Advent 3   Isaiah 9:1-7 Choose Joy

Reflection by Mart the Rev

I came across a lovely Michael Leunig cartoon with his version of the Good King Wenceslas carol.  I sung it to Parish Council the other night.  Can you imagine how thrilling that was for them?  The looks of wonder, shock and awkwardness on their faces was something truly beautiful to behold.  I learned a lot about them in that moment, and quite a bit more about myself and my dumb ideas!  What I especially learned is that I am better to read it to you today than sing it.

Here it is: Good King Wenceslas looked out like his dad had told him.  “Watch your step and look about odd things are unfolding.  Keep one eye upon the star with its peace and beauty.  Keep the other where you are, sadly that’s your du-u-ty.”

Watch your step and look about, odd things are unfolding.  I’m thinking about the state of things in this season in which we celebrate Christmas.  Odd things unfolding is pretty standard these days!  We’re in the midst of the terrible incident at Whakaari/White Island and finding out just how precarious burns injuries are, and what kind of things are needed to help people heal, like more than 1.2 million square centimetres of skin is needed for these victims.  Who even knew there was that much skin available?

Other odd things seem to be happening in some leadership circles like the constant twisting of the truth to the point that truth becomes whatever you want to think it is.  I happen to think such behaviour is delusional but I am not an expert on psychological diagnosis.  I was reading an article the other day about North Korea’s former leader Kim Jong IL who only ever played one round of golf, but what a round it was!  It took him just 34 strokes to complete the 18 holes on what is a long and tricky course.  That’s 38-under-par.  No one has ever got near to his record.  But everyone around him were required to claim this as true – therefore it must be true!

Speaking of people who are big on presenting their own version of the truth, President Trump is a bit of a golfer as well.  He will tell you that he’s won 18 club championships even though the records don’t seem to back his claim.  But he’s the President and owner of the golf course, so he must be right!  A new book out this week has a story about how he is known to regularly kick the golf ball onto the fairway if it is in the rough.  Some of the caddies call him Pelé, as in the Brazilian soccer legend.  But not, of course, to his face, that would not be truthful, for Mr Trump is not Pelé.

Odd things are unfolding.  I was watching the Graham Norton show the other day and one of the guests, the comedian David Mitchell, was talking about the attitude of many of the community of people on Twitter who seem to be in a perennial state of angst.  He imagines these people waking up in the morning, going on-line and spewing their hateful and vitriolic words at whatever is the latest thing to be angry about.  ‘What a life these people have!’ David Mitchell exclaimed.  ‘What has happened that the first response to almost all things these days seems to be complaint?’

Odd things are happening.  If we are not careful, these odd things can train us to behave oddly.  For instance, the more bad news we hear, the more vulnerable we are to believing that all things are bad and we end up believing that things are indeed getting worse.  From time to time some things are indeed worse, and we can be left wondering if there is any hope, but there have been plenty of other seasons in the human story where things were much worse.  The constant threat and reality of enemy attack has been the story of almost every human generation for thousands of years, so too has been the very real threat of premature death because of disease.  This, unfortunately, is still the reality for many people in the world, but in many countries – most countries, these are no longer realistic threats.  These could well be the best of times.

Somehow, don’t you think, as believers, we have some kind of responsibility to attend to and invest in what is good and right in order to remain buoyant and hopeful, even if there are odd things about us that are worrisome?  I think that’s what Leunig is getting at in his Good King Wenceslas cartoon – odd things are occurring but ‘Keep one eye upon the star with its peace and beauty.’ And ‘Keep the other where you are, that’s your duty.’

Duty.  I wonder, on this day when we focus on Joy, whether our faith-life is a call on us to be dutiful about being joyful.  To be honest, until this week I haven’t thought all that much about joy in terms other than as a response I have had, or witnessed, to something lovely occurring.  The joy of Christmas was first shaped in my life by the excitement I experienced as a child receiving Christmas presents.  As I grew up, I slowly shifted and the experience of Christmas joy became something I received through watching others being excited and grateful for what they had received.

I think it is in my nature to be more joyful and hopeful than negative, but now I am wondering if Joy is something we are to cultivate – even to choose, as in a posture we choose to take on and seek.  Is the Joy of God something we choose to live into as well as a response to God’s goodness?  Do we choose Joy?

I’m thinking again about the prophetic utterances that come to us in the Advent season.  Like Isaiah’s extraordinary buoyancy, even though the Assyrian army is marching on Israel. In today’s reading from Isaiah chapter 9:3, we witness the prophet’s vision of hope, even though it looks like the world is falling apart: “You have multiplied the nation,” he says, “you have increased its joy; [the people] …rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest…”

How do you articulate joy in such a time of threat?  You choose to!  You hold out for higher things.  You believe.  You take on joy as a posture.  You keep one eye upon the star with its peace and beauty.  That’s what you do.

And you watch your step.  Seriously, you watch your step.  A joyful posture is not to be an untruthful posture.  You have to live out your life where you find yourself walking and where life is happening.  A joyful posture is not a life-avoiding one.  Awful things do happen and it is not for us to be untruthful and pretend that they don’t.  But we live to a different song and a higher calling.

Sorry to go on about it, but my current two-year-old life-coach brought his mother down for a few nights earlier this week.  He is one very joyful kid.  But he also has some simple words in his arsenal to express the truth of when the stuff of life happens… like ‘Uh oh!’  He seems to handle the oscillations between ‘yay’ and ‘uh-oh’ and screaming out his pain in quite a healthy way – they are all part of the whole.  But joy is never far away, indeed joy is a constant place for him to return to.  A joyful posture is his modus operandi.   Is it ours?  If not, when did we unlearn it?  If not, can we relearn it?  Surely!

When Anne and I were walking the Camino there were parts of almost every day where things were a bit of a struggle, especially walking the last hour or so each day with our tired joints and muscles, and our thoughts drifting towards the next place of rest with a shower and some food.  Whenever we were feeling the load a little, we had a little saying.  One of us would declare ‘we chose this,’ and the other would reply, ‘no, it chose us.’

For us it was a simple little reminder to maintain a wider view of things, that despite what was happening in the moment, and how we were feeling, actually we were doing something quite special and it was not for us to grumble.  Even when things are hard, there is always a joy to be discovered in the bigness and the wonder of it.  We choose joy!

Oh yes, and one other thing the prophets tell us, the Joy of the Lord chooses us.  That’s what makes our joy complete.

There’s a story in the book of Nehemiah of the great day when the children of Israel marked the return of the Babylonian exiles and the restoration of the Law of Moses.  We have heard a reading from the prophet Isaiah about hope and joy even though the Assyrians were coming for them.  Well they did come and they exiled Israel in Babylon for 70 years. In Nehemiah chapter 8, Nehemiah who was the governor, said to the gathered people: ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

The joy of the Lord is our strength.  I wonder how that might play out in how we are as this year with its share of oddness draws to an end and the next year with its challenges and opportunities comes.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear back from our surrounding communities that they marvel at how those Village People go about things in such a joyful way?  Wouldn’t that be a great witness. It’s a choice isn’t it?