Sunday December 16, 2018
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Bp Andrew St John
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
“Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete.”
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
So this Third Sunday gets its name, Gaudete Sunday; Rejoicing Sunday; the Sunday when there is some relief from the solemn Advent mood, reflected in the pink vestments and festal liturgy.
That theme of rejoicing is found not only in the famous Philippians reading but is also reflected in the first reading from the Prophet, Zephaniah: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!”
You may well ask, as lovely as all this rejoicing is, where does it fit into the more sobering Advent themes? To understand the relationship between Advent and joy, it is helpful to consider the context of both passages. Zephaniah stands in the classic prophetic tradition: what I call the “doom and gloom” school of Old Testament prophecy. Zephaniah preached somewhere in the first half of the Seventh Century BC and in his prophecy he railed against and condemned the corrupt practices and religious perversions in Judah. He predicted doom on Judah in the form of the destructive Day of the Lord which is “near and hastening fast.” He was most likely aware of invading hordes of barbarians to the north of Judah. The opening words of his prophecy are unsettling to say the least: “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord.”(Zeph.1:2) And so he goes on for several chapters extending his condemnations and dire predictions to the nations round about as well as to Judah. But in the final chapter he has words of comfort and hope for the faithful remnant: “Therefore wait for me, says the Lord”; “the remnant of Israel….will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.” “Sing aloud…rejoice and exult with all your heart.” “The Lord your God is in your midst…he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.” (Zephaniah: 3: 8, 13, 14, 17) The joy of which Zephaniah speaks is a joy not related to present circumstances but to future hope in God’s Saving Activity on behalf of his faithful people.
Turning to Philippians it is worth remembering first of all that this epistle is one Paul wrote in prison, hardly a joyful setting or circumstance. But even though Philippians has some justly famous and much loved purple passages like today’s Epistle reading, the subject matter is more serious. It is written to the Christians in Philippi encouraging them to persist in faith in face of opposition and even the threat of death. Paul offers himself as an example of steadfast courage and of joy in the midst of harsh circumstances and possible death. Paul powerfully reminds the Philippians of the Cross of Christ which stands at the heart of Christian Faith: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3: 10-11).
In that context Paul says “Rejoice” because “the Lord is near”, salvation is at hand.
Let me share an experience with you. Thirty odd years ago I visited Egypt and Israel with a group of Christian clergy led by a Reformed Jewish rabbi. While in Cairo we made a memorable visit to meet the French nun, Sister Emmanuelle, of the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, who had founded a remarkable ministry among the trash collectors of Cairo, known as the “rag pickers of Cairo.” You see them around Cairo with their little donkey carts collecting trash. They live in a vast garbage dump on the edge of the city in utter poverty. Some years ago the municipal government of Cairo tried to institute a more up-to-date garbage collection system with garbage trucks and the like only to be met by extraordinary opposition. The reality was that the rag pickers of Cairo are remarkably efficient and in fact recycle almost 100% of the garbage they collect. However Sister Emmanuelle saw their plight and their appalling living conditions among the mountains of garbage and decided to do something about it. For many years until her retirement in her eighties she established clinics and schools for these people on the margins of Cairo society. How shall I forget walking with Sister Emmanuelle through the smelly garbage dump and being greeted constantly by smiling, laughing women and children? The joy on their faces at seeing their beloved friend and her companions was palpable and radiant. They had nothing yet they had everything.That experience reflected for me the truth in Henri Nouwen’s comments about the difference between happiness and joy: “while happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing - sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that away.”
Advent joy on this Third Sunday is related to God’s promised salvation; and upon his saving love as we know it in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection.
But “hold it a moment” you may well say to the preacher. “That is all very well. But what say you about that “kill-joy”, John the Baptist, and his “you brood of vipers” speech? How does that align with today’s theme of joy in the midst of Advent? After all this is John the Baptist’s second appearance this Advent. John the Baptist, “the voice crying in the wilderness”, is one of the classic Advent figures with his preaching about “preparing the Way of the Lord” and “making straight his paths” in preparation for God’s Judgment on the Last Day. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I mean to say that language is strong even by talk back radio standards. If you heard it from the pulpit at St Thomas’ you would be out the door like a flash or at least complaining to the Rector or Wardens. But John addressed it to the crowds who had come for baptism. Not exactly what we call “welcoming church”. But in good prophetic form John gets their attention and gives them a full serve of Adventist preaching calling for repentance in the face of God’s wrath and his impending judgment, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” But the bold preaching did have some effect: “What then should we do?” asked the crowds. And John was not slow in giving practical advice. It is worth noting that the advice to the crowds, to the tax collectors and to the soldiers is all to do with money and possessions. Our relationship with God needs to be reflected in practical living: in our generosity to and compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves.
But there is more to John’s preaching than the God’s wrath and our need for repentance and its practical consequences. His words aroused a sense of expectation among the people: was John the Messiah, God’s coming savior? To which John answered: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire.” John the Baptist consistently in his preaching pointed away from himself to the one who is to come. But even when Jesus appeared John had his doubts. You will remember when he was in prison John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask “are you the one who is to come or do we look for another?”(Luke 7: 18ff). Jesus was a different sort of Messianic figure than that of classic Jewish expectation. So John’s “joy” if you like was very much related to his sense of expectation in God’s saving activity like that of Zephaniah and Paul.
Today’s Advent joy is firmly grounded in the reality of the world we live in; a world often alienated from or indifferent to God’s righteousness, justice and love. That world still needs to hear the prophetic message of God’s saving love and demand for right living. The Advent message of God’s Coming Judgment and the need for repentance and preparation is still relevant to us and our world. But as people of faith we do so not in fear but in quiet confidence, knowing that the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ, whose love we have experienced through his saving Death and Resurrection, will come again ushering in God’s everlasting kingdom. That is the peace of God which passes all understanding in which we rightly rejoice. Amen