Where the Joy Meets the Vipers

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

What’s your favorite part of preparing for Christmas?  Is it the tree, the ornaments, the decorations? Is it the Christmas music on the radio, or maybe humming a Christmas tune to yourself throughout the day?  Do you like seeing the lights? Do you appreciate the Salvation Army folks ringing bells outside stores, or seeing kids lined up to visit Santa? Is it the vipers?  How about shopping for gifts for other folks, or even receiving gifts yourselves?

What?  Oh yes, the vipers.  I didn’t mean to overlook the vipers.  Overlooking vipers can get you into trouble.  The vipers always catch me a little bit by surprise when we run across them in our scripture readings at Christmas time.

We have four scriptures today, including the Call to Worship, and three of them fit what we would consider to be a traditional Christmas kind of a theme such as Joy.  Zephaniah 3:14 – “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Isaiah 12:5-6 – Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.  Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

All of those explicitly mention “joy” or “rejoicing.”  All of them are upbeat and happy and, well, joyful. All of them kind of lift your spirit and raise your heart and hopefully make you want to smile, and then to shout, and then to praise, and then to rejoice.

Who, however, rejoices at vipers?  People will rejoice and cheer for lots of things.  I went to Tippecanoe High School, where the team name is “Red Devils.”  I don’t know if it’s true, but it is said that the team name grew out of a reference to Native American tribes in the area as opposed to a reference to Satan, and if true that’s not an appropriate reference.  The current reference for the name is a devil. A picture of our mascot features a long face, goatee, horns, evil-looking grin. I don’t know if there’s a costumed mascot at ball games or anything, but if there is it’s probably someone in a red suit with a pointed tail carrying a pitchfork.  I cheered for them a couple of times every week starting in elementary school all the way through high school – Go Devils! C. S. Lewis would probably like to have a word with me.

On a national level there are other teams with similar nicknames – the Duke Blue Devils, the DePaul Blue Demons, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.  I’m not sure that demons have deacons, but if they do they train at Wake Forest.

I did find a minor league hockey team, the Detroit Vipers, a minor league baseball team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and a few amateur sports clubs named Vipers.  There’s also the sports car the Dodge Viper, but aside from that I don’t think there are too many people who cheer for or look forward to vipers.

The big thing that gets me about John’s “viper” line is that it isn’t directed at people who oppose him.  It isn’t aimed at the Romans, or the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the priests, or anyone like that. Who is John talking to?  Verse 7: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  John is talking to people who agree with him, people who like him. John is talking to people who want him to baptize them.

I find that a little scary.  In some ways, I find it scarier than a real viper.  Listen again to what John says in the beginning of the passage through verse 9:  “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Like me, the folks who hear this are startled, surprised, even scared.  They want to know how to escape this terrible judgment. They don’t want to be vipers.  They don’t want to be worried about God’s wrath. They want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what that is.  So they ask John directly, “What then should we do?” The tax collectors ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?” And even soldiers ask him, “And we, what should we do?”

Scott Hoezee puts it in a very interesting way.  (https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel)
Well what did you expect John would say?  His preaching was getting through to the people.  Bigly. His “in your face” approach to getting a message of repentance across was succeeding and before you knew it, John’s got people of all sorts asking “What should we do?”  And in response to this earnest query, what do you think John would suggest?

Should he tell people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere so as to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives?  Should he tell folks—especially the soldiers who were armed in the first place—to go launch a revolution and found a political movement (“The Messiah Party” or some such thing)? Should he tell ordinary working folks—carpenters, bakers, tax collectors—to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day?

Let’s admit that any of those possibilities would have some merit.  No one should want to knock the meditative life, those who try to do good for society through government, or those who reach out to the poor.

Mostly, though, John recommended no such grand things or practices.  He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.”  Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said.

In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!”

That’s an interesting rhetorical switch, isn’t it?  You start out calling people vipers, and end up asking them to be nice.  But that’s where the joy comes in, or at least where the joy meets the vipers.

