All decked out in shades of rosy pink we are today. The third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been a day for lightening up a bit, especially in the past when this season had more of a penitential flavor and purple vestments were worn. The change of color was a way of lifting the somberness in the wake of the fast approaching feast of Christmas.
We light a pink candle on the Advent wreath and, although the difference is not so striking for us because wear blue vestments in Advent—a color that suggests the hopeful, reflective season that Advent is meant to be. This used to be called “Gaudete Sunday” because “Gaudete” is Latin for “Rejoice” Several Advents ago, a friend shared a story with me about a very pious Anglo-Catholic priest who delighted him by telling him: “On Gaudete Sunday, we use rose vestments because Mary wanted a girl.”
Advent has two faces. One is the joyful expectation we find in hymns like “Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding!” and the other face is that of strange John the Baptist and his fiery rhetoric. We meet both faces in today’s liturgy. On the one hand we have Zephaniah—one of the gloomiest of the Hebrew prophets—giving us a joyful message of promise: “I will remove disaster from you…I will gather the outcast…I will bring you home, says the Lord.” He even uses the buzz word of the day, “Rejoice!”
He is writing this in the seventh century before Christ during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews. What could be more reassuring to a people living in exile than to know that there was a place where they belonged and to which they could return? The Apostle Paul offers a message of thanksgiving and praise for the little community of believers in Philippi for their gentleness. Again the word “Rejoice” abounds.
Then we hear again from John the Baptist, who is the second cousin of Jesus. You would not find him preaching in the big downtown synagogue. You would have to go out into the wilderness to get a sermon like John’s. And who would schlep there to hear him blast his audience with fire and brimstone preaching?
Multitudes. Huge crowds went out to listen to him. Whatever drew so many eager listeners to this misfit? Could it be that they knew that he spoke the truth and that there is a part of our human longing that makes us want to hear that. Perhaps what is particularly attractive to listeners is authentic preaching.
I’m sure it wasn’t easy to preach such a hard message and to wonder if anyone paying attention. Between his diet of creepy-crawlies and honey, his wardrobe of rags and barefeet and bug bites from the backwoods, he’s pretty cranky. But look what happens when he recognizes that the people are listening, when they actually ask him the question, “What then should we do?”
His demeanor changes and he gets, well, downright reasonable, even likeable. No radical demands, rather a very sensible, low-key call to be faithful to one’s circumstances in life: share with those who have less than you; be honest in your dealings with one another and in your jobs; do not take advantage of the vulnerable; cherish those whom God has drawn into your life; be grateful for all you have; be good neighbors and live in peace. In other words, just be the best of whomever and whatever you were called by God to be.
I think the more difficult texts today are those that ask us to “rejoice!” Methodist Bishop William Willimon once offered a course at Duke University called “The Search for Meaning in Life,” in which students looked at the ways people found meaning in their life by studying fiction, philosophy and art. One of the components was an exercise in which they pretended to be on a voyage of discovery in the 18th century. A storm arises and they are ship wrecked—all is lost and you wash up on a deserted island where there is plenty of food and water but not a single other human being.
Put yourself in the exercise for a moment. You are stuck alone on this island. What would you do for the rest of your life? The exercise is, of course, a metaphor for this: You are alone in the world, isolated, left to your own resources. What will you make of your life? How will you put things together in such a way that you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning?
In spite of our good intentions to rally around the call to “rejoice,” this is a time in our history when many people feel their isolation more than ever. We have been saturated by almost weekly reports of gun violence and the tragic acts of terrorism abroad and in our country. There is a gnawing sense of dread in the air. Parents and loved ones of those massacred in Newtown three years ago tomorrow are spending this sad weekend in Washington, pleading for better gun laws. According to a New York Times poll, Americans are more fearful about the likelihood of another terrorist attack than at any time since the weeks after September 11, 2001. I think this atmosphere just exacerbates our individual and personal reasons to be anxious or feel somewhat lost or detached.
Maybe we have been dealing with what seems to be overwhelming health issues or are in the midst of a depression we just can’t shake. Maybe we are experiencing relational conflict, even on the verge of separation or divorce. Financial concerns may be keeping us awake at night. It may be the first Christmas after losing someone we loved.
There is the elderly person spending her first holiday in a nursing home. There is the gay son or daughter who has just come out and wants to be home for Christmas but fears judgment and rejection. There are many, many people who know the virtual experience of being stuck alone on a deserted island—and they may live right next door to you or across the street or they may be sitting in the pew with you this morning.
Where is our cause to rejoice? What is the source of our hope? What if you are on that deserted island? Your hope is neither within nor is it there on that island. Your hope is in the possibility of something or someone coming to you from without. We need someone to build the bridge we cannot build ourselves. We need someone to shine light into our darkness that will make us want to get out of bed in the morning.
A friend of mine lost his wife a month ago today. She was 54 and died very unexpectedly. Recently, we talked about how he is coping with this tremendous loss at this time of the year. He told me that he asked God the question ” How could we possibly do Christmas under these circumstances? ”
The answer came to him in a dream, the way God often has communicated with humankind. The messenger replied, “During difficult times when she had every justifiable reason to keep a low flame on celebrating Christmas – she did the opposite. She blinded us with the light of Christmas so we could see. ”
God blinds us with the light of Christmas so that we can see. The reason Zephaniah and Paul are telling us to rejoice is because God has reached out to us, come to us, taken on flesh and become one of us. God makes a home with us even when, especially when, we feel more alone than not, more anxious than not, more vulnerable than not. If we look out from the island of our lives, we see something appearing out on the horizon, the promise of our deliverance in the reality of Jesus, Emmanuel—God with us.
I hope we are aware of that even as we face our own wilderness moments, our island experiences, and emotional lows and will not be overcome by what we have to deal with when we go out the door this morning. So, when you come forward at this Holy Eucharist to be fed and nourished by the Gifts of God, put out your hands and hold Life and Hope in them. And, yes, Rejoice!
Again I say, “Rejoice!” God is with us. God is is within us. We are not alone.