Joy as Index of Spiritual Health

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The annual gathering of the Marshall clan occurred this past weekend in Oklahoma. Our roots are deep in the red soil, and we boast pioneers who lived in Indian Territory prior to statehood in 1907. Our family is expanding, and there are now six under the age of six. So great aunt Molly needs to be peppy!

The children were boundless in energy, and it seemed to me, unhindered joy. The adults, on the other hand, spoke about the crises of gun violence, threats from terrorism and, for some, health concerns. Our conversation underscored for me how much we need the joy that arises from deep faith. As life wears on us, the spiritual practice of being joyful becomes more difficult.

The third Sunday of Advent is all about rejoicing, which is why we refer to it as Gaudete Sunday, with rose as the liturgical color. The lectionary texts strike the note of joy, and they teach us that God’s strength in mercy and forgiveness will allow us “to draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).

 

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The prophet Zephaniah offers both warning and hope for Judah. God will fulfill the longstanding promise to the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel if they will turn from idolatry return to faithful worship of the true Redeemer. Most likely the whole of the nation will not repent, but God will preserve a righteous remnant and will restore Jerusalem.

            Thus, the prophet exhorts:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;

shout, O Israel!

Rejoice and exult with all your heart,

O daughter Jerusalem! (Zephaniah 3:14)

Paul encourages the church at Philippi to rejoice, letting go of worry (4:4-7). This is a remarkable witness from one who had known the anxiety of imprisonment, threats to his life, and fear that “his labor had been in vain” (1 Thessalonians 3:5). His faith did not spare him from great trauma and unknowing, yet he urges fellow Christians to demonstrate the joy that arises from grace.

In common faith, the prophet and the apostle grounded their exhortations to rejoicing in the firm belief in the nearness of the Lord. Both spoke out of their confidence in God’s available saving power. Hard to believe in the midst of great human suffering, the promise of God’s project to set the world toward righteousness results in joy.

Johan Sebastian Bach famously observed: “When I have lost my joy, I have lost my connection with God.” He understood that joy runs much deeper than ephemeral circumstances, and that ultimately it is an index of spiritual health.

 

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Rather than allowing fear to overwhelm, we must rejoice. Instead of giving in to despair, we must trust in the delivering power of God. Finally, in faith we can respond as Isaiah instructs:

            Shout aloud and sing for joy . . . for great in your midst is the Holy One (12:6).

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.