Advent 3, Year C
“Gaudete in domino semper”, Rejoice in the Lord, always. -The traditional opening words of the Latin mass in this third week of Advent. St. Paul’s words to the Phillipeans for which this third Sunday in Advent is named – Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice Sunday.
Here, in St. Paul’s jubilant words, penned from the depths of prison, lies the answer to the great theological question that marks each Advent through the centuries – “What is the pink candle for?” This Sunday is the reprieve in the Advent season of self evaluation and repentance. It used to be a longer season – it’s been compressed, hurried like so much of life is hurried now.
In its early days, Advent started after the Feast of St. Martin on November 11th, making it several weeks longer than the modern version. In addition to being longer, Advent of old involved rather less shopping and holiday parties and parades and music and glitz than today’s season, and rather more fasting, and abstaining, and repenting. By the midpoint of the penitential season, the church felt a need for a mood boost – something to raise our hearts again in preparation for the coming of the Christ child. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. This encouragement marks the wisdom behind the joyful rose hues swimming in the sea of sarum blue which marks the Advent season.
“Sing!” cries the prophet Zephaniah, his words joining Paul’s call to joy in our lectionary today – “Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” The words of the prophet Isaiah swell the joyful refrain of the day – “Sing the praises of the Lord…Cry aloud, ring out your joy” Then ring the words of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of spiritual joy, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Hmmm. This seems to be a different sort of joy than that of which I was previously aware. Baptisms of fire, winnowing forks applied in my general direction, unquenchable fire – these images do not engender that warm, fuzzy feeling one might anticipate on Rejoice Sunday. Yet in this way, says the Gospel, “he proclaimed the Good News to the people” And the people came. Traveled from their homes, braved the wilderness of the desert. For the Good News.
The story has been told of Abraham Lincoln who worshiped each and every Wednesday when in Washington D.C. at New York Presbyterian Church near the White House.
One Wednesday evening as Lincoln was leaving the service, one of his assistants asked him: “Mr. President, what did you think of the sermon tonight?”
Lincoln responded, “The content was excellent, and Dr. Gurley spoke with great eloquence. It was obvious that he put a great deal of work into that sermon.”
“Then you thought it was a great sermon, Mr. President?” the assistant asked.
“No, I did not say that.”
“But Sir, you said it was excellent sermon.”
Lincoln replied, “No, I said that content was excellent and that the preacher spoke with eloquence. But Dr. Gurley, on this night, forgot one important matter. He forgot to ask us to do something great.” (McCarthy, Dan, “Great Leadership” Newsletter, February 10, 2011.)
Abraham Lincoln knew, John the Baptist knew, the people that came knew – Rejoicing in the Lord is not a passive process, not an emotion that swells your heart and departs again leaving you unchanged, but a way of being that invites God to transform one’s life, one’s soul. “What then should we do?” the people asked John.
Bear in mind, these folks crossed a desert to follow a man who wore skins, survived on locusts and honey, and shouted dire warnings and prophesies of judgement and fire. They had every reason to expect a radical response, and I suspect awaited his answer with some trepidation, anticipating demands to leave home and family, subsist on insect life and God knows what else
John’s answer was more radical, more difficult, more burdensome than they could have imagined. Go home. Live within the life that you have with generosity and compassion and care. To those with any means he said share. Distribute what you have so that everyone can eat and drink and be warm and fed. To the money collectors he said be honest and fair. Do not take what is not yours. To the soldiers he said, don’t be bullies. Treat people as people, and do not make them fearful. To the religious elite he said don’t get caught up in status and titles and heritage. We are all God’s children.
“What John was daring to suggest to his listeners is that holiness is not the ethereal and mysterious thing we tend to make it. If we’re willing to look closely, if we’re willing to believe that nothing in our lives is too mundane or secular for God, then we’ll understand that all the possibilities for salvation we need are embedded in the lives God has already given us. There is no “outside.” We don’t have to look “out there.” The kingdom of heaven is here, within and among us.” (Debie Thomas, Gaudete, Journey with Jesus, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay)
It has been suggested that the brood of vipers was not so much a venomous variety of serpent, seeking evil and destruction, but more akin to garden snakes, fleeing the coming fire, slithering through the grass, desperate to be anywhere else. To be honest, it is a sentiment I find it easy to relate to. In the face of mass killings all over the globe; thousands of displaced people chased from their homes; crushing hunger and poverty in our own backyard; fear and anger lashing violently out in desperate acts of seeming self preservation – sometimes I just want to turn it off. The news, the thoughts, the implications, the unending stream of sadness.
John understood, and tried to teach us. It is not an easy thing to inhabit our own lives, to inhabit the holy ground that is here, that is now, that surrounds us – to stop fleeing, to stand firm and keep it sacred.
And the fire? The chaff that burns? We tend to fall into one of two camps – a belief that we are the wheat and it is “them” that will burn; or a deep-seated fear that we will prove to be chaff, destined to be consumed in righteous fire. Either notion misunderstands the nature of humanity, and sadly underestimates the power and compassion of God.
Author and gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn suggests another perspective, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Jesus doesn’t give up on the bad apples and throw them into the fire. That would suggest that there are people beyond reach of God’s redemption. Jesus doesn’t sort the good people from the bad people, he sorts out the good in us from the bad in us – burning away that in us which is not Christ-like. As mystic and monk Thomas Merton said, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.”
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.