Vipers represent evil.  I know it’s not fair. I know vipers and snakes get a bad rap.  I know that vipers really aren’t evil; they’re just doing the things God made them to do.  Nevertheless, in this context vipers represent evil, and vipers represent us.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. There is the possibility for goodness – even for greatness – within each of us, but each of us are also people who sin regularly and often.  Sometimes big sins, sometimes little sins. Sometimes the sin something we do or say that we shouldn’t, and sometimes the sin is something that we don’t do or say that we should.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. We are vipers.  Where is the joy in John’s response?

The joy is that we can do it.

Sow Thusly

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:10

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

My dad is also a pastor. He is a pastor like we are pastors at Washington City—that is, he works another job that pays him not primarily in heavenly rewards, but in earthly rewards—the kind that can pay the electric bill or are accepted at the grocery store in exchange for food and other provisions. In addition to being a “free minister,” he is a carpenter. From early on I would work with him, both at home and on the job site. Since he is rather small, and I grew rather quickly, I was taller than him by about age 13. Now carpentry is both highly skilled and very precise but also quite physically demanding. When certain physically demanding “opportunities” arose, my dad had a line with a little smile (perhaps a chuckle?). He would say, “It’ll be a good experience.” Hoisting old steel scaffolding up to a second level—that is be good experience. Unloading this or loading that—a good experience. This is essentially how James begins this letter.

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Testing which produces endurance is the spiritual equivalent to my dad’s so-called good experiences.

Unlike some books of the Bible there isn’t much known about the context of James. Most is conjecture based on hints in the text. For example, the naming of “James” could be referring back to a James and written in the tradition of this James or could written to one of the 6 James’ mentioned in the Bible or even an unmentioned James. Because of the content of the letter and prominence of the person, James the brother of Jesus seems reasonable. However, scholars who focus on this sort of thing don’t agree. Also, there are some reasons why this might not match up literally. What seems like a good possibility is that a later writer took the sayings and sermons of this James the brother of Jesus and composed them into the writing we have. This would allow for the thematic focus of this James but take into account other characteristics (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 548). This would also fit well with the suggestion is that this book is a “paraenesis, a genre of ancient moral literature characterized by various collections of moral sayings and essays, loosely held together by common themes and linking catchwords but without literary rhyme, theological reason or specific social location…with the primary exhortation to live a virtuous life”(DLNTD, 551). A later writer may have gathered the sayings and sermons of James.

In this task of determining the context, the most obvious may be the constructing a general picture of the community to whom the situation addressed. When the text begins with the exhortation to joy in the face of trials we begin to imagine the context. A context in which the first thing in mind is an exhortation towards the benefits gained through suffering.

Themes that emerge are not pandering to the wealthy and having faith matched by good works. At the beginning of chapter 3 we read “not many of you should become teachers.” James then goes on to say that it is nearly impossible to “tame your tongue.” In this context the orators were highly esteemed. As with esteemed skills or professions, many people want to be like them. What we see and see lauded easily becomes what we want to be. Our habits of imagination and desire are shaped through this contact.

In this context, one in which wisdom is demonstrated through rhetoric, James warns of the risk to the one who speaks. Driving home from the annual Dunker Church Service on Antietam Battle Field, Monica and I discussed her hesitancy to preach. She noted not being an authority enough to stand up and speak with the authority of a preacher. Words are difficult and dangerous–Especially when they aim to showoff our wisdom.

While James doesn’t say that nobody should stand up and teach, he does warn of the gravity of this task. Additionally, he states that demonstrated wisdom through acts done in gentleness show wisdom. He writes, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
The Bible in the pew, New Revised Standard Version, reads “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” In my Bible the “for” has a footnote stating that this can be “by.” Which is much different. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for by those who make peace.
The New International Version seems a little clearer. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”

Those who sow seeds or even plant seedlings will tell you that it feels like a bit of a gamble. One places a dead looking roundish bit of a former plant into the ground and wait for the green shoot. Even once the shoot breaks the surface of the ground any number of things, mysterious or obvious, may bring an end to the plant—and at any point in its life. Plucking it from the ground because it was mistaken for a weed—obvious. Or like our tomatoes this year—a lot of green plant but almost no actual fruit, for no clear reason.

