The prophets Zephaniah and John the Baptist are not the two most joyful characters in all of Scripture, yet we hear from them both today. They are paired with the great Advent refrain from the Letter to the Philippians: “Gaudete in Domino semper,” – “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” This is Gaudete Sunday. Everything about today’s readings call to the people of God to get excited, be demonstrative, and above all be joyful, celebrate, and rejoice. Even the dour, prophet of doom, Zephaniah can’t restrain himself and tells us “Shout for joy…Sing joyfully… Be glad and exult with all your heart!” The book of Zephaniah is only three chapters long, filled with death, doom, fire, flood, pestilence and plague – yet even he tells us to shout for joy!
It is Gaudete Sunday! The very name telling us to be joyful! I mean, can we get pumped up? Are we excited? Can I hear a shout out of joy? (pause waiting for a joyful noise…. Alas, that is not likely to come)
What is it about such extroverted demonstrations of joy that is so foreign to our sense of worship and praise of God? I am not talking about get-your-hands-up-pep-rally-yea-God kind of noise where my role is part icon, part rock star – and we have a Starbucks in the lobby of the church. But I am talking about the “Shout for joy…Sing joyfully… Be glad and exult with all your heart!” biblical expression because as dour old Zephaniah tells us, “The Lord your God is in your midst.”
And I love what Zephaniah then says about God’s reaction when He is our midst: “he will rejoice over you with gladness…he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.” What is your image of this rejoicing and joyful God. In my imagination, I am not talking about a purple tyrannosaurus rex with a green belly and yellow toes named Barney on stage singing, “If your happy and you know it clap your hands…” We need to think mega rock star, full throttle, throwing himself off the divine stage into the mosh pit of humanity. …And then I wonder if we would be caught up in the Spirit and catch and wildly embrace God or would we sit on our hands as our Savior thumped on the ground, then commenting, “Oh my, he shouldn’t have done that…my, my.”
Clearly I am poking a little fun at our Catholic reticence to be demonstrative and exuberant, at least here in church. Recently people have told me that they, at the end of a homily, wanted to stand up and shout out “Amen” or just stand up and clap… but…. Well, you know… we just don’t do those things. Maybe it is because “rejoice” and “exult” are church words used in a context where we are trained to sit on our hands. Context makes a difference. Can you imagine any football fan saying, “Yes, I rejoiced when we won the Superbowl?”
But Gaudete is in the imperative voice – in other words, it is a command. It is a command that we are reluctant to follow on our good days, on Gaudete Sunday when we almost have permission to be demonstrative and noisy about it all. What about the bad days when our hearts are breaking? What will be our song of joy when we feel despair, hopelessness, or terror shadows of lives? Where will we find joy then?
I guess it all depends upon what you think about joy and its expression. I have been painting a picture of real joy as only being this out-loud, over-the-top, pumped-up enthusiasm. What about the quiet moment in the gloaming of the evening light, a parent, new-born in their arms, gently rocking their baby to sleep – possibly humming right along with Barney the dinosaur. Is that not a moment of joy? That moment when you step back and look at the project just finished – and there is a sense of joy at the completion. What about, on the bad days when our heart is breaking? It is a friend at our side with a shoulder to cry on – there is joy. I think if we pause, even among the ordinary tasks of washing dishes there is joy to be found.
There is joy to be found in the good times, the bad times, and the in between times. The joy in within us, located right next to love. And we need to reminded to be joyful when the person we love is totally annoying, forgetful, inattentive, or complacent. It is then we need to remind ourselves of the kindness of God, and let kindness and joy emerge. The joy is around us when we live in the kindness of God we make known to others. Joy is right there in our midst.
It is good to shout out a joyful noise in church, but it is better to rejoice in the Lord always in the ordinary of life – good, bad, and in between. Why? Because our Lord knows this life completely with all its days and nights, highs and lows, and all that lays in between. He has come. He will come again. And in the between days He is in our midst. Right here in the ordinary. Whether we know it or not, it is as Zephaniah says, “he will rejoice over you with gladness…he will sing joyfully because of you.”
Think about that for just a moment: “he will rejoice over you with gladness…he will sing joyfully because of you.” Because of you.
Maybe this is the Advent message – live your life fully – the good, the bad, and in between. Seek out the joy. Practice kindness in a way that makes the goodness of God known to all. Rejoice because the Messiah is coming to us all. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”