Joyful Obedience (Sunday Night Worship 12/13)

Joyful Obedience

Luke 3: 7-18

I saw an ad on T.V. this week referring to this time we’re in now as “a season of surprise.”  Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed that as much had I not been halfway through writing a sermon at that point in the week.  But my ears pricked up and I thought what a strange and incorrect description that is – from a Christian point of view.

Think about the story.  Prophets have been declaring the coming of a messiah for centuries.  John’s out in the desert reiterating this promise.  An angel comes to Mary and tells her exactly what will be happening – the Holy Spirit will overcome her and she’ll conceive and then give birth to a child who will be the savior of all the world.  And that is exactly what happens.

Startling news.  Wow, the time is finally here! Overwhelming news to take in.  What an amazing God we worship who behaves like this and is now coming to live among us! Illogical news.  Why Mary?  Why would God become human?  Why are we and all the world worth all that?

But “surprising”?  Definitely not.  We’re told exactly what will happen and it does.  Where is the surprise in that?  The angel doesn’t show up after Mary has given birth to yell, “Surprise!  It’s a boy!”  It’s all foretold and God’s promises come to be.

Of course I get what the commercial was driving at:  people are giving gifts and there is an element of surprise at what we receive from one another.  But I have to say, compared to the startling, illogical, overwhelming, world-changing good news of what God is doing, that doesn’t really register.  And “surprise” starts to seem pretty pale and thin compared to joy.

Today marks the 3rd Sunday of Advent.  “Joy Sunday,” as it is sometimes called.  It’s referred to that way because of the first word in today’s lectionary reading from Philippians:  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4: 4).  Some congregations mark this Sunday with a pink candle amidst the other purple ones, the thinking being that pink is more “joyful” than purple, which is a penitential color for this penitential season.  (It’s also the color for royalty, in this season awaiting our king.)

As you can see, we’ve chosen to stay with purple for all four Sundays.  For us, and for other congregations using purple for all four candles, we aren’t ignoring joy or refusing to recognize the joyful themes of this particular Sunday.  Rather, I like to think of it as a specific discipline, the practice of joy in the midst of life.

Isn’t that our calling as Christians?  To live in the tension of the already-not yet of God’s kingdom come?  As those who know the end of the story, we are free to be joyful even during fearful, sad, and desolate times.  Because we have tasted the “already” we choose joy in the face of the “not yet” of God’s reign.  Because joy isn’t merely happiness or festive surprise or enthusiasm or excitement.  As one scholar puts it, “[J]oy is not as much an attitude as an enacted choice” (www.gbod/worship.org).

This is the kind of choice John outlines for the baptismal crowds in our passage from Luke.  It doesn’t sound like it starts well, when John turns toward the throng and calls them a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3: 7).  He follows that up by putting them in their place, letting them know that simply being a descendant of Abraham won’t get them squat.  “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” he warns them (3: 8).  In other words, God will find children in the least likely places so don’t pride yourself on your ancestry:  you’re in the same category as lifeless stones.

Understandably, the people have questions.  “What then should we do?” they ask (3:10).  Did you hear the answer earlier?  It’s amazingly simple and specific.

John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (3: 11).  That was the whole answer, applicable to all present.  If you have extra, give it to someone who doesn’t; if you have something someone else needs, share it.

Maybe the crowd was filled with ambitious, super-achieving UVA students, because as simple but difficult as that instruction is, they weren’t content to go on back to town and figure out how to live that way, one hard day at a time.  Nope, they want more.  More instructions, more clarification.

So the tax collectors ask him again, the exact same question:  What should we do?  And John, knowing exactly who he was talking to elaborates on the original answer:  “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (3: 13).  In other words, do your job honestly and ethically; just because many in your position abuse their power, it doesn’t mean you have to.

Then the soldiers take their turn:  What should we do then?  And John says, specifically to them:  “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (3: 14).  Again, do your job honestly and ethically.  John calls out the common sins of their profession and warns them against that way of life.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the instructions are exactly the same when they are all boiled down?  Who knows what the questioners were after.  Were they so impressed with John and the promises of God he announced that they wanted as much preaching and information as they could get?  Is this why they asked so many questions – clarification and specific marching orders?  Or were they so afraid by his warning and the promises of God that they kept asking in hopes that they’d eventually hear something easier to live by?  After all, it’s hard enough to give away your extra coat and share the food on your table with hungry strangers.  Why would they have any questions after hearing that, other than “How in the world will I do that?”

