yet… I baptise you with water…but he will baptise  you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” 

Yet Jesus does not come bringing wrath and vengeance, but  as one who is gentle and humble in heart, blessing the poor  in spirit and promising rest for our souls. If we interpret  John’s words to be an expectation of a Messiah that will rain  down fire to execute the judgment of God, then it would  seem that John’s messianic vision was misguided. Indeed,  Jesus is so little like John’s expectation apparently, that later  he sends word asking, “Are you the one that is to come or should we wait for another?” (Matt 11:3) But what John saw  clearly was the need for an uncompromising call for a change  of heart, and how the metaphor of fire would be an important image for Jesus’ ministry. The fire is perhaps not the kind John was anticipating, but the symbol of burning  away the chaff from the wheat is a powerful symbol of Jesus  ministry. Burning away chaff is about saving and purifying the  grain- not separating the good from the bad. Jesus comes as  Saviour and healer.  

This is not to suggest that John is tough and Jesus is soft, or  that Jesus is reducing the requirements of the law. The rather  startling truth according to scripture is that Jesus doesn’t  lower the bar but raises it. Where John says to the tax  collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for  you”, Jesus says, “Sell everything you have and give to the  poor”. Where John says, “Whoever has two costs should  share with someone who has none”, Jesus says, “Give them  your cloak as well.” Where John says, “Do not exhort money  through threats or false accusations,” Jesus says, “Lend,  expecting nothing in return and love your enemies.” Of  course the bar is so high, that we cannot help but fall short.  So where is the good news in any of this?  

The image used to describe God’s coming to us as a purifying  fire should tell us that making space for this arrival is going to  open us to the power of God in a shockingly vulnerable way  that will not leave us unchanged. John’s expectation of a  wrathful, vengeful Messiah was not to be fulfilled, but the  arrival of God in our lives can nevertheless overwhelm us  with fear and awe. Perhaps this is why Jesus elsewhere invites us not to be afraid but to come to him in our anxieties  and our weariness saying, “Learn from me for I am gentle and  humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt  11:29) Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light, but  sometimes letting go of other yokes we have been wearing  can be difficult and even painful. Jesus calls us from one way  of being in the world into a new creation.  

Yet how are we to live into this new creation when Jesus  seems to raise the bar so high? We need to recognise that  God is not interested in band aid measures, or minor  tweaking around the edges of our little petty sins and private  foibles. Instead, we must allow ourselves to “go in for the full  treatment”, as C.S Lewis would say. Often what we would ask  or expect of God is actually less than the abundance being  offered. Lewis makes the analogy of himself as a young boy  with a toothache in the night. He knew if he went and woke  up his mother she would give him an aspirin for the pain. But  he rarely went to his mother, because he knew that she  would not only give him the aspirin but would take him to  the dentist the next day. The dentist would not only  permanently fix that tooth, but find all sorts of other niggling  issues in his mouth that needed work. While God as holy  dentist may not be a nice analogy for many of us, it is a good  metaphor for the way that we avoid opening ourselves to the  full treatment – the work of the Holy Spirit and fire- that will  ultimately bring us relief and fullness of joy. Repentance is  hard work, and it is an ongoing, daily way of life rather than a  once off fix. It is then in gratitude that we recognise that  forgiveness is also an ongoing way of being for God, and  maybe this is why St Paul says we can “Rejoice always”, encouraging us to pray without ceasing, bringing everything  to God. Joy follows not when we get things right but when  we give ourselves completely over to the welcome of God  and to the exciting journey in the Spirit where Jesus calls us  to nothing less than becoming little Christs.  

When we attempt to effect changes in our life, we need to  work on the inside if we are ever to sustain different  behaviour on the outside. And we need to ditch our pride  and accept that this is no self-help regime. On our own, we  are prey to all the pressure and habits of our culture that  tempt us to slip back into old behaviours. Just think of the  way the media can keep us in the habit of gossip, or  advertising in habits of consuming- or, for problem gamblers the way the sounds and proximity of poker machines can  keep feeding an addiction. Some things in our society lead us  away from life. The 12 step programs that operate here out  of our church understand the need for doing the inner work in order to deal with these environments and effect an outer  change.  

There is no better way to uncover inner blocks than trying to  do something that entails a change in the way we have  previously operated. For the followers of John the Baptist,  some of those changes were in things like not collecting extra  taxes or stopping using power over others for personal gain.  We can presume that those Roman soldiers and tax  collectors who tried to listen to John ended up having to do a  lot of shadow boxing as they dealt with some of their own  motivations for extortion or dishonest practices. 

What might be changes we are being called to make this  Advent in our normal way of operating? This season can be a  great time for making these changes when family are around  and sometimes relationships can be challenging. As you try to  communicate differently, to stop playing the games or buying into relationships of co-dependency, you will become more  aware of yourself and your own blocks, barriers and the way  past hurts may have been operating in your life. And it will be  difficult. That is where hope becomes not an idea but an  action, and joy becomes not a feeling but a practice of  encountering grace over and again. Acting in hope and living  with joy are the trademarks of people of faith who know that  it is not all down to them.  

So in this Advent season may we be people who practice and  share joy because we know that the fire that refines and  purifies is also forgiveness and fullness of life. And may this  be a time for each of us to be open to the inner  transformative work of the Spirit as we prepare for the One  who comes to us with astonishing gentleness and humility.  


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