Fill Us With Joy

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I’ve really enjoyed being a podcaster these last 11 weeks. It’s a very different way of producing content than say a simple blog post. It’s also vastly different from the way I prepare sermons. A couple of years ago, I switched to preaching without notes. I no longer write a sermon manuscript. I have a couple points I intend to make and then I just speak from the heart, sharing a message for whoever is in the room. My words will ebb and flow based on the movements of the Spirit and are tailored specifically to my audience. In thinking about how to create more shareable online content, I realized very quickly that my new preaching style doesn’t translate as well online. Thus the Your Sacred Place podcast was born as a way for me to share some of the core ideas from my sermon prep in a way that fits a wider audience. It’s been a joy for me to create this, and I hope it has brought you some joy too.

That’s not meant to be a cheesy segue to the third Sunday of Advent but rather an honest reflection of something which is bringing me joy right now. We’re less than a week away from Christmas and the intensity of overwhelming to do lists can really suck the joy out of this season. We talk a lot about the joy of Christmas, there are so many songs which speak of it. Yet, there are few Advent hymns about joy—most of them are about waiting and expectation. So, I asked myself, “is the joy of Advent really different from the joy of Christmas?” I think it is.

I had a funny conversation with a friend of mine this week. He was posting on Instagram counting down to Christmas saying things, “for the fourth day of Christmas, I ate my favorite food: pizza.” I had to comment, “Umm, the 12 days of Christmas don’t start until December 25.” His response was, “I don’t care, I’m doing it before.” I didn’t want to argue, so I left it alone. The 12 Days of Christmas span Christmas to Epiphany. Why must we rush so quickly to the celebrating of Christmas skipping over this season of preparing?

This Sunday, I shared an Advent video reflection from the late Rachel Held Evans. In a season when we speak so often of the ancient Biblical prophets, I wanted to include the words of a modern-day one. Rachel’s words so often resonate deep within me. We lost her earlier this year far too soon. We were friends, not super close ones, but we realized that we were kindred spirits when my husband and I picked her up from the airport and took her to dinner before the inaugural Faith & Works conference at my former church in Irvine. Her passion for rescuing the Gospel from the ways fundamentalist evangelicals were abusing it resonated deeply within me. Searching for a faith that runs much deeper than a mathematical equation about getting into Heaven, her words so often described feelings I couldn’t.

When speaking of Advent, she says “Advent is so great because it’s so countercultural to the way our culture understands and celebrates Christmas. It’s always rush, rush, rush and buy, buy, buy. But Advent is about waiting, and it’s a beautiful season for that reason because so much of the Christian faith is about waiting and anticipation…” So if Advent is a distinctly different season, its themes are likewise different from their post-Jesus’ birth counterparts. The joy of Jesus’ birth is different from the joy of the Advent journey in that the simple acts of receiving and sharing joy are part of our preparation; they’re part of how we anticipate the soon-but-not-yet arrival of the Christ child.

As I think I’ve said before, we live in the tension between Jesus not yet being born and him having been born 2,000 years ago, and also the waiting and expectation of his return to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. During Advent we try and focus on the waiting for Jesus’ arrival in both of its forms and not so much on the Jesus’ life part of history. So even our experience of joy is about the not-yet Jesus. It’s a compounding of our Advent themes of hope and peace. There is joy in the promise of our hope. There is joy that peace is possible. There is joy that our journey together is bringing us ever closer to God’s justice being realized.

Advent is not a passive time of just sitting around and being introspective and reflective. We should absolutely do those things, but it doesn’t stop there. We must respond. In our action we not only strengthen our own resolve to wait but also encourage others. I appreciate descriptions of Advent as a journey because we are each day walking closer and closer to Bethlehem. A journey has a starting point and an end point which take time to travel in between. As fellow travelers, we help one another by providing encouragement, support, and working together to do more than we can alone. That community found in doing this thing together is often the greatest source of joy. The family we build and create together for ourselves and those with whom we journey increases joy for all of us.

The joy of Christmas is coming soon, very soon, but let’s not get too caught up in that yet. Let’s take a moment to enjoy where we are now. Any journey has beautiful scenic stops along the way—if we take the time to enjoy them. Advent is about an invitation to stop and smell the proverbial roses, a time to slow down and just rest in the moment before it all changes. Not only can we experience that joy for ourselves, but we can create joy for others. In doing so, I believe we can truly appreciate Christmas in richer, deeper ways.

For the majority of us at Sacred Place, this Advent and Christmas season is very different. It’s the first after closing our ministry in San Dimas and the beginning of a new one in Rancho Cucamonga. While we have brought many traditions with us, so many things are new. All of the physical stuff from the Christmas tree, Advent wreath, and other decorations to our approaches to the various worship services. There is joy to be found in the new faces who are with us this year. Really, joy is all around us, if we pause to look around and notice it, and then, in turn, share it with others. I pray that you can find that joy for yourselves, and that I and the people of Sacred Place might be part of it. For this is your Sacred Place.