She came up to me at the end of a joyous Christmas service. She had just returned from a mission week in Haiti, one of the poorest places in the Western world.
“How dare you, with all the suffering and hunger in the world, speak of joy? The joy of this service was offensive.” I could see her point. With all the suffering in the world, how dare we Christians express joy? Our joy seems in sensitive and uncaring.
In recent years, we preachers have been encouraged do “share your story,” to expose ourselves and our struggles to the gaze of the congregation, to preach “inductively,” inviting the congregation to link its experience with our personal experience in democratically shared conversation, to be “authentic,” that is, self-revealing in the pulpit.
Little in Advent scripture supports such preaching. John the Baptist, at least in John’s introduction of him (John 1:6-8, 19-28), is intent on convincing us that, “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:8).The Baptizer’s Jordan congregation is too sunk in old configurations of power, old officially sanctioned readings of the texts, to see anything new without the aid of external light.
Perhaps that is why there is so little real joy in our congregations. If we do experience joy, it is too often the ersatz high of a merely emotional rush brought on by an effective music program–joy induced by a pleasing soprano voice backed up by a pre-recorded tape. If the only theology we have to preach is of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps variety, then we are doomed. Doom produces gloom. In our better moments, we know that the ultimate sources of our mourning are more than psychological–they are political, social, maybe even cosmic. This society tries to convince us that if we are hungry for something more than present arrangements, if we gaze at the full shop windows and can’t find anything we really want, if we wander through the shopping malls in a daze, it is a personal problem, something amiss in our psyche, something in need of corrective therapy.
What if our problem is more than psychological? What if what’s wrong with us is what’s wrong in the whole society, something out of kilter in the cosmos? What if our pain will be soothed by nothing less than the advent of God? The offer of anything less is cheap substitute, a set-up for even greater despair.
Real, full-throated, full-orbed, let loose joy is a gift to those who have heard the testimony that our God comes.
Which returns us to the question with which we began: How dare we, in a suffering, hurting world rejoice?
The question has within itself an answer. Dare is the right word. If we Christians are joyful, ours is not the simple-minded, bubble-brained cheerfulness of those who deny the world’s hunger and pain or who think that somehow, it’s all for the best. Joy is to us a gift, a Christmas gift of a God who is never content to leave us be, who intrudes, offers, creates.
Sometimes the Spirit intrudes, gives voice to a joy not of our own creation. Sometimes a light surprises our all too accustomed darkness for the first time in a long time, we see. Sometimes we experience so much of the near presence of God that we never stop rejoicing, and even in the worst of circumstances, we dare to give thanks.
“Dare to believe it possible.” The one who calls you if faithful, and he will do this” (I Thess. 5:24).
Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied” (Luke 6:20). This Sunday in Advent, let us dare to rejoice.
William H. Willimon