Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Garrison Keillor once said something like “in my family of stern, Midwestern Lutherans one was always warned not to act too happy. To do so would be to show off.” I wonder if it’s because of the Puritan history of our culture, but it’s always struck me how embarrassed we can sometimes be about having honest-to-God fun. I doubt we’re just too polite to show off how happy we are. Perhaps it really is that Puritan background which has embedded in our collective subconscious the fool idea that pure, unadulterated happiness has no utility.

Or perhaps it’s because we are an increasingly cynical people. We can’t just enjoy ourselves. Sure, we engage in leisure, but I think there’s a distinct difference between “leisure” and “fun”. For most of us, leisure is always either at the boundary of some form of hedonism or some puritanical, utilitarian ideal. We might sit in front of the television for hours not because we’re having fun, but through some joyless, twisted obligation, like the addict reaching for his next fix. We might, on the other hand, engage in some program of self-improvement (exercising or reading obscure old-Icelandic literature or something), but do it just as joylessly as the couch potato. Self-improvement has its place and even occasional self-indulgence has its place, but where do we really find happiness?

On this Gaudete Sunday, this respite in the midst of the penitential season of Advent, we are reminded that joy is neither the consequence of leisure to be pursued nor a useless extravagance to be avoided. We are reminded that true happiness is a state of being not dependent on circumstance but on a realization- namely the realization of God’s Grace.

Remember this morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. The oppressed are given Good News, those who mourn are comforted, prisoners are promised release. But recognize the nature of God’s action, here. It is promised, not yet delivered. The words of Isaiah suggest that God’s bestowal of Grace is a fait accompli, but it’s not yet fully manifest. These words are not merely descriptive. They are properly prophetic. It is not the present reality which anoints us with the “oil of gladness”, which places upon us the “mantle of praise” to use Isaiah’s evocative symbolism; it is the hope of God’s final victory over the powers of sin and death. It is the promise of freedom, the promise of health, the promise of justice which make us glad.

But we ought not be too concrete in our understanding of God’s timeline. While freedom and health and justice are (in their most tangible forms) future realities, they are, in another sense, present realities for the Christian. While there are still prisoners in the literal sense, there is before them an opportunity to taste a much greater freedom- namely, the freedom of the soul from sin. While illness still strikes us and our loved ones in very real and painful ways, there is a greater health—a hale and hearty soul—which we are given when we let Christ in. While injustice and oppression and war tear our world apart, the peace of God can yet be found in something as simple as the love between two people.

There is a great deal to be happy about, and the joy we have in Christ’s promises and in God’s very real presence with us can be our greatest asset with regard to mission. What might it look like to this cynical world in which we live if we were really, genuinely happy because we are Christians? Well, I think we’d have a lot more Christians. Conversely, what does it look like when a Christian is a rigid, cynical sad-sack? I think that sends the message that there isn’t a whole lot to commend our faith. “Lord save us,” prayed St. Teresa of Avilla, “from sour-faced saints.”

Now, I’m fully aware that simply saying “be happy” doesn’t cut it. Even worse would be saying “act happy”. Our joy has to be genuine if it’s to be any good in terms of evangelization. I guess, the best thing to remember is that we have very good reason to rejoice. If we dwell not on the changes and chances of this life but on the promises of Christ, we can’t be lugubrious stink-in-the-muds for long. When we shift our focus away from our selves to Him, when we stop being self-centered and start being Christ-centered, when we recognize the child in the manger in the midst of the filthy barn and the Savior in our hearts in the midst of this sin-sick old world we can finally, truly be happy; and that sort of happiness is contagious.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.