As we reflect on the
joy that we have in the Lord, traditionally on the 3rd Sunday of Advent,
the text traditionally focuses on that joy in some way. And this
morning's text, from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, is a
classic example of that, where we read:
14And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
For most of us, I think, this is a
season to be merry. A season of joy. But we all know that
for some, the holidays can be a very difficult time, and especially this
year. With each new day bringing more dismal news of business
failures, layoffs, foreclosures, long lines at the soup kitchens and
unemployment offices, the Christmas spirit may be in short supply.
There was even a report in the news
this week that Santa himself is having a hard time finding work.
That the Malls are cutting back on expenses, and so Santa has been laid
off. What is this world coming to when you can't find Santa Claus
in the Mall?!
So where do we find joy in times like
Judging from all the songs we sing and
we hear in this season, joy is found in the past. Christmas is a
time for wallowing in nostalgia, unlike any other time of the year.
I mean, when was the last time you roasted chestnuts over an open fire?
Or went dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh? We
sing those songs as if it's something we do every winter.
Or, if we take our clue from the ads,
for which a small forest gave its life ever Sunday, joy can be found in
a 50-inch plasma T.V. Or a diamond necklace. Or a cordless
power tool set (we hope J).
Yet, will any of those things comfort you when you are sick? Hold
your hand when you are scared? Cheer you up when you are
We all know that true joy cannot be
found in such materialistic things. True joy comes in a pair of
tickets on the 50-yard line at the Holiday Bowl
We can wish. Assuming, of course, that the Ducks win.
All of these things can bring us
pleasure, no matter how fleeting, but I'm talking about that real joy
that comes from deep within us. The joy that a bad game, a bad day
at the office, even being laid off or a serious illness, cannot take
away from us.
So where do we find that kind of joy,
that can carry us through even the greatest hardship? Even though
I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.
Why? Because God's rod and staff comfort us. Are there with
That kind of joy that allows us to
rejoice in all circumstances. Note the text does not say
"because" of all circumstances. But often in spite of those
You know the difference between a
pessimist and an optimist? You take a little girl into a room
filled with horse manure. A pessimist will say "Oh, great, I
suppose you want me to clean that up?". Where the optimist will
run around and say "Whoopee! Whoopee! There's got to be a
pony in here somewhere!".
For all those looking for the pony, and
those worried about who is going to clean up the mess we have made of
this world, hear the good news of Advent: we are called to rejoice
not because of all the wonderful things that have happened in the past,
all the wonderful things we have received in this life or expect to
receive this Christmas, but Advent is not about what was or even what
is, Advent is about what is to be. The coming of God into our
world that will bring complete transformation to the world.
As described in that text in Isaiah, of
a day that will reverse the fortunes of the oppressed and the
brokenhearted. A day that will turn mourning into gladness.
A day where we will see our ancient ruins rebuilt and our ancient cities
Christmas is about the first coming of
God in Christ that began this process of transformation. Paul is
talking here about the second coming that completes it. Now,
whether you understand that second coming literally or metaphorically
(as I have said many times before), the point is that we live in the
in-between times. Between the first and second coming. And
because of Jesus, because of that first coming, we know what we are
called to be and to do in order to realize that vision of the reign of
God to come. But because of the promise of that second coming,
which last Sunday you may
recall that I argued for as the fulfillment of the promise of the angels
of 'peace on earth and goodwill to all', we know that God is not
finished with us yet. That God is still at work, creating and
transforming this world. To bring about the new heaven and new
earth where God will dwell among us. Death itself will be no more.
Of course the great paradox of the
gospels is precisely that the transformation began with the death of the
One who came to inaugurate it. Just as the birth of Christ to an
unknown common teenage girl from Nazareth was totally unexpected, so too
the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Which is why I've
always found the symbol of the empty cross and the empty tomb so
powerful. It points to the transformation possible in God.
That those who take like are not in control of this world. Those
who torture and kill will not prevail. Those who terrorize and
destroy will ultimately fail. Why? Because we know the way
of Jesus. We know the way of God that will prevail. And
because we know that way, and trust in that way, we know the joy, in
spite of everything else that may be.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his
famous Christmas poem at a time when most people in our nation
despaired. A nation torn apart by Civil War, much of it lying in
ruins, the President assassinated. And Longfellow writes:
I heard the bells on Christmas
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men
And thought how, as the day
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!’
Till, ringing, singing on its
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Because God is not dead and is still at
work, we can rejoice. The world is revolving, from night to day,
I was asked to give
address for the community celebration of the 60th anniversary of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights this week. That meant I
had to bone-up on just what that declaration said, and what has
transpired because of it since its adoption on December 10th 1948.
And I tell ya, I was quite impressed what I learned in the process.
I learned the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights had been translated into over 360 languages -- more than
even the Bible. It has served as an inspiration in many countries
for their own liberation movements and democratic reforms. The
best example of which being South Africa -- they used the Universal
Declaration as a basis for its new constitution, written under the
leadership of Nelson Mandela. It has spawned a whole series of
international treaties and agreements on political and civil rights,
economic, social and cultural rights, discrimination against women, the
abolition of torture and racial discrimination, the rights of children,
and the rights of migrants.
