Advent: Light the Candle of Joy – Pastor Robert’s sermon for Sunday, December 16

 Today is “pink candle” Sunday. That’s actually my personal title for this Sunday. The technical name for this Sunday is Gaudete which is a Latin word that means, “rejoice.”

     Notice that the pink candle stands out from the other candles in the Advent wreath. Many people ask why we use a pink candle on this Sunday of the Advent season. And no, it’s not because we always forget to order enough blue candles.

     The blue advent candles around the Advent Wreath remind us to patiently wait for Christmas by repenting of our sins and reflecting on what it means to be God’s people. The pink candle for this third Sunday of Advent is a bright color and it reminds us to rejoice even though we are still waiting for Christmas to come.

     When the Prophet Isaiah offered a word of joy to the people of Judah hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, he was offering them a Gaudete moment. He knew that they were at a very low point along their journey as God’s people. They had been forced from their homes and were living in a foreign land. There was no joy to be found.

     Have you noticed that the nightly news on the major networks seem to always end their broadcast with a “feel good” story for the remaining five minutes? The first twenty-five minutes of the program tell us about everything that is wrong in the world that day, but it’s those last couple of minutes that remind us that there was actually some good happening somewhere in the world. Even the Nightly News knows the importance of having a Gaudete moment during their broadcast.

     In our Old Testament reading for this Pink Candle Sunday, the Prophet Isaiah reminds us that not all is lost as we travel this long path of Advent. There is joy-filled news along the journey! And the good news is that God hasn’t forgotten us.

     God will restore Judah. The desert wilderness that produces only enough grass to support a few sheep will burst into bloom. People who are discouraged because they are in exile will be delivered. Those who are in despair will have their hope restored. And all of these wonderful things will cause people to rejoice and praise God. The final verse of our scripture passage uses words like “everlasting joy,” “”joy,” and “gladness.”

     Even though Isaiah was referring to the future, his words are also meant to help the people experience joy in their present moment. Like the people of Judah, we too are called to be filled with joy in knowing that God’s promises will soon be fulfilled. Sometimes we only focus on the bad news even though God is offering words of great joy to us in the present moment.

    Today is a day to remember that we can have that joy, too. We can have joy to help us through our toughest days. I’m sure that there are many of us here today who need this pink candle Sunday!

     When John the Baptist was in prison, he sent word to the disciples to ask Jesus if he truly was the promised Messiah or if they should be looking for someone else. You can appreciate why John the Baptist was having these doubts. He didn’t expect to be in prison but there he was. It was a very tough time for him. He must have been very discouraged, kind of like the people of Judah when they were in exile hundreds of years before him.

     When we’re experiencing those tough days, I think we ask that same question as well. “Are you really the one, Jesus? I’ve tried to follow you and I’ve tried to do what you’ve wanted me to do, but things aren’t looking very promising right now, and I just need to know. Are you really the one?”

     If you’ve experienced any kind of discouragement in life, this question is understandable. We’re taught that God will provide for our needs and answer our prayers but what if things don’t go the way we were hoping? What if there doesn’t appear to be any clear purpose in what is happening in our lives? It’s a fair question to ask if Jesus is really the one, or if we should be looking for someone else.

     But notice how Jesus responds to John’s question. We would expect Jesus to answer with yes or no, but Jesus gives a much more convincing answer than a simple yes or no. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

     The disciples and John had seen Jesus do all of these wonderful things or at least they had heard about Jesus doing these things. All of these signs of God’s kingdom breaking into our space and time were confirmation that Jesus really is the true Messiah. Bible scholar, Tom Wright refers to these unexplainable moments as signposts that point us to God. We’ve been calling them, “thin place moments.”

     This Sunday of Joy before Christmas Day Joy is a day for us to be open to those signposts and know that there is a God who is working for good in the world. Sometimes, God calls us to be like Isaiah or like the disciples in helping people to see those signposts along life’s journey.

     About six years ago, I attended a leadership conference in Kansas City. A woman who appeared to be in her late 20s sat in the seat next to me. She told me that she worked for H&R Block in Connecticut and flew to Kansas City for a tax seminar. Out of curiosity, she asked me why I had been in Kansas City.

