The Sunday Sermon: Rejoice, Anyway

Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is known as “Gaudete” Sunday. That means “Rejoice”. For those who treat Advent as a penitential season of fasting, today is the mid-point when you can take a break, have that glass of wine or piece of chocolate. It’s a companion to the fourth Sunday in Lent, and both Sundays are known as Rose Sunday, which is why we have lit a pink candle today. In some churches the clergy wear rose vestments on this day, but sadly we don’t have a full set of rose here. If you look at our Scripture readings you can see the Rejoice theme reflected, in the Zephaniah passage – “Rejoice and exult with all your heart” – in the response from Isaiah – “Shout aloud and sing for joy” – and in the verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians – “rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”

Why all this rejoicing? The feast of the nativity is drawing near. We are more than halfway through our seasonal preparation for the coming of our Lord into the world. We rejoice because, all evidence to the contrary, we hope and expect that the coming of Jesus will make a difference, that we will take a step closer to peace and goodwill for all, that the pain of the world will be healed and all people will know the salvation of our God.

We never lose hope that the vision of Zephaniah will be fulfilled. The prophet speaks confidently, proclaiming the mighty deeds of God. The Lord your God is in your midst, says Zephaniah. No need to wait for some future event: God is here with us now. Isaiah too proclaims that the Holy One of Israel is in the midst of the people. Emmanuel is here now, moving among us, saving the lame and restoring the outcast. It’s all good news.

But then we turn to the Gospel, and things don’t look quite so rosy. The facade of joy begins to crack. John the Baptist doesn’t mince his words: you brood of vipers, he says, it’s time to shape up. He offers threatening images of axes and fire – and after seeing the media coverage of the wildfires this fall, with the horrifying accounts of a fire that traveled miles within minutes, I find his language all the more vivid. John’s mission is to disillusion the people who imagine that their choice of religious tradition makes them immune from God’s judgment. It’s what you do with your life that matters, not your self-image as a person of faith. Turn your life around, thunders John. Practice generosity, integrity, honesty … or else. John even describes the Messiah as a figure of terror. And then the last sentence calls John’s preaching good news: I always find that quite funny.

Now that the Gospel has burst the cosy bubble of joy and gladness, we take a second look at the other readings and find a tension just under the surface. Zephaniah calls on the people to rejoice only after a lengthy condemnation of God’s people for their faithlessness. He foresees invasion, ruin, and terror, speaking of the day of wrath when the whole earth will be consumed in the fire of God’s passion.

Isaiah’s song of trust in God was written in the context of a nation that had been defeated by and become subservient to the Assyrian empire. All around the prophet was injustice, oppression, and fear. And yet he found the grace to imagine joy and gratitude for salvation.

And the letter to the Philippians was written by St Paul when he was in prison, possibly awaiting execution. How could he speak of peace, joy, and thanksgiving in this situation?

As it goes with Scripture, so it goes in our own lives. We see the world in a mess: climate change causing hardship and famine, governments financing international violence, homelessness becoming ever more prevalent, the poor becoming poorer, health care costs rising … and yet … Advent. This season of hope and expectation lifts our hearts in spite of all that’s going on in the world. We are called to rejoice anyway, to give thanks anyway, to find the peace that passes all understanding anyway.

The tension is real: Advent is a time when we look forward to joy even while we feel anxious and stressed. For many of us this time of year carries associations of sadness and loss, crashing into the seasonal joy, and the manic celebrations in the world around us make it difficult to admit to the pain. My personal Advent tension resides in two indelible memories: one, from 1986, of having to wait until Christmas Eve to get a doctor’s appointment for a pregnancy test, an Advent that ended in great joy; the other, this week six years ago, of what still feels like the longest week of my life, after my ex-husband died unexpectedly and I had to wait for my younger son to come home from law school before I could get my arms around him.

This Advent there are some among us mourning the death of a family member. There are some who have suddenly become unemployed. There are some who are separated from loved ones by a family conflict. There are some facing serious and even terminal illness. And yet we all come together to make Eucharist and give thanks for the God who loves us and who is coming to us. As a community there is much to be thankful for. There’s a renewed spirit of community, a new energy in this congregation. We are at the start of a year of celebrating the last 150 years of ministry and looking forward to the project of positioning ourselves for the next 150. We are together, and we are surviving, and we are thriving, with innovative forms of ministry that are reaching our far beyond our walls, ministries like live-streaming and Faith2Go. And so we give thanks, anyway.

Rejoice in the Lord always, says the apostle. Bear fruits worthy of repentance, admonishes the Baptizer. Stir up your power O Lord and with great might come among us, implores the Collect for today. We feel the Advent tension and so we pray for God to be manifest among us, even while we follow Scripture’s instructions to give thanks always, gathering as the body of Christ to share the meal that makes us one, making Eucharist and inviting all the world to join us at the table. And we never lose hope in the promise: that the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in the love and knowledge of Jesus Christ our Savior, the one who is coming, and who is already among us.

December 16, 2018 

The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges   

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