Don't Get Your Joy From John
There is debate concerning what Sunday the Third Sunday of Advent really is. Is it Joy Sunday as the old Lutheran hymnal celebrated, or is it John the Baptist Sunday as the new Lutheran hymnal has it? Well, the Prayer of the Day is all about John, but you see the pink candle on the Advent wreath lit. This is the only one of the 4 that specifically means something. The purple of repentance is brightened by the white of divine mercy to a pink or rose color. We're going with the joy theme on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, but it really doesn't matter. You can go with either Joy or John the Baptist today; just don't try to get your joy from John.
People do that you know this time of year. They want a joyous holiday season. They don't want to be mired in depression or despair. So they turn to things that read very much like the first part of our text. Did you catch the sharp commands, the stark imperatives? Translated literally we read, "You must always be joyful; you must pray non-stop; in all things you must give thanks; the Spirit you must not quench; you must not treat prophesies with contempt; you must test all things; you must hold on to only the good; and you must avoid all appearance of evil." This is John the Baptist type preaching. John came telling the man with two tunics to share. He told the tax-gathers to collect only what they had been ordered to. And told soldiers not to extort money, not to accuse anyone falsely, and to be content with their wages.
All that Paul says in our text, all that John preached is good, sound advice. There is wisdom and there is joy in keeping the Law. Rather than get upset when the rolls burn and the turkey is cold, "Be joyful always." Rather than let that medical test ruin your holiday, "Pray always." Rather than become upset with that relative who is always criticizing your child, don't put out the Spirit's fire; trust that He can even change them. Rather than despair over your sins, believe that Jesus came to bear them; stop treating the prophesies that speak of this with contempt. And stop swallowing everything people say about what makes a joyful holiday; test everything; hold on only to the good; avoid every kind of evil.
What great, wonderful advice! Surely, there is much joy in following it. Your holiday really would be much more joyful if you just were happy in every situation, prayed more, relied on the Spirit more, tested everything, and rejected what was bad. And that's exactly how some people read their Bibles as a "how to" manual, as a "Step by Step Program for Joyful Living." And it's true; if you could do all that St. Paul commands you would be much happier this Christmas. The wisdom of the Law is profound, wholesome, the best way on earth to live. But what does Romans 8 say? The Law can't rescue you from sin, from death, from sadness, or from any personal problem you might have from alcoholism to zealotry. Why? Because as Paul says the Law is powerless because of the weakness of our sinful flesh.
As we sing in one of our hymns, "The Law is but a mirror bright to bring our inbred sin to light that lurks within our nature." Friends, the result of reading our text as a "How to be Happy" list, the result of following any Step by Step program, any rules to change behavior, or even any eat this and don't eat that diet won't be your getting better and better everyday. Let me rephrase that: the result better not be your getting better and better everyday. Like we sing in another hymn, we shouldn't attempt to draw our life and comfort from the law. Why? Because as the hymn also says: "what curses does the Law denounce against the man that fails but once."
Friend, if you find comfort, peace, satisfaction or joy in the Law, in rules for healthy living, in step by step programs to happiness, in any program that tells you do this and don't do that, you have fallen under the bewitching spell of the Law. You have come to John the Baptist thundering in the wilderness against sins and said, "I'm not so bad after all." You haven't gotten to the point that Paul says the Law is to bring us. The Law is to increase sin in us to the point that we collapse and are crushed under them. But as long as we are seeing the Law, any rules, any how to program, as a way to be happier, to be better, to change our behavior, we are still alive and kicking under the Law. It has not done what God intended to do with it: crush us, kill us, bring us to the point of realizing that there is nothing we can do to be better or happier.
When we don't see that the Law is powerless to change our behavior, help us be happier, or to live differently, then we're also missing the fact that the Law is powerless against sin. That's dangerous because then we try to deal with sin by means of the Law. A William Somerset Maughm short story illustrates what happens when we do this. In "Rain" a missionary meets a prostitute. The missionary lives by the Law of God and preaches it powerfully. He uses the Law on the prostitute, and lo and behold for awhile it works. The woman is changed. But in the end the missionary who championed the Law as the way to help the woman is overcome by his own lust for her. The story ends with the missionary slashing his throat.
One way or another the Law only works death not life, sadness not gladness, judgement not joy. Joy is not found in John the Baptist's preaching of the Law; it's found in the God he points to. This is true of our text as well. Can you see that it neatly divides into two parts. The first part has all those sharp commands about what we are suppose to do and not do. The second part, however, is all about what the God of peace does for us.