Though it may feel like a gamble it is actually not that. A gamble is chance. Planting takes skill knowledge, patience, good observation—in short, one can become better at growing plants. It still is not fully controlled or predictable, but it isn’t just luck. Seeds of squash, as well as seeds of peace, are sown with both skill and hope.

Sow thusly and you will raise such and such a harvest. Sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. Sowing thusly is a demonstration of the “wisdom from above” which is “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” This is how we are to so.

All this leads to a harvest of righteousness—which sounds good. If I were to say to Ayuba, “when you grow up we hope you work for righteousness”—what would you imagine this including? Likely something more personal—perhaps a piety plus self-control plus honesty. And if your thoughts turn public it would be something—more like not being a con artist or drug dealer.

Now I typically don’t reference the Greek in a sermon. This is largely because my Greek isn’t all that good but also because reading a definition of a word without the language skill to assess the nuance of translation is of questionable value. Just because a word could mean a wide range of things, doesn’t mean that the author intended everyone one of these in every instance of use. Just because Ayuba thinks his papa told a corny joke doesn’t mean both that the joke was goofy and had something to do with the vegetable eaten from a cob.

However, the word translated as righteousness can also be translated as justice.
Whereas one translation reads: “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness,” commentators Craddock and Boring translate—“And the fruit of justice is sown in peace among those who make peace” (The People’s Commentary, 719).

For most of us, the word justice brings up a much different vision than the word righteousness. Monica and I and other denominational colleagues have had extensive discussions about whether her new position within the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy should be framed as racial justice or righteousness. This discussion in part comes back to this question of translation in the New Testament but also about what each implies in our present English about personal morality or discipleship and affecting change in the systems, powers, and principalities of racism that are so deeply embedded in our society and church.

Rev. Aundreia Alexander, of the National Council of Churches, preaching at the International Day of Prayer for Peace service we held here on Friday, “Justice comes from the disruption of false peace” Justice may unsettle, but it makes right. Without this disruption, justice is not possible.

Anabaptists, of which Church of the Brethren is a part, have historically focused on this separateness from “the world.” This separateness was from their observing the way that the “the world” operated—which was often simply other Christians who they felt weren’t taking their faith seriously—but also passages like this, Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
Brethren called this “non-conformity.” This is what Jared McKenna, at National Youth Conference, was referencing when he coined the term “dunkerpunk.” We have a tradition of non-conformity—of being a “peculiar people.”

Though this can easily become legalistic or self-righteous (Jerry why do you have a fashionable mustache?) but what it aims at is justice and righteousness. A following Jesus such that our lives push against the norms and values that prevail. Systems of racism, militarism, and materialism as Rev Dr Martin Luther King reminds us.

Sow thusly, sow with gentleness, in peace, resist the devil, purify your hearts. Sow thusly with hope and skill, awaiting the harvest of righteousness and justice.

I HAVE SEEN THE LORD!

Preacher — Micah Bales

Scripture Readings – Isaiah 25:6-9, Acts 10:34-43, and John 20:1-18

He is risen! Hallelujah! Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. (Can I get an amen?)

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And how did this world repay him? How did we respond to the love and prophetic challenge of Emanuel, God-with-us? This dark and fallen world put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree. Blinded by fear and violence, they crucified the Lord of glory.

The forces of death, chaos, and confusion thought that they had won. The evil spirits were laughing in delight. They had defeated truth and love once again. The rulers of this world were breathing a sigh of relief; they were finally rid of this trouble-maker, Jesus. Like so many prophets before and since, Jesus paid for his faithfulness with his life.

But we are here this morning, because we know that this was not the end of the story. Can I get an amen? I want to hear you this morning. This is our victory celebration!

The cross was not an end, but a beginning. Not a wall, but a window. Not defeat, but triumph. The kind of death that leads to new life, like a seed that falls on the ground and dies, so that it may grow into something new, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, a hundred fold!

On the third day after Golgotha, God raised Jesus from the dead! Early that first Easter morning, Jesus appeared to Mary, the first apostle.

