I want each of us, where we are, to pause for just a moment. Let the stillness sink in. Notice where we are: who is around us; the smells and sounds. Take the things that might be pulling your attention away from here, from this moment, and set them to one side. Take a deep breath.
And now welcome to Advent 3.
Welcome, my friends, to Gaudete Sunday – the Sunday of Rejoicing, the Sunday of Joy.
The reason that I had you pause just now is because I suspect that your minds, like mine, have been going with a million things – things still to buy, places to go, trips that we are preparing for, work that we need to do. But the call of Advent and the gift of the church in this season is to listen to a different voice, a voice that offers hope in the face of our fear, peace to our busy hearts, and joy in the face of all that would try to steal it.
In the Church we are given a space where we can stop for a moment and just be. Where we can step out of the chaos and the fray, set aside our hopes and concerns, and rest as the beloved children of God.
In the stillness, listen to the Lord singing over us, his beloved children. Singing over you. Rejoicing in you: in your presence here, and in your very existence. Listen to his joy pounding in your heart.
The prophet Zephaniah describes the Lord’s joy over his people wonderfully: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” And although Zephaniah was writing almost three thousand years ago, to a different people and a different culture, in circumstances very different from ours, the Lord’s deep delight over us is just as profound as it was over the Israelites then.
Most of our readings today, the Third Sunday of Advent, reverberate with joy. We have Zephaniah’s voice ringing out exultantly: “The Lord is singing over you! God is shouting for joy in our midst! He is mighty to save!” The prophet Isaiah in our canticle cries out: “Shout aloud and sing for joy, sing praises to the Lord!” And the Apostle Paul joins this call: “Rejoice always, I say again: rejoice!”
But then we get to our Gospel reading, and I was joking with the Wednesday Bible Study group that I would begin my sermon the way John the Baptist begins his: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
I don’t know about you, but any warm feelings that the other passages might have evoked in me took a big step back when I read this. Whoa, who invited him to the Third Sunday of Advent Joy party? What is he doing here in our readings?
The Message is for Everyone: No matter who you are…
Well. It is, in fact, absolutely right that John the Baptist should be invited to the Joy party this morning. His message is critical to understanding the fulness and depth of the other joyful passages, because John’s message above all makes it clear that this news, this reason for the joy that we are celebrating, is for absolutely everyone, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.
It was a very mixed crowd listening to this strange wilderness prophet that day: Roman soldiers, Pharisees and Sadducees, tax collectors, and generic crowds, and no matter who he was speaking to, his message was the same, and it rang out loud and clear: the Messiah is on the way, and everyone is in the same boat, no matter who they are. No matter who was listening, no matter what their denomination or background or status or occupation, John’s message applied to them too.
And what is the good news that he is bringing?
The news that the Lord is near, and that everyone, whether the religious elite, the descendants of Abraham, the people in charge, the riffraff or rabble or common folk: everyone, across the board, could be saved, that no matter who John was speaking to that day, they too could be the wheat that the Lord would be gathering into his granary.
The good news that John the Baptist proclaims is that there is room for everyone in the kingdom of God.
…or What You’ve Done…
… Room, no matter what we may or may not have done. John’s message is not to those who are perfect, or even good, and nor is it a way of making themselves perfect or even good. Rather, it is a call to turn around. The literal meaning of the word ‘repent’ is to ‘think differently’, to ‘change your mind’. John is calling the crowds to turn, to accept that they have not lived a perfect life, and to prepare their hearts for the Messiah who is coming.
And the good news for us is that this opportunity is still open: whether we have never given much thought to Jesus, or we are pretty confident that we’ve been doing a fairly good job, or we know that we have messed up and don’t know how to work our way back: John’s call to repentance is for each of us, to turn, to admit that we have sinned, and to accept that there is a way back.
John’s call is to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord, to be ready to believe that this person called Jesus is not just any person but is the God of the Universe, calling each of our names, asking us to give our fears, our hopes, and our desires, and most of all our imperfection and sin to him. And he, in return, gives us his perfection.
…Or What Your Circumstances Are (“A Continual, Defiant, Nevertheless”)
To the Philippians in the early days of the Christian Church, the good news was that despite oppression, despite the many anxieties that the Philippian Church had, despite the fact that the Apostle Paul himself was in prison, the Lord was near.
“Rejoice always: I say it again, rejoice!” Paul writes to them from the depths of his prison, and far from being a burden to the Church, one more command that we fail to live up to, rather I encourage you to hear this today as a a word of hope breathed into your life, the word of hope that Paul clung to in his prison. You may not feel at all like rejoicing, and there may be so many reasons why this season is particularly difficult for you right now. But the joy that Paul holds out to the Philippians, and to us, is the assurance that we can cling to with all our being, even when the night is darkest and there is not a scrap of happiness to be found: The Lord is still near. We may not be able to feel him or sense him or even believe very strongly that it’s true. But somewhere deep in the darkness we can hold fast to the truth that the baby whose birth we will celebrate in a few short days is the same Lord who is singing with delight over us.
The Lord is near.
The theologian Karl Barth once called joy a “continual defiant ‘Nevertheless’.” A continual, defiant, nevertheless. Though all in your life may be falling apart right now, nevertheless, we cling stubbornly, defiantly to this truth: the Lord is near, and the Lord cares.
…The Lord is Near
The message of Advent three is indeed one of joy, because this good news is for every single person.
To the person who has never stepped into a church before: the Lord is near to you.
To the person who has done unspeakable crimes and there is no way, no absolute way this message could be for you: nonetheless, the Lord is near to you.
To the person who is anxious about work, to the person who cries to sleep at night, to the person who can’t see a way through the darkness: the Lord is near to you.
To the person who looks in the mirror and sees someone not worth loving: the Lord is near to you.
To the person who is waiting for a medical diagnosis, or who is struggling with health issues, mental health issues, or depression: the Lord is near to you.
To the person who been keeping vigil or grieving the loss of loved ones: the Lord is near to you.
And nothing, nothing you can do will turn away his loving gaze from you or stop his singing with delight over you.
So come. Come hold fast to this joy that the Church proclaims on this 3rd Sunday of Advent. Come to the table and get a foretaste of the deeper joy that we will all taste one day. And then go, and carry this joy to those outside these walls who also need to know that the Lord is near. And maybe together, we can hear the singing.