In Greek this change is more dramatic than what you see in English. After Paul laundry lists all that we MUST do, he goes on to say, "BUT God Himself, the God of peace, will sanctify you through and through so that you will be blameless at the second coming of Jesus." Do you see how Paul by starting that section with the word "but" contrasts all that we are suppose to do but can't, with all that God does?
Actually, Paul says it even more powerfully than that. Paul twice in the last paragraph of our text uses a rarely used Greek construction. Paul indicates twice in this last paragraph that from his point of view he is certain, without any doubts whatsoever that God will sanctify you, make you holy through and through, so that you certainly will be totally blameless at the Second Coming of Jesus. Paul is not, as the bulletin translates, merely expressing what he wishes God would do. No, he is stating in the strongest way the Greek can what God will do. This can be seen in the very last sentence even in our bulletin. It is NOT as we so often think that God just calls us to be holy and blameless. No indeed, God Himself will do this: He will make us holy. He will make us blameless. This is the Gospel. This is where your life and comfort are. This is where your Joy is this holiday season.
Right now. Drop all of your "how to" lists. Run away from all your step by step programs. Flee from all of the "do this" and "don't do that" commands which you have on Post-it notes all over your life. None of that is the Gospel. None of that can save. O they might help for a time in an earthly sort of way. But who cares? The issue is not being better persons for a time; the issue is being saved for all eternity. And what does St. Paul boldly proclaim to sinners like us? To us sinners who aren't always joyful, don't pray continually, fail to give thanks in all circumstances, St. Paul says, "You're holy." To us sinners who do put out the Spirit's fire, do treat prophesies with contempt, fail to test everything, don't hold on to the good, and don't avoid evil always, St. Paul's says, "You will be blameless on Judgement Day."
Friends, we lack joy in our life, we know more sadness than gladness, precisely because we attempt to draw our life and comfort from the Law. It's rules, it's advice, it's programs can only in the end show us that we're not all that we're suppose to be. But look what the Gospel does! No, don't look; let me show you.
The God of peace by sending His only beloved Son into the world to keep the Law for you and pay for your breaking of it has made you holy in Him. In your Baptism, the God of peace covered not just your body, not just your soul, but your spirit too with the holy, righteous life of Christ. There is not one part of you that does not shine with all the holiness, all the goodness, all the perfectness of Jesus.
Now that just seems plain impossible to you, doesn't it? You know your sins both of today and a thousand yesterdays. They aren't just spots here and there are on your body, soul, and spirit. No, they're big, ugly, disfiguring scars, stains, and deformities. How can the God of peace undo all this? What's worse; you can tell you're not getting better, can't you? The Law still exposes you as the same sinner you've always been.
But what does Paul say? "But God Himself, the God of peace, will sanctify you through and through so that your spirit, body and soul will be certainly kept blameless in the Second Coming of Christ." Friends, God makes you holy by keeping you set aside in a place where no blame for your sins can reach you. The blame never reaches you. That's in what sense you are holy. It's not that you haven't sinned; it's not that you don't sin. It's not that you're getting better and better everyday as you follow the Law. It's not that you can look at yourself and see not as many sins as last year. No, you are holy because God keeps you in a place, under Christ, where none of blame you deserve for your sins can reach you.
Ah, but so many of you can only see all that you are, are not, or should be under the Law. There can be no joy in that at all. Stop trying to get your joy from John. Don't go looking to John and his Law for anything but sin. Go to the Gospel which promises you that you will be blameless at the Second Coming of Jesus. Those imperfections, those flaws, those ugly sins that you know so well will not be found by God on the Last Day. Those things that trouble your conscience, those sins that are so big heavy and obvious will not be seen by anybody on the Last Day. In fact, you will be standing in heaven, and you're going to hear the angels whispering one to another, "My how much like Jesus she is," Or "My how much like Jesus he is." And you'll look around trying to find out who in the world the angels are taking about only to be amazed that it's you they are speaking of!
That's just how blameless you will be on the Last Day before the judgment throne. Clothed in your Baptism, cleansed and covered by the blood Jesus shed on the cross, there won be even one sin showing. There is joy in this. There is no joy in remembering all that you are not or all that you should be. There is no joy in lists that tell you what to do or how to be. There is joy in being told that you are completely sanctified and kept blameless in Christ.. Friends, God isn't waiting for you be better before He has joy in you. No, in Jesus He is as pleased as He can ever be with you right now. Now that's a joyful thought! Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent III, 12-12-99, I Thess. 5: 16-24