Mary had come to anoint Jesus’ body for burial – there hadn’t been time on Friday. She came to give Jesus’ the loving care that no one else had the courage to give. She came to care for the body of Christ.

But the body wasn’t there. The tomb was empty. Not knowing what to do, Mary ran and found Peter and another disciple. She told them what she had seen: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

The men went off running to the tomb. The leaned down inside and saw that the body was missing. And then they returned to their homes.

But Mary wasn’t ready to return home just yet. Mary was in shock. Where was the body of her lord, her teacher, her friend? She lingered outside the tomb and wept.

Through her eyes, blurry with tears, Mary Magdalene saw what the men disciples did not. As she waited, present with her grief, she witnessed the angels of God sitting in the tomb. And then, something even more amazing. Mary was waiting for Jesus, and he also was waiting for her. Just outside the tomb. In the garden. Calling her by name.

Have you heard him call you by name?

This is how Mary became the original apostle. Apostle to the apostles, to the ones who we now call the Twelve. Mary proclaimed the word of God, the light of the resurrection, to men who didn’t understand yet, didn’t believe yet, but would soon be transformed into leaders that Jesus would use to gather his church and proclaim his gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

Jesus didn’t appear to all the people, but he chose some to be eye-witnesses to the resurrection. Mary was first. Then Peter, then to the Twelve, and to others who especially needed his presence. Remember our brother Stephen, the first Christian martyr; he saw a vision of the Lord Jesus as he was being stoned to death for his faith. Brother Paul the apostle, who had been a notorious persecutor of the church; his life was transformed when met Jesus on the road to Damascus. To this very day, Jesus continues to appear to those who need him. Along with Mary, we can also say, “We have seen the Lord!”

John writes in his first epistle:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

For those of us who have seen, or heard, or tasted, smelled, touched with our hands the presence of Jesus – for those of us who have become his friends through the power of the resurrection – he has commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that Jesus is ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins in his name. The kingdom of God is within us and among us. Hallelujah!

Have you heard the voice of Jesus in your life? Have you seen with your eyes and touched with your hands? Have you experienced in your own body this Word of life, the resurrected Jesus?

Eleven Easters ago, I was in my first year of seminary at Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary out in Richmond, Indiana. When I had arrived the previous fall, I didn’t consider myself a Christian. I knew I liked Jesus a lot, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready to identify myself with the Christian tradition.

But by the time Easter rolled around, I had gotten to the place where I felt like I could take that step. I had begun calling myself a Christian. I got to that place after reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:3, where he says that no one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. I thought a lot about those words, “Jesus is Lord.” What did it mean to me, for Jesus to be Lord in my life?

By Easter that year, I knew that Jesus was my Lord. He was my friend, my teacher, my guide, and my example. He was master and commander of my life; where he led, I wanted to follow. I didn’t know what I believed about all the deep theological questions that great thinkers have been debating for the past two thousand years, but I knew that I wanted to follow Jesus wherever he would lead, to surrender my life to him. That was good enough for me.

That Easter, my first Easter as a Christian, I attended Sunday morning worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting. It was a really strange experience. It’s an atmosphere of celebration. Everyone is saying, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” And here I am, the new Christian in his first year of seminary, and I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Of course, I knew the story of the resurrection. I was actively studying the New Testament at that time; I knew what the texts said. But reading stories is one thing. These people were talking like these things actually happened. I had been reading the resurrection story as metaphor, but these people seemed to be taking it literally!

I didn’t want to seem too sacrilegious, so I asked my questions quietly. But I did ask. “Do you really believe this? You think that Jesus really, literally, physically rose from the dead? What’s your basis for that? And if you don’t think that, isn’t it a little weird to go running around proclaiming “he is risen!”?

I can’t remember exactly what kind of answers I got in response to my questions. On the one hand, I suspect that the people I was asking wrestled with the same kind of doubts as me. When you really examine some of the stuff that we believe as Christians, it’s a little ridiculous. Bodily resurrection? Ascension into heaven? We’d never take these kinds of claims literally if any other religion made them.

