I’ve been casually following the story of Sarah Fuller for a few weeks now. When COVID sidelined some guys on the special teams roster for the Vanderbilt football team, Sarah was recruited from the school’s women’s soccer team, where as goalie she had led them to a conference championship. Sarah suited up in a football uniform (American football, that is) for the first time back on November 28. She got to kick off for Vanderbilt that day, but they never scored, so she didn’t have chance to put any points on the board.
Yesterday with 1:50 left in the first quarter, she got her chance. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown, and Sarah lined up to kick the extra point. She did it, tying the game at 7-7. Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score in a Power 5 conference football game.
I’m not even kidding when I tell you I teared up with joy as I watched the video of that kick, as I watched the ball sail through the uprights, as I watched her family embrace each other up there in the stands, as I watched Sarah’s teammates celebrate with her. The cynics among you will be quick to remind me that Vanderbilt ended up losing that game to Tennessee 42 to 17. But I don’t care. It brought me joy to see someone do this thing that hadn’t been done before at that level. Maybe 2020 has set the bar for joy really low, but I don’t think that’s it. To watch someone live into her purpose, to embrace her gifts and use those gifts to help a community to which she belongs. That’s joyful.
It’s the third Sunday in Advent, what we sometimes call Joy Sunday. On some Advent wreaths you’ll see that this Sunday’s candle is pink instead of the usual blue or purple. I don’t know why pink is any more joyful than blue or purple, but traditions are weird – and church traditions are often weirder than most.
Today’s second reading opens with two words that this week stopped me in my tracks. Do you remember what they were?
Rejoice always. [Laughter.] Rejoice always.
This reading is from the closing paragraphs of a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in a place called Thessalonica, a port city on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea. Paul had started the church there with the help of a couple of colleagues, Timothy and Silvanus (Sil–VAY-nus). Timothy had stayed behind to supervise things while Paul and Silvanus traveled onward, and while things were generally going well, people were anxious for Paul to return. Paul writes to encourage them in their faith, especially as they wait for Jesus to return, who by this time had ascended to heaven.
Rejoice always, Paul says. And in December of 2020, it’s that “always” that makes his mandate sound impossible. It’s hard to imagine rejoicing always as we see death tolls rising and white nationalists marching through the streets and lines at food banks growing by the week.
The thing about joy is that we can turn it into a self-help program. Choose joy, we are sometimes told, as if it’s something that can be forced with a positive attitude or the right exercise program. Choose joy, cultivate joy, spark joy. I don’t think it’s that simple. Joy is not something that can be manufactured like a gingerbread house in a Hallmark movie.
Back in the opening of his letter, Paul tells the Thessalonians this: “You became imitators of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” In spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. Paul reminds them that joy comes in the midst of difficulty. It is received more than produced. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist is back this week, and it’s worth remembering that when John is doing his thing out there in the wilderness, things weren’t easy then either. The Roman government was making life miserable for people, especially those who were the most poor and the most powerless. That’s why we heard John last week call for repentance.
But John the Baptist knows who he is not. He is not a prophet. He is not Elijah. He is not the messiah. He cannot save himself, and he knows the rest of us can’t either.
John is quite clear on who he is. He is a witness. John comes to bear witness to the light, to testify to the light. As I told the kids, John is the one who points to Jesus each and every time. John’s not looking to create a public persona that’s all about himself. He’s not trying to amass Instagram followers. John wants people to get ready for Jesus. To be on the lookout for Jesus. To see Jesus when Jesus shows up. To follow Jesus.
John knows that whatever power he has, whatever voice he can use, whatever light he carries – John knows that those are not a product of his own power. He is a messenger, and he depends on the light that Jesus is bringing into the world. It’s the light of Jesus that breaks through the despair. It’s the light of Jesus that ultimately defeats death.
Just before his death Jesus gives his disciples some final words, and he tells them this:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:9-11)
Jesus tells us to keep his commandments, the most important of which are to love God and love our neighbor. In that way we abide in him; we remain grounded in his love for us and for all people. And in that abiding love our joy will be complete.
So do the things that bring you joy. Bake those cookies. (Maybe share a few.) Decorate. Talk to a friend. Watch your favorite Christmas movie, whether it’s Love Actually or Diehard.
And as you do, keep praying for others. Keep giving generously to those in need. Keep showing up for those who need you. Keep wearing that mask and taking all the precautions that will protect others.
Hear again what Paul says as he closes that letter to the Thessalonians and know that it is a word for you too: May the God of peace sanctify you entirely [make you holy]; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept soundand blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.The one who calls you is faithful and will do this. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