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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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The Least Likely Joy

Series: Sermons for an Isolated Advent

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: john, joy, rejoice

December 13, 2020    The Third Sunday of Advent

Saint James’ Church, Florence, Italy

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:16: “Rejoice always.”


Here is the entirety of the sixteenth verse of the fifth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always.” 

How does that sound to you today? How does that sound to you at the end of this awful year? How does that sound to you with Tuscany spending another week in the Orange Zone, with none of us being able to travel outside our cities? 

Do you feel like rejoicing?

How do you think it would go for us if we went left here and went out into the world wearing buttons that said, “Rejoice Always!” “Rallegrati Sempre!” 

What do you suppose they would think of us?

But that is the Christian message today. That is our message for the world today. Today, of all days. Right now, of all times. We are meant to go into the world bearing this message: Rejoice Always! 

How on earth can we believe that message ourselves—much less be the bearers of that idea in this world? 

There is an answer to that, and it may not be the answer you imagine it is. In fact the answer may be the least likely joy you ever thought you’d find. And the answer has something to do with this little story we just heard about John the Baptist.

We talked about John last week. This morning he does something the world around us regards as subversive—or insane. 

Everyone is coming out to see him. Everyone wants to hear him. Everyone is curious about him. Some of them are talking. They think maybe he’s the one. They get others talking. There’s a buzz around John. He is the celebrity of the moment. Everyone is wondering what he’ll do next, what he’ll say next. He could get them to do anything.

And what does he do? At that very moment, at the pinnacle of his influence, he moves himself out of the spotlight. He teaches the people around him by his own example; he moves himself out of the center of his own story, in order to make a place for God.

That’s the key to our rejoicing. That’s the key to how we can both find, and share, that joy. As long as we are the center of our lives, our worries, our frailties, our fears, our struggles are going to overwhelm us. 

Those of you who are parents already know a little bit about this. Because you have lived through that moment of beholding this new life you have brought into the world, and suddenly realizing that you are no longer the center of your own world. You have been decentered from your own story. You have been dethroned as the sovereign of your own realm.

That’s good practice. Because all of us who are disciples are meant to live through such a moment. God’s hope for us is that we will take all of these talents we have been given, all of these skills, all of this knowledge, and once we realize all we have been given, step out of the center of our own lives so that God has a place to come and be with us. 

Not on the edges; not on the fringes; not in the tiny guest room we keep for occasional visitors, but right in the center of our lives. 

The only way we can do that is to follow John’s example—to step aside, right at the height of our own possibilities, to make room for what is coming. That may sound a little like being diminished. But it is just the opposite.

Because it is the answer to the question: How can we live up to those two words—“Rejoice always”? How can we possibly find joy in this world, in this time of trouble?

If we step out of the center of our own story and make space for what is coming, we will discover at the center of our lives the very source of light and love that is the God who comes to live among us in this world. 

Instead of our own troubles at the very core of our being, instead of being dominated by the things that give us fear, or worry, or distress, in the center of our souls will be God’s joy, God’s light, God’s reckless, unfettered, unconquerable love. 

When that is true, then yes—we will rejoice, always. Christians are meant to be many things—compassionate, forgiving, merciful—but we are also meant to be defiant. As the Prayer Book teaches us, even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! 

Well, by God’s grace we are not there yet. We are here, in the midst of sorrow and stress, worry and woe. And here is our song; Rejoice always! It’s not a suggestion; it’s our duty. God is coming into our lives; and if we move over just a little bit and make room, the joy that can only come from God’s love—God’s love for us—will come and transform us, too. Amen.