And yet… And yet. Despite the doubt, in spite of the preposterous nature of the Christian faith, I didn’t walk away from that worship service disillusioned. I was intrigued. I still didn’t know if I could believe this whole story. I didn’t know if I could really accept the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. But some part of me wanted to. Even if my rational mind couldn’t readily accept it, my heart wanted to believe.

Why? What would make me want to believe in this kind of fairy tale?

Joy. In these fully-grown men and women celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, I sensed the joy of children. If you ask a young child why they love their parents, they’re not going to give you some kind of coherent philosophical answer. At best, you’re going to get something along the lines of, “because they’re my mommy and my daddy!” The love of children for parents is rooted in the established reality joy and trust.

The resurrection is like that. It’s not a set of facts to be known, but a relationship to experience. This is what Mary discovered in the pre-dawn light that first Easter morning. She was distraught; her love for Jesus was so strong, and she thought she had lost him forever. She was so upset, and the reality of the situation was so unexpected, that she didn’t even recognize Jesus when he was standing in front of her.

Then he said her name. “Mary.”

Then she knew who she was talking to. Jesus. Friend. Lord. Brother. Teacher. Her heart was filled with astonishment and joy to overflowing. “Rabbouni!” She couldn’t believe what was happening, but her heart and her spirit told her that it was the most real thing she would ever experience. Jesus is here. “I have seen the Lord.”

Like Mary, we don’t have a relationship with Jesus because we believe in the resurrection. We believe in the resurrection because of our lived experience of Jesus. The resurrection is not just a story that we tell one another once a year. It is a lived daily reality. Jesus shows up. Even when we don’t recognize him. He calls us by name.

We don’t all have to have spectacular visions of Jesus to know him. Through Jesus, all things on heaven and earth were created, and we can experience him in all things. He’s with us when the trees sway and the leaves move in the wind – because Jesus is like that. We experience the resurrection when the truth is spoken and love is shared – because Jesus is like that. We know that Jesus is alive and well and active in the world when we see people caring for one another, sacrificing for each other, even when they’ve got nothing to gain – because Jesus is like that.

We have seen the Lord. Can you say it with me? We have seen the Lord. Hallelujah.

I know that some of us probably feel just like I did eleven years ago. Let’s be honest: This whole resurrection story sounds totally insane. It defies everything we know about the way the universe works. Dead men don’t come back to life after three days. Angels don’t show up in tombs. People executed by the state don’t get the last word.

But what if our conception of how the world works is the problem? What if the resurrection – our faith that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead – reveals the way God’s universe really operates? We worship a God of impossible things, and we live in a mystery.

This world says, “money makes the world go round” – but the resurrected Jesus says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Our culture says, “might makes right,” but Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers.” The world never tires of telling us that we need to be afraid, be prepared, be on guard, or we’ll get left behind. But the God of Jesus is the loving creator who has his eye on the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. In the face of fear, he has commanded us not to worry. In a world where nothing seems secure, Jesus teaches us to live in trust.

Maybe the resurrection of Jesus isn’t crazy after all. Maybe it’s of one piece with everything that God is teaching us in Jesus.

The power of the resurrection is here this morning. Don’t just believe it. Live it.

We welcome you, Lord Jesus. We welcome you, Holy Spirit. We welcome you, God and Father of all. We see you.

We have seen the Lord.

Let me hear the church say, “amen!” Hallelujah!

JOY

Psalm 126   Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11   1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Jeff Davidson

The third Sunday in Advent

Happy Gaudete Sunday! What, you didn’t know this was Gaudete Sunday? Nobody told you? You may even ask, “What is Gaudete Sunday anyway?”

Gaudete Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent. The word “Gaudete” is from the Latin word for “rejoice.” Traditionally we spend most of the Advent season thinking about preparing for Christ’s coming. It’s about repentance and fasting. Advent is in some ways a Christmas version of Lent, where we examine ourselves and our lives and clear away the peaks and valleys of sin and make straight the path of the Lord. At one time Advent was a period of fasting and penitence. 