Obedience is a word we tend to ignore these days.  Even in Christian circles.  It feels confining, oppressive, constricting.  It doesn’t leave enough room for our own choice and personality.  It seems old-fashioned and best left unresurrected in the past.

But it’s a faulty definition we use that leads us to that thinking.  The word “obedience” comes from a Latin word meaning both “to obey” and “to listen…The pre-fix ob- means ‘in the direction of’…So obedience conjures up an image of leaning toward somebody, straining to hear what they are saying” (Finding Sanctuary, Abbot Christopher Jamison, p. 76).  That image feels like Advent to me:  listening intently enough that your posture leans in toward God, waiting to hear the next word.  It is also, of course, a good description of the Christian life:  a long leaning in toward God.

Maybe we can be obedient after all.

I recently watched a great movie I hope we can view for Faith in Film later.  It’s called The Answer Man and tells the story of a best-selling author who writes a spiritual book called Me and God and then has fans hounding him for answers to life’s hardest questions.  At one point a recovering alcoholic makes a bargain with the reclusive author that involves coming by to ask one question per day.  One day the recovering addict rings the doorbell and asks, simply, “Free will or fate?”  And the author answers, “Free will, moving toward or away from a purpose” (The Answer Man).  That’s never been a particularly sticky question for me but I loved the answer.  We are free to make our own choices and those choices will move us closer to or further away from our purpose, our calling.

So if we’re considering the deeper more theological definition of obedience, we are either leaning in to listen more carefully to God or we are pulling back and choosing not to listen.  Gods’ still there and we’re still responsible for moving either way.  It just depends on whose voice we listen to.  It’s our choice.

A long leaning in toward God is a joyful life.  Not happy in every moment, not rid of all fear, not safe from stumbling and sinning again.  But joyfully obedient.  Leaning in towards God to listen with trust and hope beyond the confines of the moment in which we find ourselves.

In our historic United Methodist communion liturgy there is a prayer of confession in which we ask:  “Free us for joyful obedience” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 8).  Free us to listen to your own voice, God, and to lean in even more when we can’t hear you well.  Free us from our own desires when they are not your desire for us.  Free us from the pain and incompleteness of the world in which we live, so that we live here now joyfully aware that there is a deeper reality into which you call us, even now.  Free us soldiers from extorting those in our care.  Free us tax collectors from greed.  Free those of us with two coats so that we can joyfully give away one of them to someone who needs it.  Free us to make room at our tables for those who are hungry.  Free us for joyful obedience, God, because there is no other joy than what we find when our lives lean in closer toward you.

This is a prayer we need to utter.  Especially in this high-achieving, “self-made” culture, we need reminding that we can not free ourselves and that we can not manufacture joy.  There is no achieving God’s reign.  As one scholar puts it, “God’s reality isn’t achieved, it is stepped into” (www.gbod/worship.org).

What a lovely description!

Here is another from Jan Richardson, our upcoming McDonald Lecture guest in February.  Along with our Wesley community’s daily Advent reflections, I commend to you Jan’s blog, called The Advent Door.  She mused this week about joy:  “I was thinking how Paul and the prophets do not tell us to be happy; they do not talk in terms of feelings; they do not talk about mood or about dispositions that are dependent on circumstances. I was thinking about how they call us to a rejoicing that is not an emotion but an action, a choice…I was thinking of how joy is sometimes like this: not something we summon from inside ourselves but something that visits us. Calls to us. Asks us to open, to unfurl ourselves as it approaches. Like Mary in the presence of the angel, her yes poised to fall from her lips” (Jan Richardson, www.theadventdoor.com).

May you lean in more faithfully, stepping into a reality that is God’s gift to us, unfurling joyfully as you move toward God, who is always moving toward each of us!

Thanks be to God!

© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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