[This, or roughly this, is what I said in a sermon I delivered at my church, Mosaic, on December 1st, 2007. For more on Mosaic, cf. http://themosaic.org/.%5D
About a week ago Don [the lead pastor at Mosaic] asked me if I would be interested in preaching tonight, as he and the other staff were going to be away on a retreat. Excited by the opportunity to speak I quickly agreed, and it wasn't until Wednesday when I realised that I had no clue what to speak about. Searching for a topic, I asked my wife, Mel, and she said that I should speak about joy. “After all,” she said, “we hear enough about how broken the world is, and how hard it is to follow Jesus. We need to hear is something about joy.” As soon as she said that, I knew she was onto something, and so I thought I would begin to explore the topic of joy.
Then, I also remembered that this Sunday is a the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the Christian year. You see, traditionally, Christianity followed a calendar that didn't run from January to December, but moved from Advent, through Christmas, then Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and so on. That means that, according to the Church calendar, tonight is New Year's Eve. And what do we do on New Year's Eve? We celebrate by looking back on past and remembering the good that has happened, and looking forward to the future and anticipating the good that has yet to happen.
So, as we think about joy, it is worth asking what do we, as Christians, celebrate?
First and foremost, we celebrate the 'good news' of Jesus Christ. But what is the good news that Jesus brings? Well, Jesus himself summarises this good news in Lk 4.18-19. He says:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and rcovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, (i.e. the remission of debts).
Notice just how physical and concrete this good news is. We are accustomed to think that the good news (i.e. the 'gospel') of Christianity is all about what happens to our souls when we die, but Jesus seems to think that the good news is about what happens to us, and our bodies, here and now. Thus, it is good news for the poor, it is freedom for prisoners, it is healing for the sick, it is release for the oppressed, and it is the release from financial debts.
All of this is summarised in Jesus' proclamation of the forgiveness of sins.
You see, to be a sinner in Jesus' day didn't just mean that you had made some sort of moral mistake, or thought some sort of bad thought in your mind, or something like that. Being a sinner was related to one's social status. Thus, those who were considered 'sinners' were marginalised and excluded — they weren't invited to the same places and parties as the people who had everything together, and who were well respected in society. The 'sinners' were the people that everybody treated like scum. Thus, the attitude that most people in Vancouver have towards people in the downtown eastside would be an example of how people in Jesus' day treated people they considered 'sinners.' In Jesus' day, polite society would call people sinners and then refuse to have anything to do with those people; in our day, polite society calls people 'junkies' and 'whores' and then refuses to have anything to do with those people.
Yet, it is to precisely this sort of people that Jesus brought good news. And this is why 'forgiveness' has to do with every area of life. To be forgiven doesn't just mean that you get to live with God after you die, it also means that you get to live with God, and with one another, here and now. Consequently, Jesus doesn't just tell people that they are forgiven, he enacts their forgiveness. How did he do this? By treating them, not as scum, but as equals. Thus, Jesus eats with the outcasts, he parties with the marginalised, and he touches the untouchables — and by doing these things he freed them, healed them, and showed them that good news for the poor really is good news for the poor.
Now, what is especially wonderful about all of this is that Jesus actually forgave people before they had even repented. When we read the Gospels carefully, we notice that Jesus almost always forgives people who aren't asking for forgiveness. For example, in Mt 9, a paralysed person is brought to Jesus asking to be healed — but Jesus forgives his sins, something the paralysed person wasn't asking for (of course, Jesus also heals him after). What we learn from this is that God's love for us is so great that we are already forgiven before we even repent. Jesus shows us that God doesn't look down on us as sinners that he is waiting to damn — he shows us that God looks down on us with love, and is waiting to welcome us home.
This, then, reverses the standard Christian approach to evangelism (i.e. spreading the good news). Usually we hear something like this: “you need to repent so that you can be forgiven and escape God's anger” but really the message Jesus brings is this: “God loves you and you already are forgiven, so now you can repent.” It is God's unconditional prior offer of forgiveness that empowers us to repent. Otherwise, we don't repent because we are afraid that we won't be forgiven. We start to think, “this time what I've done is so awful that God won't forgive me,” or “maybe God forgave me the first ten times I did this, but I've done this so much now that he won't keep on forgiving me.” Yet, Jesus says that, in all these situations, before we repent we are forgiven. So we can turn and face these things without fear, we can repent and know we will not be rejected.