Gaudete Sunday gives us kind of a break in the midst of those things. It’s a time to rejoice, to embrace the good news that is coming, to celebrate the blessings of God in our lives and the opportunity that we have to share them with others. Gaudete Sunday is why the third candle in the Advent wreath is pink. The other three are purple, but the joy of Gaudete Sunday is so great and so important that the Sunday gets it’s own special Advent candle.

So, real quick, what are some of the things that bring you joy this time of year? For me, some of it is the music. Sunday afternoons growing up we would listen to Christmas songs at home by Johnny Mathis or Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians or Bing Crosby. We’d sing songs at church that we really only got to sing once or maybe twice a year. There was Christmas caroling, where the kids and their parents would visit the homes of shut-ins and the elderly and sick in the congregation to sing. There was a special Christmas Eve service, usually mostly music. Every couple of years Dad would sing “O Holy Night” and I would accompany him on the piano. There are a lot of good memories attached to the music, a lot of fun and a lot of happiness.

Sometimes, though, I pause a bit about all the Christmas music this time of year. One of our radio stations in the car is set to 97.1 WASH-FM. Most of the year they play upbeat music from the 1980s, the 1990s, and the last couple of years. Not rock, or at least not hard rock, but Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Bruno Mars, Pharrell Williams. It’s a station that aims at people my age or maybe 10-15 years younger, probably skewing a little towards women.

But after Thanksgiving, WASH-FM declares itself Washington DC’s official Christmas music station, and it’s all Christmas music all the time. I’m not sure how “official” that really is; I don’t think it requires a Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. The Christmas music has no rhyme or reason to the selection – you may hear something secular like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” followed by a traditional arrangement of “O Holy Night” followed by David Bowie and Bing Crosby doing “Little Drummer Boy” with Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” to wrap it all up. Some instrumentals, some vocals. Some old recordings from the 1950s by folks who died twenty or thirty years ago, some re-makes of classics by contemporary artists. It is a very, very mixed bag of music.

The other day I was in the car going to work, and a 1960s version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Johnny Mathis came on, and I got a warm feeling inside and sang along. Then “O Holy Night” by Josh Groban – the arrangement I used to play to accompany my dad. That music really made me feel good.

And then I thought about Kelly. Kelly isn’t the real name. Kelly is a Jewish friend of mine at work. Kelly really doesn’t like all the holiday stuff we put up at work. We have trees, and silver garland, and ornaments of various kinds. We have some big cardboard candy canes and stocking and things like that. There’s nothing overtly religious, and we are as clear as we can be with our language at least that it is a holiday time and not a Christmas time, since we are a government agency, but Kelly doesn’t buy it. We can talk about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and New Years all we want, but Kelly’s not fooled. The holiday we are celebrating is Christmas.

Kelly and I have talked about this a couple of times. I’ve tried to say that from my perspective there’s the cultural Christmas, the secular Christmas if you will, and the sacred or the religious Christmas. There’s the “Snoopy and the Red Baron” kind of Christmas song, which has nothing to do with Jesus or faith, as opposed to the “Silent Night” kind of song, which is explicitly about Jesus as the savior of the world.

Kelly’s not buying it. For Kelly, the whole thing is Christmas. The whole thing is about Jesus’s birth. Rudolph and Santa are just as Christian as the angels that appeared to the shepherds and directed them to the manger. I look at it from within the Christian faith and see distinctions between sacred and secular. Kelly looks at it from the outside, and sees is a Christian celebration of a Christian savior in whose name some of her ancestors were persecuted. A savior in whose name some Arab Christians are happy to participate in bombings and missile attacks on her spiritual family in Israel.

I don’t know what radio stations Kelly listens to, but she’s at least ten years younger than I am and she is the target demographic for WASH-FM. That station is designed for people like Kelly. I found myself wondering what it would feel like to be Kelly or someone like her, and for 11 months of the year you enjoy a particular radio station and you relax with particular on-air personalities and you become accustomed to the timing of the weather and the traffic reports, and then come Thanksgiving they take it all away from you. I wonder what it’s like feel that something you rely on and trust and enjoy for 11 months of the year all of a sudden turns into something that celebrates what you perceive as oppression and anti-Semitism. 