Every nation of the world has ratified
at least one of these treaties, and 80% have ratified 4 or more.
And once they have been ratified, they become legally binding upon that
nation. And thus it forms the basis of international human rights
I also discovered that the basic
foundation for this Universal Declaration was laid out by our President
-- Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his State of the Union address in
1941, before we entered into World War II. He described four
foundational freedoms, a vision that he laid out for a more peaceful,
freer world, even as we prepared for war. And here's what he said
in January 1941:
In the future days, which we
seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four
essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and
expression--everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of
every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want--which, translated into universal
terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every
nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in
the world. The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated
into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such
a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a
position to commit an act of physical aggression against any
neighbor--anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant
millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in
our own time and generation.
Seven years later, it fell to his wife,
Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the committee who wrote the Declaration
of Human Rights, then adopted by the United Nations without dissent.
Those 4 freedoms are cited at the
beginning of that declaration as its foundation: the freedom of
speech and belief, the freedom from fear and want.
Now, we certainly have a long way to go
to fulfill that vision even in our own country. But my point is,
consider how far we have come. Especially since 1941, and even
since 1948. Martin Luther King said it well when he said:
"The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice".
We may be progressing slowly, but ever
so slowly we are moving towards the promise of God of peace on earth and
goodwill to all. There will be recessions, there will be more wars
and other setbacks, but if you look at the long arc of human history
(especially over the last 2,000 years) of that steady progression
towards democracy, equality, justice, and freedom, there is much reason
At that human rights event on Wednesday
night at Caesar Chavez Elementary School (which, by the way, I love the
symbolism of that, particularly given that there was quite a struggle in
our community to name the school Caesar Chavez, and how powerful a
symbol that is that here we were in this place where we're planting the
seeds of equality for future generations in that school) one of our
members came up to me, beaming from ear-to-ear, all excited, and she
said "Have you read Newsweek?".
The cover of
Newsweek about gay marriage, because of what it meant for her gay
son and the possibilities of the changing attitudes in our society and
the hope she had for her own child.
We saw a video of a Native American
tribe in northern California, of their first coming-of-age ceremony held
since the 1920s, when they gathered as a tribal community for this young
teenager coming of age. And the entire thing held over 4 days,
filmed by a Eugene filmmaker, of this tribe as it was being reborn,
reclaiming its cultural heritage and its tradition of protecting the
river coming off of Mt. Shasta where its tribal grounds are.
And then the next night, the
Service, here, we had a group of Jewish children singing a lively
Hanukah song. Now think for a moment about that, the symbolism of
that. It was not too long ago in our world when most Jewish
children would be in fear of churches, or at least were taught that they
were unwelcome in a church, and here we had this group of Jewish
children singing of their faith, here in a Christian church. What
a powerful symbol of a new world.
My daughter, God willing on her way
home from college, is headed to Argentine at the end of February, for a
semester of study abroad. When I was her age, 19, I went to work
for the general office of our Christian church youth ministry office, in
the building known as the "mission's building". Literally was the
place where missionaries had been trained for a century.
Missionaries would come through, and I'd get a chance to meet them, hear
their stories as they were on furlough, etc. And one of the first
missionaries I met was from Argentina, who came to the United States
specifically to appeal to church leaders to gain their support in his
effort to gain the freedom of his daughter, who had been imprisoned by
the Argentine government because they wanted her to reveal the
whereabouts of her boyfriend who was involved in some radical activity
-- seeking democracy in Argentina.
And she had been held for a year
secretly -- they had no contact with her, didn't even know if she was
alive. Fortunately, because of the efforts of church people
putting pressure on our government, in turn putting pressure on the
Argentine government, she was then released. Was one of the
fortunate ones. During that period, more than 10,000 people
'disappeared' in their secret, dirty war.
Think about the change in that country
that has occurred since I was 19. . . about a decade ago
And now my daughter going there.
Adolfo Perez Esquivel was the 1980
Nobel Peace Prize recipient for his work in his country, in
Argentina. He was held for 15 months, tortured by the
government, because of his social justice work. A devout Roman
Catholic, Esquivel says:
Because of our faith in
Christ and humankind, we must apply our human efforts to the
construction of a more just and humane world.
[And then, like FDR, he
And I want to declare
emphatically, such a world is possible.
It is indeed. Because God is
still at work, leading us toward such a world, transforming countries
like Argentina and South Africa, and even our own.
When every human rights advocate
imprisoned for his or her speech and actions is set free, when children
no longer have to be afraid because of the faith of their families, when
parents no longer have to fear for the safety of their children because
of their sexual orientation, when every homeless person seeking shelter
finds it, when every person is judged by the strength of their character
and not the color of their skin, when we see the right to healthcare the
same as we see the right to education, when we see every person not only
as created equal but we see that we are treated equal, when we have not
only freedom of speech and belief but freedom from fear and want, then
we will know that we are that much closer to the reign of God and the
return of Christ, and peace on earth and goodwill for all.
That is the joy of Advent. Not a
romanticized past depicted in rusty, starry scenes of mangers on
greeting cards, but the new day of God, and the complete transformation
of the world.
Rejoice, people of God. Because
the One who calls us is faithful. Together, with God, we will see
May it be.