Zephaniah 3, 14-18 X Psalm 122 X Philemon 4, 4-7 X Luke 3, 10-18 at Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL.
“What must we do?” ask the people who hear the prophet. All too often the question as we might ask it ourselves refers too exclusively to practices that we hope will be sure ways of reaching eternal life. No matter who asks the question of John his answer is simple: “Be just in the work you do. Live as you should, being righteous and conscious of the needs of others.” The problem if you stop there is that religion gets reduced to a moral code, a kind of system whereby we bargain our way into this Kingdom that is at hand. With that we start measuring whether or not we have done enough, and it’s not long before what we do is the focus of everything without a thought about what God has done or what God is doing. There is not much joy in that kind of religion. There is not much joy in a religion of rules and obligations centered on what we must do. No wonder so many young people want nothing to do with it.
Religion does not make us more popular, better paid, or better looking. It never stops loved ones from dying or friends from giving you up like a bad job. In itself, religion solves nothing and leaves the world exactly as it was before. Some think that it even makes the world more violent given the history of religious wars over the centuries of human life. At its best religion provides a context in which to locate and understand things that happen, but even this might induce a kind of resignation that leads to passivity and tempts us to give up rather than find and feel the joy that is spoken of and sung of all through this day. The tradition in which we live suggests over and over that there is happiness and joy to be found in following Christ Jesus. It proposes that this is found in two ways.
The first way this joy is found comes from a relationship, from the personal presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. At this point, religion is no longer a matter of what we do, but of why we do it: because we love someone. This kind of religion is a relationship with Jesus Christ lived and celebrated bringing joy because the life of God is the most complete joy imaginable. Someone you love and someone who loves you is with you forever. It brings a smile to your face, lightens your heart, lifts up your whole day, and it changes how you see things and what you do. This presence is secret and mystical. It is discovered only in prayer, in the intimacy of communion and the deepest part of your heart. There is not likely to be much joy in the practice of religion unless we cultivate this side of things which means reading and re-reading the Gospels, studying how Jesus is portrayed in sacred art, and above all by starting to pray. No amount of information about someone can substitute for getting involved in a conversation with them.
The second way this joy is found comes from looking to the future. Christ may be in our midst, but the world still knows just as much pain and fear as in the days when John was preaching. But in our faith we look forward to a time when human life and the whole of creation will be perfected, to a time of universal healing, reconciliation, and peace. This expectation leads us to a shared joy, an extension of Christ’s on joy to all. If joy is real, it is something that must be shared, because it is as much hope for my neighbor as it is for myself.
So then, without this kind of personal mysticism, this personal relationship with Christ Jesus, our religion becomes a kind of moralism that is humorless and exhausting. It is then without hope for a redeemed world and becomes very self-indulgent. Now it cannot be so for us living in this age of fear and threat. The opposite of joy is not sadness. Sadness is the opposite of happiness. Sadness and Happiness are responses to conditions. They come and go. The opposite of joy is fear, and the two cannot be found in a person of faith and in a person who has a real living relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no fear in a person of faith who knows what God has in store for those who love him.
In these days when world events and would-be world leaders would like to scare us with their passionate rhetoric set to frighten us into their ideologies, there must be in us the sure and certain hope that nothing can take our joy and our hope because nothing can shake our relationship with Christ or change the future that he has promised us. So if this is time for Joy, then it is time for prayer in a season of hope.