I thought of that when I heard those two explicitly Christian hymns played in a row, and how I would feel is I was a minority in a place where my favorite radio station played music praising Mohammad, or the Buddha, or the leader of the dictatorship in which I lived. And I had to pause.

Our Old Testament readings both talk about joy. Our Call to Worship, Psalm 126, talks about our tongues being filled with shouts of joy and of returning from the harvest carrying sheaves and shouting for joy. And what is the cause of this joy? What starts the joy? Verse 1 – “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”

The joy that the Psalmist sings of, the joy that the worshippers feel, is as a result of God’s action. In this case it’s the restoration of the fortunes of Zion (Jerusalem) but the important part isn’t what specific act of God causes joy. It’s that joy is caused by the Lord.

The same thing is true in our reading from Isaiah. In verse 10 Isaiah says, “I will rejoice in the Lord” but everything that comes before and after is filled with joy and thanksgiving. Those who mourn receive a garland instead of ashes. They receive gladness instead of mourning. All sorts of good things happen: good news is proclaimed, the captives and the prisoners are freed, the broken-hearted are healed. No wonder Isaiah rejoices in the Lord!

And what causes all of this? The Spirit of the Lord being upon Isaiah. God’s word welling up within him and pouring forth from his lips. The love of justice is a gift of God. The hatred of robbery and wrongdoing is a gift of God. Joy comes because of God’s action and God’s anointing, and in the end, just as the earth brings forth it’s shoots and a garden causes what is in it to spring up, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Even the examples that Isaiah chooses show that it is the Lord that causes the joy, for who is it that made the earth to bring forth it’s shoots? Who is it that made gardens which have plants that spring up? It was God. The joy that Isaiah speaks of is joy that comes from the Spirit of the Lord within us. That joy is a gift of God.

And of course our reading from 1 Thessalonians begins with the admonition to “Rejoice always.” How is it that we are able to rejoice always? The last verse of our reading tells us: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. God is faithful. God will do this.

As I was putting this sermon together I read something that I liked. I couldn’t find it again so I can’t tell you who said it, but it was essentially that happiness is something that comes from the outside and that joy is something that comes from the inside. Peanuts says that happiness is a warm puppy, and The Beatles say that “happiness is a warm gun.” I tend to lean towards one of those more than the other, but they are both externals. They are both things that come to us from the outside.

It is possible that a kitten or a puppy or a piece of music can create joy, but not on their own. There has to be something inside that responds to that external stimulus. A love of puppies has to already be in you for a warm puppy to lead to feelings of joy. I can lose myself in a piece of music and feel joyful, but only if God has given me the gift of appreciation for music. I can lose myself in a movie and identify so strongly with one character or another that I feel joy when they succeed or survive, but I can only do that if I have the gift of empathy that has been given to me by God.

So I had to think about whether when I heard “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night” back to back on the radio if I really felt joy, especially in light of how my friend Kelly and probably millions of others like her feel.

And after I thought about it I realized that I wasn’t feeling joyful because of those songs. I was feeling joyful because of the gifts inside me that various things trigger. Maybe it was those songs on that day, but on another day something else could have triggered the same things. I’m joyful because God gave me the gift of adoption at my birth by a family who loved me. I’m joyful because God provided me a family that loved music and shared that love with me. I’m joyful because God allowed me to have opportunities to develop my talents of music, limited though they may be, and to share them with others. 

And those songs triggered one more thing for which I am joyful. I’m joyful for God’s gift of empathy, which reminds me of people like Kelly, and hopefully makes me humble and makes me sensitive to the things that I do or say or take for granted that cause them pain or hurt or worry.

So happy Gaudete Sunday. Take note of the things around you. Let them stimulate the gifts of God that are within you, and let those gifts bring forth joy. Let them cause you to consider others who may not have the same reaction, and let them lead you to consider what it is you can do to help bring joy to them, to help proclaim, release to the captives and to bind up the broken-hearted, to help those who sow in tears to reap in joy. Rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.