Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126: 1-2, 8-13; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran Pastor during World War II. For his involvement in an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer was sentenced by the Gestapo, and ultimately executed, tragically, only a few days before Germany’s surrender to the Allies. While in prison, Bonhoeffer was courageous, and productive – writing a plethora of letters, theological documents, books, poems, sermons, hymns – many of which were carefully smuggled out of prison, which is why we have them to today.
One of the sermons Bonhoeffer wrote while in prison was on the occasion of his best friend’s wedding. As an engaged man, who sadly never married, Dietrich Bonhoeffer nevertheless understood quite a bit about marriage. Such understanding is evident in his sermon entitled “A Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell,” written in May of 1943. Bonhoeffer writes: “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that will sustain your love.”
When I meet with couples prior to their wedding, the line from this sermon often comes to my mind. I typically catch couples a bit off-guard when I tell them that the word “happily ever after” is nowhere found in the Book of Common Prayer Wedding Service. In fact, the word “happy” is never mentioned at all in the prayer book wedding service. That omission is intentional – the prayer book, and the church, are telling us that marriage is not about happiness.
It is about something greater: joy.
The prayer book states that marriage is intended by God for mutual joy, not happiness.
What is the difference between joy and happiness then? Joy is a spiritual practice that comes out of our faith, hope, and our gratitude. Joy comes from God. Joy is what enables a homeless person with next to nothing to say, “I am blessed, because I am alive.” That’s joy – its source is God. Happiness - what makes us happy? What would make me happy today is if the Texans beat the Colts today, but that happiness is fleeting, because as a Houston football fan, I am well acquainted with suffering. Happiness is fleeting – it never lasts, but joy is permanent.
This past Monday, I went MD Anderson hospital to visit someone, and on my way to the room where the person was, I saw people who were immeasurably sick. They were in clear and obvious pain. Many of them were scared, uncertain if their treatments would succeed. You can read it all over their faces. But there are also patients there whose situation isn’t any better than the rest, and yet there is something different about them. It’s impossible not to notice. They’re shining. The expression of joy – not happiness – on their faces makes them radiant and beautiful.
I found myself the recipient of their joy – the person in the wheelchair or bed with joy – they were ministers of God’s hope to me. What a blessing it was to be a recipient of their gift – their courage and their joy. I confess I did not feel worthy to receive it.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” writes the Apostle Paul in today’s Epistle. We forget these words at our own peril. In the midst of our harried and busy activity – searching for gifts to makes others happy, we might find ourselves impoverished in the absence of joy. It is no secret that I experienced more real and transcendent joy in MD Anderson, or in reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison than I ever do anywhere in the Galleria.
Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word meaning “rejoice.” It is the first word of today’s epistle, and we are reminded that no matter what, we have a reason to be joyful - the Messiah, the true king of the world, is to be born. That is the reason for the rose colored candle on our Advent wreath – it is to remind us that in the midst of darkness, we have a reason to be joyful. And that reason is Jesus Christ.
Why does it seem that an imprisoned German pastor facing execution and the dying in the hospitals seem to truly understand joy – not the artificial expressions joy we see on forced smiles in Christmas cards, but real, everlasting joy? What do they have that so many of us seem to lack? Today is Gaudete. Rejoice, always. Your joy is God’s gift. AMEN.