AM Psalm 63:1-8(9-11), 98; PM Psalm 103
Isa. 13:6-13; Heb. 12:18-29; John 3:22-30
Joy is the anticipation of a desired outcome, my father used to say. As a child I doubted he was right. It seemed to me that if I could just have what I wanted when I wanted it, then I would be happy. But experience has rearranged my understanding.
I have looked forward to so many things in life. Big things: attending university, marrying Steve Breedlove, having children after a bout with infertility, finally, after five children, divesting myself of a diaper bag, grandchildren arriving. Smaller things: books published, the scent of fall coming, the first watermelon of summer, new notebooks begging to be written in.
It’s not that the actuality of those things finally coming-to-be isn’t joyful, but when the “desired event” finally arrives and becomes part of our existence, our joy has a way of flattening out. And when it does we go looking for another desired event that we can “anticipate with joy.”
Something is wrong with this picture. Why is it that when we get what we want, we find out we still want something else? What is joy after all? Just the expectant longing for what we don’t yet have?
Doesn’t joy have to be more than that?
I am finding out that keeping Advent shapes us to understand something new about joy. Advent’s third Sunday is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice!” The course of Advent’s first two weeks coaches us to learn to wait, then to repent and cry out for purity. But as we do the soul-work of admitting to our own neediness, as we face our lack and our longings, the call to rejoice seems out of place…. unless something or someone beyond our own strength is coming to assist us.
The good news of Advent is that help is on the way. Mercy will burst forth on our planet and on us through Immanuel, God who has joined us in our mess. The Messiah will come; night will not last forever.
The call to joy trains our hearts to long for the only remedy that will work. The remedy is the God-Man Jesus. Through his cross God will lavish his mercy on us. Because of his prayers for us, the Spirit will be poured out on God’s people. One day, in the world to come, the Lamb who was slain will rule in the kingdom of joy alongside his Father.That is a lot to be happy about, a lot to rejoice in, even now in the midst of our own souls’ darkness and the darkness of our world. So much awaits us. As Karl Barth said in Volume Three of Church Dogmatics, “It is certainly requested of man that he should continually hold himself in readiness for joy.”
But we have to ask, when the Christ Child moves from being the “anticipated one” to the one who has come, will our joy dull with the receiving? That is our experience with earthly joys. Is our human nature such that nothing will satisfy us forever and for good?
Once again Advent trains me, this time to be wiser. The real truth is that I have never expected enough. I have never had big enough dreams in my longings. A longed-for promotion is exhilarating, a new car is fun, the soft, smooth dirt and careful rows of a freshly planted garden provoke all sorts of anticipation. But they all lose their luster. Then we find something else to look forward to. We know the drill. We are its prisoners.
But Advent’s call-to-joy reminds us that our need is so great, our longing for good things so immense, that only God can fill it. Things we long for lose their magic because they are never enough. Jesus said our souls have the capacity for a river of joy to flow through them. The joys of this life are real but from them we can only dip cupfuls of happiness. They are meant to provoke our longing for joy. So as we follow Advent’s path and hear the call to “rejoice” we are stirred up to ask, “And where do we find a joy that will not fade?”