The Gospel: John 1:6-8,19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Prayer: Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that you have inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation, and that you will empower our application. Amen
The Message: Well, good morning and welcome to the third Sunday of Advent. The first thing I have to say this morning is that the order of the wording of our Advent banners is different from the one that we follow.
I am sure that someone in our congregation this morning has already picked that up. Or they noticed it several years ago and have been kind enough not to bring it to my attention. All I can say is that when I ordered the banners several years ago I did not proof them closely enough and did not notice that they represent some other church's order for the focus words for Advent.
Today we are focusing on Joy. You will have noticed that we lit the pink candle this morning. This Sunday is also known, more traditionally in the Roman Catholic church, as Gaudete Sunday. It is an option for us as Episcopalians to celebrate this day. It was the practice of this congregation when I came and we have continued to celebrate it.
Gaudete is a Latin word which means rejoice. Our use of it comes from the opening words of the introit antiphon, “Rejoice (Gaudete) in the Lord always.” This of course is a musical interpretation of Philippians 4: 4: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice."
There was a time, the history of the church, in its broad sense, when Advent was a much more penitential/reflective time. This season was much more like how we observe Lent. People would set aside time for quiet observance and reflection. Preparing their hearts for the coming of Christ by acknowledging their sins and shortcomings.
Over time some people felt that after two weeks of reflection, penitence and that there needed to be an opportunity for the expression of joy. So, at this midway point in Advent, it was decided to have the opportunity to rejoice. The introit antiphon was used as part of the worship on this Sunday and that is how it became known as "Gaudete Sunday." It was and is an opportunity to focus on Joy after the period of somber reflection.
So, as we gather today we have the opportunity to join, in celebrating joyfully, with many others across this nation, and indeed across the world as we anticipate the coming of the Lord. We too, can express our joy that our sins have been forgiven.
Remember what I said last week about peace coming from repentance?
Well, "Fullness of Joy" comes from our own understanding and acceptance that our repentance has been heard and that we have been forgiven. That the Lord has heard our cries of repentance and has wiped away our transgressions.
Our reading from Isaiah today is a familiar one. Luke quotes Jesus saying this in Luke 4: 14-19 when he opens the scroll in the temple in his hometown of Nazareth. These verses resound with joy, don't they? This is truly good news for everyone. Isiah proclaimed these verses as the way that the Messiah would bring, in his bringing, the new kingdom of God into the world. Jesus quotes them as a proclamation of the beginning of his ministry as the Messiah.
What a great vision this is of the world under the Messiah's rule and reign. A place of reclamation and restoration. A place where it is a joy to live and be in relationship with others living in this place of God's grace and love.
The first verse of Psalm 126 sums it all up beautifully:
"When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream."
The people of the exile could only dream of what it would be like to be able to return and live in "the promised land" once more. And then suddenly, in an astounding way, they found them living out their dream.
Isn't that what it is like for us? We become aware of some issue, some, for want of a better word, "sin" in our lives and we bring that sin before the Lord. We declare our awareness of how we have transgressed. We seek the Lord's forgiveness. We begin to long for a life without the impact of that sin. We begin to dream what it would be like to know the forgiveness of God. To know the freedom of living our lives free of the burden of our actions and the impact on other people.
Now, sometimes that can happen in an instantaneous way. Sometimes we can feel the lifting of our guilt and our shame and we can commit ourselves to living in a new way. Quite often, unfortunately, we find ourselves bringing that sin before the lord, over and over again, sometimes we can begin to wonder if forgiveness and freedom are ever going to be possible. We are reminded of the people of Israel wandering in the desert, free from captivity and longing to reach the promised land. Forty long years of holding on to the possibility of the dream of reaching the Lord's promised place for them. Or the people of the exile in Babylon living out the 70 years of their banishment from Zion.
Then suddenly something shifts, something changes, and we feel like we have been drawn close to the heart of God. We recognize that we have indeed been forgiven. We experience the truth of verses 6 and 7 of Psalm 126 for ourselves:
"Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves."
We experience an inexpressible and irrepressible joy. We are flooded with joy. Our lives are never the same again.
Joy is a recurring theme throughout Paul's writings. Philippians is full of references to joy. That is where the introit antiphon we talked about earlier comes from in Philippians 4: 4: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." We hear it in this morning's passage from Thessalonians:
"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."
But then Paul adds a challenge. It is almost as if he wants us to be sure that we understand what he means when he says rejoice always. Because he goes on and says: "pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."
It is like he is saying: "this is one of the ways that you express joy. Pray and give thanks. In all circumstances. Always! Not just when you feel good, or you feel like it. But always."
English is an interesting language, isn't it? One word can have multiple meanings.
I was thinking about the word always as I prepared this message. The obvious meaning for that word is related to time. We say always when we mean "all the time." You know how we use the sentence "that always happens." In other words, it happens all the time.
I was struck by the thought that always might also have a meaning or a connection to how we do it. We need to add the word "in" to that usage, but I think it works. Rejoice in the Lord "in" always. In all the ways possible. In our speech, in our thoughts, in our actions, you get the picture. We can rejoice in all the ways that are possible.
Now, you are probably wondering how I am going to draw in our Gospel reading for this morning. Rejoicing and being joyful are not usually words that we associate easily with John the Baptist. I don't usually have the picture of happy, smiling, John, going about his business as a prophet, calling people to repentance.
But, I am willing to suggest that John derives great joy from seeing the impact of his ministry of repentance. Jesus himself says in Luke 15: 7 "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." This is just after he has told the parable of the "Lost Sheep" when the shepherd goes, leaving the 99, and finds the one sheep who is lost.
I have to believe that John found great joy in seeing those who heard his words and came for the baptism of repentance. He is a good example of someone having joy in all the ways that are possible.
So, as we end this morning, can I encourage us all to consider how our lives this Advent might reflect the joy of our knowing and holding on to "the joy of our salvation?" Because we know that we have been forgiven we can have joy! How will others notice and perhaps desire that same joy for themselves?
Bishops & Father Mike