Today, around the world, Christians are reading about John the Baptist. On the third Sunday of Advent we light the Shepherd’s Candle, symbolizing joy. It’s odd that we read about John the Baptist who seems, to many people, like the Scrooge of the New Testament. He was set in his ways, he liked to be alone, he was eccentric, and he was frowned-upon by most other members of his community. In most of the verses about John, he is rebuking people for the things that they do, or think, or say. At Christmas time, we expect to hear about baby Jesus. We want to focus on the joy of a baby being born; like Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights, praying to praying to little newborn baby Jesus. John ruins this party, yelling about repentance and judgement. Why do we read about him on a day of joy?
John came to Israel, in his time, to give his people a reality check. The Herodians, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees built these false realities about themselves and about their world. They believed they were righteous. They believed holding strictly to the traditions established by King David would make them great and righteous, as King David was great and righteous. They’d forgotten the God behind King David, who taught that the way a person treats others is a reflection of their relationship to God.
John breaks the news that the common understanding of the world is a false reality but the real King is coming. Jesus will reign, judge the nations, know people's’ hearts, transform their lives, and save our world from itself. For John, that news of judgement, redemption, sacrifice, and faith is the reason to have joy. Not that God is out to get people; to judge, condemn, and destroy; but that he will set all things right, defeat evil, and correct our skewed version of reality. He truly is giving us good tidings of great joy; that we can stop chasing after these unreachable, useless things; stop building these falsities of grace without repentance, salvation without sacrifice, resurrection without death, and closeness to God without opening ourselves up to God. We need John to shake these false realities and allow us to see though, glimpses of the possibility of the joy that comes with Jesus.
Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) explains the author’s journey from atheism to theism to Christianity. He began believing that he owned his own soul but, through his pursuit of joy, beauty, and belonging; he realized that true joy could never be found in this world. He came to theism through logic, by reading the Bible and finding that it made logical sense. Finally, he came to christianity through the realization of what God had done for us. He realized that joy could not be found on any other road, or in any of the false realities he’d built for himself.
We, too, are trying so hard to find joy; but true joy can never be intentionally found. True joy always comes upon us by surprise because it is a gift from God. Joy first begins to break through when we relinquish the souls we think we own. John makes up look at our false Gods and realize they’re false. He makes us realize that we cannot make our own paths but also that God has made a path, to restore our understanding of what it means to be human, in the image of God, loving both Him and each other.
One who is more powerful than I will come. Luke 3:16
Rev. John Norman; Sermon 2 of Advent Series, December 16, 2018
For more on C.S. Lewis and joy, consider Reverend John Piper’s article.