Joy Stirred Up

A Sermon by Jayan Koshy for the Third Sunday of Advent (Year B)

 

My Indian grandmother is the one who taught me to love the Psalms. Every morning Ammachi would spend an hour, sitting in her chair by the bay window, just reading the Bible. Her English was excellent, but she always read it aloud—in a soft voice, barely audible above the sound of the chirping birds. It’s her voice I hear in my head as I read the psalms, especially today’s.

See, today we hear the voice of the psalmist—just like my grandmother’s—crying out a long way from home. In a departure far more violent than mere emigration, the Israelites have been ripped from their home. Elsewhere the psalmist speaks of sitting by the waters of Babylon to weep as they remember Zion, where their heart still lives… Zion… Jerusalem… whose fortunes they dream of God restoring someday—whose fortunes God has already restored, time and time again in the past.

This is the perpetual tension of the life of the exile. They look back, remembering the great things that God has done for them: the prosperity and security they once reveled in and the joy that drew the admiration even of the nations around them. And they look forward, longing for that good fortune to be restored, like water returning to a desert waste. They look forward to a rich harvest in Jerusalem, once again the home of rejoicing.

But they’re not there yet.

No, right now, they sit by the waters of Babylon, with only their tears to sow for grain. They are stuck in the middle: between the remembrance of God’s bounty and the hope of future restoration.

Which is exactly where we feel most days.

Christmas draws close and many of us are posting Facebook memories—of Advent services past and holiday parties. And a collective ache of longing hangs in the air, as we look back at what was. Even memories from just a year ago feel like a world away now. We have been exiled from the life we knew. And we know that restoration is coming… but we don’t know when. It feels like it’s “always winter, and never Christmas,” as Mr. Tumnus says in the Chronicles of Narnia. And so we might feel stuck in the middle with the Israelites: looking back at God’s goodness and longing for future restoration.

If we were left hanging in this limbo, we would indeed have cause to weep.

But we’re not! The Spirit is upon us! Stirring us up and breathing life into our lungs, so that we can be that voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

Isaiah and John the Baptist both inhabit that in-between space. The memory of God’s faithfulness is alive for them, but God hasn’t set everything right yet. They’re still waiting—Isaiah for the return to Jerusalem and John for the coming of the Messiah. But the tension is anything but stale for them. God’s Spirit is active even in the in-between. And it empowers both of them to testify to the coming restoration with both their words and their lives.

John points forward to the coming of Jesus in the Incarnation, but the waiting doesn’t end even with the Incarnation.  The Church—even after Jesus’ Ascension—sits in the tension of another in-between, as we look back to God’s action in the First Advent and wait for its culmination in the Second. This is the quandary throughout the Christian life: we’re waiting for a Kingdom that we’re told is somehow already here. The Christians Paul is writing to are waiting. And we’re STILL waiting. The Church lives in this in-between: remembering Christ’s Incarnation and longing for its resolution in his Second Coming,

And in this in-between, Paul’s central cry rings out: “DO NOT QUENCH THE SPIRIT!”

See, part of Paul’s goal in writing to the Thessalonians is to encourage them to continue living their lives as a visible witness to God’s restoration of all things. The letter is full of exhortations. We got only a smattering of them today: Pray without ceasing! Hold fast to what is good! Rejoice always! In the midst of persecution and uncertainty as they await the coming of the Lord, Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to listen to the Spirit that is moving among them and to let that Spirit guide their lives in the in-between. 

The Church, as a community, is meant to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, pointing to the year of the Lord’s favor by showing how it has already begun: by comforting those who mourn, binding up the broken-hearted, and proclaiming liberty to the captives. It’s as if Paul is saying to them, “I know life seems terrible. But the Spirit is moving in you to make you a living witness to the Kingdom of God. Do not quench that Spirit!”

Listen to him, beloved: Do not quench that Spirit.

We sit in the middle of a dark winter. And as we look back fondly at the memories of joy, we may wonder if all that is gone now—if it really will be always winter but never Christmas.

But it won’t. Because as Mr. Tumnus didn’t know, Aslan is on the move.

Here and now—even in this winter—even in this in-between—we can see how God is active among us. Far from drifting apart and dissipating during these times, our community is full of life. Our care for one another is adapting and deepening. Our commitment to the work of discipleship is evident. And our common worship persists even through the struggles. The Spirit’s movement continues to build St. John’s up as a reflection of God’s love, in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible a year ago.

These bonds of love that tie us together are exactly what led some theologians to call the Church the sacrament of salvation. We—all the members of Christ’s body together—are the visible sign in the world that proclaims the Year of the Lord’s Favor and makes present the Kingdom of God. We make this proclamation and bring about this presence, not only with our lips, but with our lives—by embodying the character of that Kingdom: with our joy… our prayer… our unceasing gratitude… our care for the broken… and our liberation of the captive.

On our own—in the face of the darkness and uncertainty—maintaining this call is certainly too much for us. Some days, rejoicing for an hour seems a stretch. Rejoicing always?! Out of the question. 

But Paul? Even as he urges the Thessalonians to live out the Christian witness by following these commands, Paul reminds them that God has given them the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit is at work.

The joy, the prayer, the thanksgiving, they’re not things we have to—or even can—force ourselves into. They are the fruits of the Spirit, that God has given us. They are gifts that God bestows to show the whole wide world that’s he is making ALL THINGS NEW in Jesus Christ.

The joy we might feel numb to? The prayers we struggle to say? The thanksgiving we can barely bring ourselves to make? If we do not quench the Spirit, this fruit will continue to grow in our midst, as it has already been.

The world around us will say, “The Lord has done great things for them.” And we will indeed reap with songs of joy, shouldering our sheaves.

The one who calls us is faithful, and he will do this

So stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.

Amen.

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