     So I told her about the leadership conference I attended. I told her some of the ways that the host church has been making a difference in the city. As I shared a few of the outreach ministries with her, she would respond to me by saying, “Really? Really? This church is doing all of those good things? I didn’t know churches did things like that.”

     One of the ministries I shared with her was how this church in Kansas City partners with one of the elementary schools in the inner city and provides mattresses for families who can’t afford beds for their children. This young woman looked at me in disbelief and said, “You’re telling me that the people of this church are buying beds for these families?”

     And I said, “Yeah, that’s right.”  And I told her how this school’s test scores have significantly increased because this church has been reaching out to the families of these children through these ministries.

     She said to me, “Do churches really do things like this?” And so I told her about church I was serving. I said, “I’m a pastor of a church in a county seat town in Ohio that does a lot of similar things in the community.”

     I told her about a lot of the things that my church was doing at the time like making blankets for hospice patients, serving community lunches, collecting Christmas gifts for needy families, collecting bears to give to children at the local hospital…All of these outreach ministries to our local community were easy to share because there was so much good that was being done.

     And then I told her about the church’s firewood ministry. We had a bunch of people who loved to chop and split wood and they would stack them at a property owned by the church where people who needed to heat their homes during winter would have access to this free fire wood. That was actually one of my favorite ministries of that church because it was something unique that wasn’t being offered by other churches or organizations in our community.

     This woman sitting next to me on the plane said, “Your church does all of those things?”  And then I shared how we believe that Jesus wants to work through us to bring transformation to our community and world and how this is our mission statement. I then asked her if she attended any church back home in Connecticut.

     She said that she gave up on church a long time ago because she didn’t get anything out of it and she didn’t think churches were really doing anything like I was telling her. She said her most recent church experience was about a year before our conversation when her little niece had become ill and died and she attended the funeral.

  She said that the death of her niece was the most difficult thing she had ever faced and how it left her with a heavy heart. But then something very mysterious happened soon after the funeral. A day or two after that funeral, as she was thinking about her niece and if there was a heaven or not, a great big bright and vivid rainbow appeared in the sky. It was in that moment that she felt that maybe there is a God.

     Well, good thing she sat next to a preacher because I took it from there.  I said, ‘That is what we would call a God moment and I believe that there’s a God who sent Jesus to comfort us especially when we have heavy hearts. And God also wants us to make a difference in the world.”

     I gave her a book about the life of Jesus that I received at the leadership conference and encouraged her to find an active church that would help her to continue to grow in her faith.

     Sometimes, all we need is a signpost or two that point us to God’s love and how God is transforming our community and world through ordinary people like you and me.

    Sometimes, all we need is a bright, vivid rainbow to appear at just the right moment.

    Sometimes, all we need is to unknowingly sit next to a preacher on a plane who will simply listen to you share about how much you miss your niece who died so young.

    Sometimes, during our long journey all we need to do is catch our breath and remind ourselves of the joy that God is offering to us in that very moment. It’s joy that gets us through the tough times in life. It’s a joy that will lead the shepherds to stumble upon the good news of Christ’s birth and change their lives forever.

     Happy pink candle Sunday and even on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, receive the gift of joy!

Light the Candle of Joy!

Sermon Discussion Questions

Isaiah 35:1-10 & Matthew 11:2-11

December 16, 2018

The pink candle around the Advent wreath is to remind us to rejoice even though we are still in a season of waiting for Christmas to come. This Sunday of Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday.” “Gaudete” is a Latin word that means, “rejoice.” The prophet Isaiah calls for the people of Israel to rejoice even though they were living in a foreign land and were at one of their lowest points. 

Share a time when you were feeling low. What helped you to hold on to joy even though things were looking bleak? Who was your Isaiah during that difficult time?

In our Gospel reading for this Sunday, John the Baptist was also facing a low point because he was in prison. He sent word to Jesus asking him if he truly was the One who would bring salvation to the world. Jesus gets word back to John to not forget the many signs that are happening through his ministry.

Share a recent “thin place” moment where you felt God’s presence in a very real way. We call these “thin place” moments because heaven and earth often overlap in beautiful ways even when we might be going through a low time in our lives.

Our Isaiah scripture reading announcing joy ends on a high note when the prophet says, “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

In what ways can we be like Isaiah and Jesus who offered a word of joy to people who were feeling down? What are some helpful ways that we can offer the joy of our faith with others?