The recent hailstorm peppered the church roof so badly that it needed to be fixed up. Alan couldn’t wait for the insurance company to make its final determination, so he decided to get up on the roof to repaint it. Alan wanted to save money for the church, so he thinned the paint down. It started to rain again when Alan was halfway through, so he had to find some cover. After the rain stopped, he looked out. He was horrified to see the paint had run in a series of soggy streaks. While he was still staring aghast at the roof, a voice rang out from heaven: “Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!”
I don’t know if the voice was God’s or John the Baptist’s. Ask Alan afterwards whose voice he thinks it was.
On the Third Sunday of Advent, the RCL readings have two themes: ‘repent’ (not ‘repaint’!) and ‘joy’. Isn’t that strange? Do repentance and joy go together? And if so, how?
John the Baptist is the messenger of repentance; but what about ‘joy’? Joy is the note that plays in each of the other scripture readings in the Lectionary for today.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the joy of drawing water from wells that bring healing and salvation. And later, at Jacob’s Well, Jesus will speak with the Samaritan woman of the ‘living water’ that wells up in the heart of the believer.
And Zephaniah proclaims:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you, he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
Read Zephaniah sometime. It’s full of the anger of God against leaders who fail the poor and needy. Yet through Zephaniah, God declares Joy! for the downtrodden. And later, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would say,
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And what about the Apostle Paul? While he was a jailbird for his faith, Paul wrote this to the Philippians:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Paul wrote these words while he was in jail, not knowing if he’d live or die. Rejoice! He wrote these words to people who weren’t having the easiest of times themselves. Legalistic teachers were troubling them. They weren’t sure about the teaching on grace that Paul had shared with them, teaching which came from the way of life of the Lord Jesus himself.
Some of them couldn’t get on, and Paul names them. Euodia and Syntyche were women who worked tirelessly for the gospel, but they were at loggerheads with each other.
But Paul says,
Rejoice in the Lord always.
Rejoice in the way of the Lord. Rejoice in the love of the Lord. Rejoice that the Lord is your destiny and that his Spirit is in you and among you.
Rejoice in the Lord. That’s quite a different message from the usual one we hear at this time of the year.
We usually hear something more like this: Drop a hint that you’d like X for Christmas. You’ll be overjoyed when you get it!
We link joy to things. We want to ‘get’ joy, we think joy will come with the right consumer fantasy item.
What does often come is happiness. We mistake happiness for joy. We’re happy when we get an iPad or some other consumable. But joy is something deeper and more mysterious. Joy is a gift. You can’t pursue joy. You can’t work to get it.
Joy is something that comes when you are in the right place.
(Wait a minute, Paul was in jail! Am I saying that jail was just the right place for him to be joyful? No, I’m not; I’d suggest that most people in jail don’t feel particularly ‘joyful’.)
So what is that ‘right place’ we need to be in so that we can receive joy? It’s this place: it’s where we notice that little phrase just after “Rejoice in the Lord always”. It’s this:
The Lord is near.
The Lord is near.
That was the right place for Paul to be in. Paul had faith that the Lord is near, even in a prison cell. That brought him joy in the Lord.
The Philippians could have been a bit glum, beset as they were by false teachers and argumentative leaders. But Paul says “Rejoice”. The Lord is near.
The rest follows. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious. Give thanks, whatever is happening. The Lord is near. Let the Lord know your needs. You will know the peace of God that way.
Paul is saying that we need a change of our mindset. Instead of focussing on our troubles, living as though God is far away, we need to rethink things. The Lord is near. Rejoice.
And there is how joy and repentance come together. To ‘re-pent’ is to ‘re-think’. To repent is to see life and God and others and ourselves in a new way.
Repentance is not easy. ‘Rethinking’ is hard. It can be difficult to hear these words in a world in which children are mown down with semi-automatic weapons in the USA. But joy is not happiness. There’s an element of faith in joy, an element of knowing—in John Wesley’s final words—“The best is yet to come.” We know joy in a vale of tears.
Paul had repented of believing in a god who was distant, a god who demanded certain codes of behaviour, a god who was impressed with badges Paul had worn before with pride—badges of family honour and great achievements. He had to rethink things once he had met Jesus, the risen crucified Lord, who had come to be one of us and one with us.
When we look at life in a new way, a renewed way, joy is something that comes to us.
And isn’t that what Christmas is about? Matthew tells us:
they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
God is with us. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst! The Lord is near. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!