Third Sunday of Advent – JOY

David Ross, Dec 9, 2022, 4:59 PM

The theme for the third Sunday of Advent is Joy. One of the assigned biblical texts from the Revised Common Lectionary for the third Sunday of Advent in 2022 is Psalm 146:5-10, which in the NRSV reads:

"Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!"

It is common in Christian circles to make a hard and fast distinction between joy and happiness. I know many a pastor who finds himself or herself continually wrestling with their congregants, reminding them that, for a follower of Christ, life is not about finding 'happiness' as we typically conceive of happiness in modern Western culture. I also have journeyed with many fellow believers over the years who, though they may not claim to be 'happy' in their current season of life, do have a deep-seated joy in Christ that transcends circumstances and is rooted not in frail, changeable emotional or circumstantial highs but in the conviction that Christ is their helper.

So, what are we to make of this supposed distinction between joy and happiness? Notice that the above text, when read in context, claims that those who look for help ultimately in YHWH rather than in powerful and influential human beings are "Happy" (according to the NRSV). This is contrasted with the "wicked" whose way the Lord "brings to ruin." Other translations, such as the ESV, use the word "Blessed" rather than "Happy." In reality, within the biblical languages, there is no inherent distinction between joy and happiness; they are used interchangeably. And in both Hebrew and Greek the same keyword can be rightly translated "Happy" or "Blessed."

Despite all this however, I do believe that the overall biblical witness calls us continually to joy, particularly finding joy in God as our saviour in a way that is rooted in who God is and what he has done, is doing, and will do for us, rather than in our current circumstances or emotional state. This is a prominent theme throughout the whole canon of Scripture, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Consider the ending of the book of Habakkuk, wherein the prophet has been wrestling with God, questioning whether YHWH is truly a just God in the midst of a world knee-deep in injustice and godlessness. Habakkuk 3:17-19 in the NRSV reads:

"Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights."

Clearly, the prophet is not deriving his joy from his or his people's current circumstances, but in who YHWH is, "the God of my salvation," or we could say, 'the one who helps me.'

And consider Paul's letter to the Philippians. He uses the terms translated "joy" or "rejoice" sixteen times in this very short letter! In 4:4 Paul emphatically commands the Philippian believers to "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." From what kind of circumstance does Paul both personally model and then command this way of life? From prison, possibly awaiting execution.

Let us now return briefly to the above designated Advent reading. What are the circumstances of those who are dubbed "Happy" in Psalm 146:5-10? Here is a short list just from this Psalm:

The oppressed
The hungry
The prisoners
Those who are "bowed down" i.e. suffering and struggling
The strangers i.e. marginalized and vulnerable foreign immigrants
The orphan
The widow.

Here is an important observation, and some food for thought: The only condition named by the Psalmist for one to be designated "Happy" is that the person has chosen, by the empowering grace of God, to look to God their saviour for help in the midst of their sufferings and pain and in the midst of a broken and fallen world, as opposed to powerful and influential human beings, those who promise great deliverance but cannot themselves be relied upon.

In the season of Advent, the Christian Church worldwide endeavours to place ourselves in the shoes of the nation of Israel prior to Christ's first Advent. To enter into the deeply-rooted posture of waiting, longing, hoping, groaning for the long-awaited and promised divine deliverance. In the Advent season, we also orientate ourselves to Christ's second, still-to-come Advent, when YHWH will wipe every tear away from our eyes and make all things new. On that day there will be no more oppressed, hungry, imprisoned or marginalized and suffering people. On that day, our joy will be boundless, unassailable and perfect as we exist eternally, having been finally and decisively helped by God our saviour. But for now, we continue our pilgrimage in the in-between time. Christ has already inaugurated his Kingdom, and so we have already been helped by our saviour in profound and wonderful ways. And yet the keen sense that things are not all as they should be remains. How do we respond then? I suggest that we pray, and ask the Lord to teach us to live in a joy which can survive both the lofty heights of success and bounty, as well as the disorientating depths of depression and lack, because it is ultimately based on the fact that we have chosen to be the people "whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry."