Sermon given at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Advent 2017
The Reverend Canon Dr Emma Percy, Chaplain, Trinity College, Oxford
Sunday, 17th December 2017 at 3.00 PM
According to Pollyanna’s father in the classic children’s book by Eleanor Porter, there are 800 rejoicing texts in the Bible; verses that tells us to rejoice, be glad, shout for joy. We are told that he knows this because at a particularly low point when he was close to despair he counted them. He tells his daughter that if God told us to do this so many times then we really ought to try to do so.
We often assume that rejoicing or being glad is a spontaneous reaction to something good. It is an emotional response and that is certainly true some events, people, sights, news just fill us with joy. Yet, rejoicing can also be a discipline, a virtue, a habit of mind rooted as this passage reminds us in thankfulness and trust in God. Being grateful for life, counting our blessings looking for the chinks of light even in difficult times becomes easier with practice.
This practice of joy lies at the heart of Porter’s novel Pollyanna. The child is taught by her father to play the Glad game, to try to reflect, especially in difficult situations, on where a glimpse of joy could be found. Many come to this story, and particularly the rather saccharine film version, without a sense of the Christian theology that lies behind it, and see this as an unrealistic kind of cheery denial. ‘Yes, you are hurting but oh look the flowers are pretty’. So, Pollyanna has made it into the dictionary as a term for someone who is overly optimistic, and even inappropriately cheerful in the face of life’s troubles.
This, though, is a misreading of the story and would definitely be a misreading of the theology behind it which is captured in our second scripture reading Philippians 4:4-7. In the story Pollyanna does not underestimate the traumas of the world, she is an orphan, she has known loss, poverty, displacement and disappointment. However, she believes in a God who will not abandon her and she has learnt to look for a perspective in life that helps her to live hopefully amidst all that she cannot control rather than falling into despair at the unfairness of life. The glad game does not diminish the reality of suffering instead it offers a way of finding resilience and hope; not only for herself but for others who learn through her to look at life differently.
This wonderful reading from Philippians is about learning to find such a perspective. It encourages us to rejoice because we can trust in God. It encourages a habit of mind that does not focus on the worrying and anxiety that seems to be a constant part of our modern existence but to find in Christ a level of peace in our hearts and minds. In this context rejoicing becomes less a spontaneous reaction to good things and more a virtue.
The modern secular philosopher Alain De Botton is interested in religion and the benefits to mental well-being that often come with practicing a faith. A number of years ago he wrote in the Observer about the habit of ‘thankfulness’ commenting that religious people have someone to say thank you to for the good things in life. They see a beautiful sunset and give thanks, they give thanks for their food, for the people they love. He is fascinated at how this habit of thankfulness alters the perspective on life which becomes gift.
And this habit of thankfulness provides strength through the difficult times, it offers an ability to be grateful for getting through that tough day, for the people who care when you or your love ones are suffering, it provides, as this passage reminds us, an antidote to the constant worry and anxiety of our age. This is not about a cheery denial that dismisses the things cause us anxiety it is instead a trust that ‘even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death your rod and your staff will comfort me’.
Last autumn I found myself walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Not my own death but the dying of my younger brother. He came to live with us once it was clear that his cancer was in the last stage. There was much that was tough, much that was sad, I watched a man in his late 40’s turn into an old man before my eyes.
Yet there was also joy, laughter, love and hope. We were thankful for the space we had and the supportive friends who made it possible for him to live with us. We enjoyed good food and wine, we rejoiced in the beauty of nature, autumn sunshine, a warm kitchen after a chilly walk. We rejoiced in a family that, though complex, provided us with a relationship where we could trust each other. And we trusted in the God who we were both in the habit of trusting. We offered prayers for the ability to see this through well, I offered in prayer my fears and anxieties, my sorrow and my sense of inadequacy. We trusted that hard as this was we would be sustained through it. We trusted that the inevitable death was an end of suffering, an end of life as we knew it but not an end of his living.
The habit of trusting in God, of finding joy in the little things, of being thankful for each day sustained us.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief in the immense love of God for each of us, a love that is stronger than death. ‘Love came down at Christmas’ wrote Christina Rossetti, Emmanuel God with us, understanding human frailty seeing life from our limited perspective. The advent message is to rejoice and trust in this love. Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel shall come to us.
So, 800 times we are told to rejoice or be glad. I encourage you to get into the habit of doing so. Do not allow the worries of the world to overwhelm you, do not be drawn into a kind of fatalistic despair. Instead develop trust in God and thankfulness for the love of God. This will not make the worries go away but it will change your capacity to cope with them as you find in your heart and mind the peace of Christ, an anchor in any storm and a light in even the darkest night.
Rejoice in the lord always and again I say rejoice.