Justice, Peace… and Joy

The remains of the city centre of ancient Philippi in northern Greece

As we approach the third Sunday in Advent we explore briefly all the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship; clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

I think there must have been something very special about the Church at Philippi. It is clear from Paul’s letter to the Christian community there how generous they were and how much he appreciated them. He quite literally ‘rejoiced’ in them. Given its comparatively short length the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’ appear proportionately more in the Letter to the Philippians than in any other of his epistles.  I think that we in the Diocese in Europe need to give thanks in a special way for the church in Philippi: according to the book of Acts (Acts 16.11-40) it was the first city actually in the continent of Europe where Paul preached the good news.

‘Rejoice’ is the key note offered in this week’s short lectionary reading from Philippians, Philippians 4.4-7 ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. ‘Joy’ and ‘rejoicing’ is also a theme present in this week’s Old Testament reading, Zephaniah 3.14-20, and in fact also in the suggested canticle, the beautiful Isaiah 12.2-6;

  • Sing aloud, O daughter Zion… Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord… will rejoice over you with gladness (Zephaniah 3.14,  17)
  • With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation… Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion (Isaiah 12.3, 6)

Given this, the Gospel lectionary passage, John 3.7-18, seems initially to offer a jarring contrast. It largely comprises John the Baptist’s strong and stark call for repentance – giving detailed examples of what repentance should mean for his listeners in practical terms, and offering grim warnings of what would happen if they failed to do so. In reading it I was reminded again of the comment by Fleming Routledge, that I drew on in the blog last week, that John the Baptist was in many ways the foremost figure of Advent – but she had never seen a picture of him on any Advent calendar.

But there is one fascinating – yet rarely remarked on – note in these verses from Luke 3. The passage ends with verse 18 which reads, ‘So with many other exhortations he proclaimed the good news to the people.’ Good news? A an intriguing, and perhaps rather unexpected, description of what we have just been told about John’s message. I will return to this in a moment.

One of the Taize chants that I have got to know and cherish in recent years is

‘The kingdom of God is justice and peace. And joy in the Holy Spirit.
Come, Lord and open in us the gates of your kingdom’.

You can hear it sung here. The Kingdom Of God (Taize) – YouTube 

It was I think first published in 2001, so it is perhaps not one of the most familiar of Taize chants. It is a marginally adapted quotation of Romans 14.17 – though its completely legitimate choice of the word ‘justice’ rather than ‘righteousness’ for the Greek dikaiosune,  means that it is not always  immediately recognised as such. I remember when I had the privilege of working at the World Council of Churches thinking to myself that the WCC was very good at the ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ aspect of the chant, but perhaps it still had a little way to go with ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’!

But maybe I needed to ask myself what is meant by ‘joy’ – that concept which is present (certainly as a verb) in three of this week’s readings?  It is certainly not about being ‘happy’ in a simplistic sort of way. I think the best short description I have read of ‘joy’ is that offered by Bishop Nick Baines, ‘Joy comes when faith is alive, curiosity is inflamed and the mind is stretched.’

Joy isn’t a facile sense of happiness, but it is being able to see something shining out there – beyond  obvious gloom and despondency and becoming excited and hopeful at the vision which lies before us. Sometimes we are not even sure what that something is, but we trust that it continues to shine.  In that sense  ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’ is exactly the right partner for the Kingdom of God as ‘justice and peace’.

Joy is also exactly the right accompaniment for the weeks of Advent: we don’t need to save up ‘joy’ until Christ is born at Christmas. We can rightly be joyful on this Third Sunday of Advent! Joy is the more intense partly due to the darkness that is still around us which means that the hope of the promise has to shine still more strongly .

Back to the Gospel reading and that ‘good news’ which the Baptist brought. This is the man over whom the ‘good news’ of the Song of Zechariah (the Benedictus) was sung as an infant (Luke 1.68-79), a song which concludes with the pledge that through him our feet will be guided into the way of peace, and who preached a kingdom that demanded justice and integrity (Luke 3.13-14; 7.29). Certainly he did not offer a facile happiness to his listeners, but as he encouraged them to wait expectantly for God to act he stretched their minds, inflamed their curiosity, and challenged them to a living faith. He offered them joy.

The following hymn was written recently for this season of joy by Very Revd Frankie Ward and is reproduced with her permission:

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