Sermon from Advent III: Where Joy Is Nourished
Where Joy Is Nourished
Advent III; December 13, 2020
I’ll bet you know a story with this motif: the ruler has a child, and someone usurps the ruler’s throne, and threatens the life of the child, so someone else spirits the child away to safety until the day comes that the child can claim the inheritance, recover the kingdom, and displace the usurper. Ron Howard’s delightful 1988 film Willow has that idea, and C. S. Lewis’ story Prince Caspian as well as The Lion King. Older, more classic stories have the theme too. It’s even older than John’s Revelation, and he picks up on that idea in this vision of the woman, her child, and the dragon.
Please don’t strain your brain trying to make these symbolize anything too specific. I think you’re safe to identify the child as Jesus, the Messiah, the One who legitimately rules the nations. And later in the chapter the dragon is explicitly identified as Satan, but the dragon has seven heads and ten horns, suggestive of the Roman Empire. The figure of Satan is the personification of any evil that wants to disrupt the realm of God, that seeks to devour the child of hope, the child of promise, the Messiah who delivers God’s people. But is the woman Mary? Israel? The Human Race? All of the above? Please don’t try to identify her with anyone too specific.
Simply, here is the takeaway from the story this morning: when the dragon tries to devour the Savior, the child is rescued and carried away to the throne of God, and the Mother is cared for in the wilderness, where she is nourished. Don’t sweat the time period; the number is symbolic and you’ll strain something trying to make it mean more than it should. The point is this: God cares for the Mother. The dragon wasn’t after her; the dragon was after the child. Nonetheless, God cares for the Mother and hides her in the desert and sees that she is fed. She reminds us of Hagar, the woman Abraham sent away, whom God cared for in the desert. And the people of Israel, who spent forty years in the desert, eating manna and quail. And the Holy Family, who fled from King Herod to Egypt, where God looked after them until they could return.
The child was carried safely to the throne of God, and the plot of the dragon was foiled. Even so, God looked after the Mother, cared for her and nourished her in the desert.
The theme for the Third Sunday of Advent is joy. The traditional introit for today is “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say: Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) As Cindy points out in her guide for family Advent devotions, that’s why the candle for today is rose-colored: that’s the color for joy. Therefore, today I want to say to you that in the midst of the desert, God nourishes joy, and not just for 1,260 days, but for however long it takes.
Joy is not something you can summon at will or manufacture. Joy comes from out of the shadows, often a surprise, emerging from the deep sense of the presence of God. The prophet promised, in our first reading (Isaiah 61:1-4), that God would give the people a “garland instead of ashes.” The people would wash the ashes of mourning out of their hair and put on instead a circle of flowers and dance, like Samwise Gamgee and Rosie Cotton at their wedding. The Lord God gives us that promise to nourish our joy, so that when we face a Christmas without a gathering of family or friends, a Christmas without lighting candles together in the church, we hold onto the promise that one day we will put flowers in our hair and dance. God hides our joy in the desert and nourishes it.
There is one thing you and I can do to cooperate with God in nourishing our joy: we can taste it from time to time. Oprah suggests keeping a journal in which you write every day three things for which you are grateful; she’s very wise. Pull out those old letters and read them; pull up those pictures on your phone and look at them. Maybe the memory brings tears, but tears sometimes accompany joy.
What I’m trying to say is that even when things are dark, you can choose joy. You can’t make yourself feel it, but you can imagine it, you can find reasons for it, you can taste the promise of joy. One reason I run is to celebrate the fact that I am alive. Every morning I rejoice that I woke up, that I can eat food, that I can read my Bible and pray. While I’m being personal: this year I didn’t make the Christmas pudding, because we won’t have our friends for Christmas dinner and we won’t have the Church for a Christmas open house. I’m not fixing puff pastry and pate, not selecting the right wines. But this Advent purist who doesn’t ordinarily decorate until Christmas Eve put up the little tree in our apartment last week, so that the lights shine out every evening on the empty church parking lot. I choose joy.
The trimmings of Christmas are mostly stripped from us this year. But the reality of Christmas cannot be taken from us: the child is born, despite the dragon’s worst efforts. Shepherds will hear the song of angels and magi will visit, bearing gifts. God has come among us, even if you can’t have cousin Imelda bring her famous pie. If you’re not feeling it, that’s all right; but see where you may have tucked away those memories, blow off the dust, and taste the promise of joy. Where do you keep those promises that God will give you a garland to replace the ashes?
Here at this Table is another place where God nourishes our joy. It still isn’t quite right; you should be here in this room with me, so we can share one loaf and pass the cup to each other, not viewing it on YouTube with bread or rice crackers or Melba toast or whatever, accompanied by your own wine or grape juice or flavored coffee. We should be together. We’re not. But God is here. And God is wherever you are, wherever you will be eating and drinking with me, nourishing your joy.
God looked after the child, the story says, and looked after his Mother in the wilderness. And God looks after us in our wilderness, nourishing our joy.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master