…the joy of freedom
December 17, 2017
Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Truly this is a special time of the year. Advent and Christmas have long been creators of fond memories for many of us as we once again hear the old stories of the birth of our Lord and sing again the timeless carols of anticipation and miracle. Today marks the third Sunday in the season of Advent and our candle theme for this day is ‘Joy’. The first week we lit a candle of hope, and then last week we lit a candle for peace, noting that true peace is so much a part of God’s planned kingdom and so tightly tied in with the pursuit of universal justice and goodness towards all peoples.
Today we take a moment to consider ‘joy’. That strange phenomenon whereby we are filled with unexplained happiness due to the circumstances of our lives or quiet confidence in the plans God has for us. John’s gospel refers to joy as being ‘like a river that overflows’; an assurance that there is a heaven-sent joy we might experience which no one can take away from us. And in some ways during this time of anticipation and preparation during Advent there is also often a sense that joy is building around us, increasing as we draw closer to Christmas Day itself.
However, it is not that way for everyone. In fact joy can be quite unfamiliar or at best just an occasional visitor for some of our friends and neighbors. As much as this time of year raises the hopes and dreams of so many, so too can it foretell of sadness and despair for many others for whom the holidays are often sad reminders of loss or great trial. For many around us the underlying substance of life can be anything but joyful as circumstances or conditions of one’s life make it difficult to find or to dwell in the happiness of this season that is enjoyed by so many others.
And in some ways I think that joy, or the ability to feel and experience the joy of our Lord is intimately tied into freedom…freedom that allows us to turn our hearts and minds to the promises of our faith…that same freedom that stood out as the central core and message of the ministry of Jesus. Now truthfully freedom is a word that can be defined broadly as it can be applied across a wide range of ideas, but I think you will see that joy and freedom really do go hand in hand.
One of the most common understandings of freedom as it relates to our faith, is the understanding that Jesus brought freedom to humanity in the form of salvation, the belief that Jesus set us free from bondage not just to sin and sinful ways but free from bondage to death itself as well, by speaking of life in relationship with God as being eternal. And no matter what one believes about other aspects of the Christian faith tradition, on this one point all seem to be in agreement…that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus showed us the way back into a full and eternal relationship with our God through love, mercy, and the full unconditional forgiveness of our past sins and sinful tendencies.
But the understanding of God’s saving work among us is only one of the ways in which we think of freedom. Another very common and near universal understanding of freedom comes from how a people relates to or is governed by the powers that are over them. Here in America we tend to think of freedom as our way of life, as one that was enshrined in our Constitution, preserved at great sacrifice over the years, and known as ‘democracy’.
And yet, even with all of the promises of our faith and our location in a nation known the world over as being truly free…there are still many among us who do not know real freedom as a part of their life and experience. Now, for our purposes today I am not talking of the topic of incarceration or actual imprisonment as a part of our criminal justice system for that is a topic worthy of its own time and space…but rather of other aspects of life which may exert control over us…control over our attention, our happiness, and our freedom to be all that God has in mind for us. For in truth it is these other things, these other aspects of our lives which can greatly limit us and rob us of real freedom within that makes ‘joy’ seem so far away at times.
Our communion table today lists just a few of the things which can stand in the way of us finding joy in our lives…things that can act as binding cords or restrictions upon our inner sense of being…things that serve as virtual prisons unto themselves…conditions or circumstances of our lives over which we feel little or no control and that keep us in places quite far from joy, hope, or peace. Many are the things that can keep us in a place of deep sadness; many are the ‘prisons’ within which we may find our hopes and dreams walled off from the rest of society. These ties that bind us can include such things as fear or sadness, or loneliness due to the loss of a loved one…perhaps depression caused by chronic illness or poverty, or past or present abusive relationships…maybe we are limited or held back by a deep sense of low self-esteem or an unfulfilled longing for family approval, or even, and especially at this time of year a lack of sufficient resources to live within even a modest comfort zone in a place of safety and warmth.
And as much as our Lord Jesus came with revolutionary fervor to stand against ruling powers both in the state and the church that greatly oppressed the people from without…surely these inner forces of fear, sadness, and longing are of equal concern to our Lord of Love. Our text from Isaiah speaks directly to this intent of our Lord to set us free from all that binds us, to extend comfort and freedom through which we might be able to receive the promised gladness of heart and the welling up from within of praise for the goodness of our God. And it was this same text from which Jesus read in his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, emphasizing for us that the pursuit of both freedom and joy for all God’s children was foremost in his intent and purposes.
So…these other, darker forces at work upon the life and inner soul of so many among us are real and quite present, not just at this time of year but perhaps in sharper relief during this season…which puts forth the question of how we might engage with these ‘prisons of sadness’ or ‘binding cords of despair’, either as those who suffer or as those among us who are called to extend Godly love and understanding.
And speaking only from my experience of faith and not as a medical or counseling professional in any sense, I think it is important first to acknowledge that these things which have such a hold on the lives of some among us and within our community are real and not to be lightly dismissed. We need to be as sensitive to the hurt and pain as we are to the belief that the Holy Spirit is capable of empowering us to extend needed love and compassion. We need to be quick to hear and to see the need as reflected in the eyes or words of our brothers and sisters, and sensitive to the guidance of our Lord in how best to be the presence of grace towards those still somewhere seeking the joy and promised peace of our Lord. We need to trust in our Lord that our openness and willingness to be the listening, loving, compassionate and sensitive light of Christ for another, will perhaps begin to open the doors and unlock the places of hope and healing within another.
For it truly is our Lord’s desire and will that we all be made whole in his love, that we all might share together in the promises of our faith and the wondrous hope of which we are reminded at Christmas, that nothing might come between us and that overflowing ‘river of joy’ that results from truly knowing the freedom our Lord has offered to each one of us.
Let us always and in all ways be mindful of the needs of each of our brothers and sisters around us, both in our community and in the whole world of God’s children…
…and let us be quick to listen, sensitive to the heart-song of another, and ready to give fully of ourselves in the sacrifice of love and compassion…
…that the joy of the Lord might burn ever brighter as truly together we await the birth of our Lord.