12/16/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

So Where's the Joy?

This is not another song
About all we've done wrong
We already know
I think it's time for us
To find the freedom in the trust
Of letting go . . .
You and I were made for more
Can't imagine what's in store
We were meant to soar
Like an eagle
Leave religion at the door
Raise the roof and shake the floor
Let's get loud and let's explore
Joy unspeakable...

(From "Joy Unspeakable" by Mandisa)

Where is the Joy? Was it just an odd coincidence or not, that Nelson Mandela's funeral was held this Sunday? Mandela, buried on Joy Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent traditionally celebrated in the lighting of the third Advent candle -- the candle of Joy.

Joy is not what we feel when a great man is taken from us, even at the end of his years. Of course there is joyful remembrance in the life and legacy of a man who had such a positive impact in the world; but there is no joy at the graveside of anyone we love and admire. Gravesides are places of deep sorrow, where we are confronted with the grim finality that death does not give back our love or loss.

Joy is not what people in prison or any other kind of trouble experience. This Sunday, was it just by odd coincidence or not, that the Advent gospel reading was the account of John the Baptizer -- imprisoned for daring to tell the truth to power. Amid the Advent Joy of Christmas we are confronted by John's anguished question from prison to Jesus -- "are you the One, or is there another?"

We can only begin to imagine the darkness going on in John's head and heart. After devoting his life to "preparing the way for the Lord," after baptizing Jesus in the Jordan, and after hearing of Jesus' magnificent proclamation --

the Lord has anointed me... sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

(Luke 4 CEB) - John finds himself summarily imprisoned by King Herod, with little hope of clemency. How could this possibly happen to the number one advance man of God's kingdom, the coming of Jesus Christ? I'd certainly want to know if Jesus was really the One I was waiting and working for - or if I was badly mistaken? And if he was the One, I'd surely demand to know what he was going to do to get me out of prison, and when!

John's painful situation and his hauntingly painful question confront us during Advent. There is no joy in John's world, no hint of celebration in his question - just the deep aching in the heart of a man who needs to know the truth about his life and the God on whom he had staked his life. Jesus -- are you the One, or is there someone else?

Some years ago, during a meeting with the governor of Upper Prison in Uganda, I was invited to visit the "condemned section" -- death row. For me there is nothing quite as depressing and tragically oppressive as being ushered into the anteroom of a prison's killing chamber where condemned people live and wait to be executed. For some reason the governor noticed the expression that must have crossed my face during his invitation -- "Oh, there is no need to be at all concerned," he stated, "you will actually find more joy among our condemned that you will find anywhere else in Uganda!" As preposterous as it sounded to me that is exactly what I found after we made our way into the innermost part of the prison where ninety condemned men were confined.

Like John the Baptizer, many of them had also struggled through the anguish of their situation, angry at God the government and the world. But on death row, with nothing to lose and nothing to gain the answer that they found filled their lives with joy, a quality of which I can only describe as being "an unspeakable joy and full of glory." As I met with those prisoners I experienced the presence of Jesus like I have seldom experienced in any church service or religious celebration. Their joy was infectious, because they absolutely knew that Jesus was the One, their Savior -- their only hope and advocate, the only anchor for their soul on this side of the hangman's noose and the other.

John's question echoes through the prisons of the world and through our own periods of trouble and distress. During this Advent the Lord answers that question as he answered John, gently pointing to the evidence of God's grace and love -- the blind who are seeing, the deaf who are hearing, the lame who are walking, the sick who are healed, and the poor who are receiving good news. He does not promise that it will be the same for us, nor does he rebuke us for the question. He simply invites us to open our eyes to see the evidence of his coming into the world and into our lives. The presence of Jesus brings us an unspeakable liberating Joy beyond our personal prisons; the macabre anterooms of death we face; and even at the graveside of our dreams and jobs and the friends we've loved.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room...
Joy to the world! the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods
Rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy...
No more let sin and sorrow grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make
His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found...
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of his love...

(From "Joy to the World" by Isaac Watts)