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Monday, December 14, 2009


Advent 3, Yr. C
Zephaniah 3:14-20

“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.”

So says Charlie Brown to his friend at the beginning of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” All the other kids are contentedly ice skating, enjoying the snow and the season, the happiness and cheer, but poor Charlie Brown just isn’t feeling it. He “likes getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees, and all that,” but he’s still not happy.

Tricky thing, happiness. On the one hand, I can tell you what makes me happy: a big chewy brownie with a scoop of mint chip ice cream on top; curling up and listening to audio books with my sons; seeing the top of the dryer when all the laundry is put away; coming home to an overjoyed dog and the warm and welcoming smells of dinner ready in the crockpot, seeing the wonderful sparkle of lights on Christmas Tree Lane… simple stuff, actually.

Except for when those things don’t work. They’re usually good for a quick fix, but it may not be much more than that. And this time of year, I can waffle back and forth pretty fast, even with what are very lightweight concerns: “Oh, what lovely Christmas lights…darn, Christmas is in 12 days and I still have shopping to do, plus mailing, and Christmas dinner, and getting out decorations, and buying a tree, and...” I love Advent and am quite adamant in my observance of the season, not jumping the gun to Christmas, but I confess that sometimes it’s simply a way to stay in denial about mounting pressures as December marches on.

Maybe that’s what Charlie Brown senses: that the “stuff” of the season, even treasured rituals and routines, isn’t enough, neither in depth nor in durability. If it just ends there, I guess I wouldn’t understand Christmas either. Starting sometime around Halloween, we’re exhorted to a holly, jolly Christmas, walking in a winter wonderland while jingle bells rock. The popular message is one of unmitigated happiness, which is almost impossible for any real person actually to sustain; for those whose journey is particularly painful or lonely, happiness can be hard to generate at all. And when we get caught in that dissonance, it’s almost inevitable to have times of wondering if something’s wrong with us because we’re not feeling the way we’re “supposed” to feel.

All is not lost, however, as both today’s readings and—if you stick it out to the end!—Charlie Brown and Linus remind us. Happiness is great but ephemeral. Fortunately, it’s not the only option, not even the best one. What’s joy.

The passage from Zephaniah almost makes me want to cry with relief, or—as the reading itself commands—“Sing aloud…shout…rejoice and exult!” This isn’t about happiness, a feeling based upon our circumstances at a given moment; this is pure, unadulterated joy, grounded in God’s love for us, in how the Lord God Almighty is transforming our lives and our world, even in these Advent days, before we can see it happening.

The people to whom Zephaniah spoke were living in the midst of a fearful time, and their own behavior had been far from exemplary. Most of the book is a declaration of God’s fierce and drastic judgment, giving no basis for anyone to be happy. Then, at the very end, there’s a twist: a kind of joy that the theologian Karl Barth described as a defiant “nonetheless,” a proclamation of unimaginable hope. The prophet promises that at God’s new Advent, the betrayals and burdens of the past will be put behind us, and God’s joy will become our joy which will become God’s even greater joy.

I’d like you to think for a moment what it would be like to be completely, wholly renewed, restored, revived by God’s love, to have God exult over each one of us and all of us together. Imagine God—the creator of the universe, the ruler of all time and space—celebrating over us, little ol’ you and me…and our being able to return that love and delight without inhibition or restraint. That’s not happiness; that’s joy!

On this 3rd Sunday of Advent, we light the rose candle and hear of rejoicing, a brilliant “nonetheless” in the midst of the long and sometimes dark wait for the Lord’s coming. Our hope is not in cookies or carols or any consumerism designed to make us happy; our hope is in the coming of One who exults over us with gladness and whose love sits down in our midst and fills us with joy, an overflowing, abundant, transforming joy.

At the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Charlie Brown cries out in frustration, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”In answer, Linus walks out on stage, and with not a word about happiness and cheer, proclaims, “And the angel said unto them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy…”

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