There is no greater witness to Jesus than a heart filled with joy. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit which ripens in our lives when Jesus is living within us. When we are radiating peace and happiness, it tells others that there is something different about us. Others will notice that we do not complain in the midst of difficulties or gossip about others who might rub us the wrong way. They will wonder what is different about us. They will want the joy that we have. And all we will have to do is tell them the truth. It all comes from Jesus, and if they give their lives to Him, they will know the same peace and joy.
We do not tend to think of John the Baptist as a joyful person. From our reading of the gospel, he seemed like a fiery character preaching the wrath of God. While he certainly warned those who heard him that they must repent of their sins, he could not have drawn so many people to the banks of the Jordan River if all he did was preach condemnation and judgment. There had to be a joy radiating from him which made so many people want to stop and listen to him.
Where did John the Baptist’s joy come from? It came from understanding who he was. Having so many people follow him and getting so much attention could have easily gone to John’s head. His popularity may have tempted him to use his power for his own gain. He may have begun to think that because he had so many followers he deserved special treatment. But John knew all along that it was not about him. He had to point people to someone else. As he tells the priests and Levites in the gospel we have just heard, someone was coming after him who was greater than he. For John the Baptist, the focus was not on him, what he was doing or how many followers he had. The focus was always on Jesus. As he would say later in John’s gospel, “I must decrease, and He must increase.”
The world tells us something quite different. Society tells us to put ourselves and our needs first. However, when we put ourselves on center stage, we immediately start to feel as though we are not getting everything we deserve. We wonder why people are not paying more attention to us. We become jealous of others who have more than we do. When someone offends us, we become so insulted that we can brood over it for years. Nothing is ever enough. We always want more, and so we always feel unsatisfied. Joy cannot survive in a selfish person. The only sentiments that can take root in such a person are bitterness and resentment.
How different life is when we give everything over to Jesus. As Christians and as human beings, joy begins to flood our soul when we take the focus off ourselves and place it on Jesus. When God takes center stage in our lives, we begin to see everything we have as a blessing. Even when we face difficulties, we know that our Heavenly Father is in control. No matter how others treat us, we have confidence in God’s love for us and that nothing can change that love for us. We experience less anxiety because we understand that our Heavenly Father has a plan for us and that He is at work accomplishing His will in us. When, like John the Baptist, we draw attention to Jesus and not to ourselves, worry and anxiety flee and joy wells up within us.
How can we begin to take the focus off ourselves to experience the joy that only Jesus can give? Saint Paul teaches us how in the second reading from the letter to the Thessalonians by telling us that we should “render constant thanks.” When we are thankful, we admit that everything that is good in our lives is a gift from God. Gratitude puts the focus on our Heavenly Father, His love and His willingness to supply all our needs. Giving thanks helps us to correct the attitude that we so often have that we deserve more, that we are entitled to something better. Stopping throughout the day to be thankful for the people who love us, for the good things we enjoy and for the beauty of creation which surrounds us will bring joy to full flower in our lives.
Saint Paul also tells us that we are to rejoice always and in every circumstance. It is easy to be happy when things are going well, when we have our health and when we have enough money. But when we encounter problems, that type of happiness dissolves quickly. Christian joy is very different. It stays with us both in good times and in bad times. It gives us gratitude when times are good and holds us up when times are tough. As Christians with the joy of Jesus in our hearts, we must rejoice even when things are not going our way, when we face tragedies and when life becomes burdensome. We rejoice because we know that God has a plan and that He is in control. He will be with us through it all and will see us through it. How can we do anything else but rejoice when a God who can do all things is by our side?
Joy is a sure sign of a heart that is given over to Jesus. We gather here today to worship, to express our joy to the God who is at the center of our lives. And so we sing, we pray, we kneel and we lift up our hearts to our loving Father. Though we so often lose sight of Him, He never loses sight of us. For too long now we have carried around the burden of bitterness. It is time to dump it at the foot of the cross and put our focus on Jesus from here on out. It is time for us to know the joy that only He can give us, a joy that can never leave us.
(image by Marisol Sousa)