The story of the prodigal son in Lk 15 illustrates this point quite well. The son goes to his father, takes half his money, and then goes and blows it all on women, booze, and parties, until he is broke and forced to steal food from pigs in order to survive. Realising that maybe he could go back and be one of his father's servants, he plans out this big apology and heads own, rehearsing his big apology over and over again in his mind. But what happens? The father never stopped loving his son, but kept looking for him to come back. Thus, when the father saw the son returning, he ran out down the road to meet his son. Then, before the son even gets a chance to apologise, the father embraces him and welcomes him home. Jesus tells us that this is the same way that God treats us. Before we have even had a chance to say our elaborate apologies, he has already caught us up in a joyful embrace.
Now by bringing good news, and proclaiming forgiveness, Jesus also becomes the revelation of God for us, and God with us. Furthermore, because Jesus is bringing good news to the poor and the outcast, he reveals that God is with us, not only when we are good and doing everything well, but also when we are neither doing good nor doing well. It is incredible that, when God comes to earth, he doesn't spend much of his time with the rich, the well-to-do, the powerful politicians, or the moral religious leaders. Rather, he spends his time with the poor, the oppressed, and the 'sinners.' Not only does he spend his time with them, he also shares their fate. He comes poor, homeless, and oppressed — and is even, at the end of it, put to death because the religious and political leaders don't like what he is doing. Thus, Jesus is the revelation of God with those of us who are in the same situation today. Here is God in solidarity with all who are poor and all who are sinful.
Even more incredibly, Jesus' solidarity with us doesn't stop with his death. Indeed, in between his death and resurrection, Christians believe that Jesus descended into hell in order to set free all who were held captive there. This means that Jesus even shares the fate of those who are damned, and abandoned by God. As odd as it sounds, Jesus becomes the revelation of God with the godforsaken (note, then, his cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mk 15.34]). Thus, this means that there is no one among us outside of the company and love of Jesus. No matter how awful we think we are, no matter how many times we feel we have damned ourselves to hell, and no matter how many times we have been told by others we are going there, Jesus is still with us, revealing that God still loves us.
Of course, Jesus didn't stay dead, nor did he stay in hell, but God raised him to new life, and thus we see that the love of God, revealed in Jesus, is a powerful love. It is a love that overcomes hell, death, and all the other religious and political powers that seek to take away our lives and our joy, by continuing to define us as 'sinners.'
This, then, is why the Christian New Year begins with Advent, with Jesus, God has begun to make everything new — you, me, and the rest of creation, and so we celebrate this by making Advent the start of a new year. We celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ, we celebrate the forgiveness of sins, we celebrate Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us, and we celebrate Jesus' victory over all things, which means we are, here and now, free from all things that oppress us.
The problem with this is that we don't seem to be free. We still suffer sickness. We are still imprisoned. We are still oppressed by religious and political powers. We are still in bondage and enslaved by things like addiction and debt.
So where does this leave us? First of all, it leaves us in a place of hope and joyful expectation. Although we are still sick, all our wounds will one day be healed. Although we are still oppressed, those who oppress us will one day be overthrown. Although we are still in bondage, we will one day be set free. Although we are still suffering, one day God will wipe all the tears from our eyes. Although we are still homeless, one day God will welcome us into the home he has prepared for us.
Secondly, this also means that we are free to offer liberation and forgiveness to one another. Remember how I said that Jesus didn't just tell people they were forgiven, but also enacted that forgiveness by treating others as equals and as those beloved by God? Well, we can do the same thing. Because Christ has already won the victory we can also embody forgiveness in the same way that Jesus embodied it. We can eat together, drink together, party together, and treat each other, not as sinners and as those who are damned, but as God's beloved and as equals.
So, in a moment, we will do a little eating, drinking, and partying together, by sharing in the body and blood of Christ. However, before we do that, I would like us to spend some time in prayer for healing, freedom and release to come here and now. If you are sick, if you are oppressed, if you are in bondage, if you feel as though you are damned, there is good news! Christ has set us free from these things, he will set us free from these things, and he can set us free from these things even now.