Advent 3B - Rejoice always
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
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.
In a blink, here we are. The third Sunday in Advent already.
It’s kind of a strange Sunday, I’ll admit. We get a re-run of John in the wilderness in our gospel, which sort of feels like the lectionary committee was sitting in a planning session however many years ago, and were talking like,
“Ok, so this is great - we will start Advent by talking about the end of the world and about getting ready for the earth-shattering arrival of Christ.”
“Yes, yes, that’s great!”
“And then, on Advent 2, we can bring in John the Baptist, because he really gets it, this business about Jesus coming and shaking the world, and we can do some Isaiah ‘voice in the wilderness’ stuff, and talk about repentance and all.”
“Yes, yes, excellent!”
“Oh, and on Advent 4, we definitely need to talk about Mary, right? Because it’s the last week before Christmas, and we need to make sure we tell the story of Gabriel and the annunciation, and throw the Magnificat in there too, probably.”
“Yup, that sounds good....ok. Now what do we do with Advent 3?”
“Um...I dunno. Maybe talk about John the Baptist again?”
Ok...I have a confession.
In spite of the John the Baptist re-run, Advent 3 is my favorite Sunday in Advent.
Because it is joy Sunday.
Gaudete Sunday, to be precise, which is the Latin word for rejoice. In the liturgical calendar, this Sunday is a day to take a break from our Advent focus on repentance and penitence, a day to celebrate with joy the good news for which we watch and wait during this time. Many of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters today will be lighting a pink candle on the Advent wreath to symbolize the lightening of the Advent mood, and many of their parishes will have rose-pink paraments on the altar. Many of my Roman Catholic brothers who are priests and deacons will even be sporting pink vestments today, and I’ll admit...as great as I think my blue and gold Advent shoes are, I’d trade them in a heartbeat to be wearing a rose-pink stole right now.
Because our Advent waiting means nothing if it is not for the sake of joy.
1 Thessalonians today opens with the invitation, “Rejoice always.”
This is the invitation of our faith in this and every season: Rejoice in the Lord. Always.
So what does it mean for us, in this season of the year, in this season of life, to find our joy?
There was a video making the rounds on social media last week, maybe you saw it, of a young girl walking into her bedroom after school, only to discover inside the closed door a small, black, fluffy kitten that her parents had given her as a surprise present to replace a cat that had long gone missing. The look on the girl’s face is first shock and disbelief, and then, as she raises the kitten to cradle it and hug it, uncontrollable tears as she asks, “We can keep it? We can keep it??” It is a picture of overwhelming, all-encompassing, wild and consuming joy. Joy that runs deeper than just a happy face or a good mood.
Because, okay, if we’re being honest, the season of Advent is always a mix of emotions, right? And there are definitely those of us who are feeling the happy version of joyful right now, and that’s good. Feeling our hearts warmed by Christmas lights and finding the perfect presents for our loved ones and singing our favorite songs and telling stories about favorite Christmas ornaments as we put them on the tree. But there are also those in our midst who are feeling decidedly UN-happy these days, or anxious, or tired, or lonely or sad or scared, and words like “happy” and “joy” might be the farthest thing from their thoughts.
The invitation to “rejoice always” is not an invitation to “be happy all the time,” as if it were somehow unfaithful to be sad or fearful. The invitation to “rejoice always” is the invitation to stand with John, trusting that the light of God will shine, even in this present darkness. The invitation to joy is an invitation to seek God’s promises, even in this present wilderness.
For Isaiah, speaking to God’s faithful people who are finally returning from exile, joy is not an individual disposition but a communal recognition and proclamation of the goodness and faithfulness of God, who has clothed us with the garments of salvation and covered the world with the robe of righteousness.
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,” sing the exiles who are returning home, the ones who have wandered in the desert, who have seen the destruction of their city and their temple, who have seen occupation, who have clung to the hope that God would not flee the scene, even when everything else around them had crumbled.
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,” sing the faithful ones of God, not because they feel any particular pressure to be happy, but because God promises to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to proclaim release to the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn, to renew praise on the lips of the faint-hearted, to rebuild the ruins, to repair the city, to restore justice, to bless the people with light and life so that all nations might know the glory of God. Joy comes with remembering that God has made with the people an everlasting covenant, and that God has not - and will never! - abandon those whom God loves.
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,” sing the people, because God’s salvation is at hand. Salvation that looks like “the year of the Lord’s favor,” which is a reference to the Jubilee year prescribed in Leviticus, a year once every generation where all land would be restored to its original owners, when slaves were released from service to return to their families, when the land was given a rest from planting and cultivating and harvesting, a year that meant economic redistribution and and freedom and restoration for all people, all creatures, all creation.
Next week, we will hear Mary sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,” and in the rest of her Magnificat, she will explain why her soul rejoices: because God promises to cause justice and mercy to overcome the nations; God promises faithfulness to all generations. And how does she know this? Because the proof of God’s faithfulness is residing in her womb until the day that he will be born among us as the living, breathing, God-with-us.
Frederick Buechner says, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to…Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.”
For Mary, for Isaiah, for the writer to the Thessalonians, the invitation to joy is an invitation to recognize the surprising work of God on behalf of all creation. The surprising love of God who would choose to be a part of this creation in order to save it. The surprising grace of God that turns the world upside down. The invitation to joy is an invitation to remember that salvation has been promised and salvation has come and salvation is cosmic, holistic, for the greatest and the least.
Joy is not about warm fuzzies. Joy is about resolute faith and relentless hope. Joy overcomes us and overwhelms us, and sometimes it looks like tears of release as much as it looks like laughter.
As it turns out, Advent is the same way. It isn’t (just) about warm fuzzies. It is about resolute faith. Relentless hope. Persistent devotion to John’s message of light just around the corner. Tears of release and laughter of relief.
“As the earth brings forth its shoots,” Isaiah says, “and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up in the sight of all people.”
We can rejoice because the promises of God have been planted deep in our hearts. And no matter how deeply these promises might be buried under the rubble and decay of this life, the seed of hope has not perished, but lies in waiting, growing slowly, setting down roots, pushing up green shoots to the surface, rising, budding, blooming.
This joy is the shoot rising from the stump of Jesse, the righteous branch springing up, the light of Christ rising in our hearts, the flowering of the mystic rose, the growing up of joy inside our longing hearts.
I want to close today with the text of one of my favorite Christmas hymns, “The Hills are Bare at Bethlehem:”
The hills are bare at Bethlehem, no future for the world they show; Yet here new life begins to grow, from earth's old dust a greenwood stem. The stars are cold at Bethlehem, no warmth for those beneath the sky; Yet here the radiant angels fly, and joy burns new, a fir'ry gem.
The heart is tired at Bethlehem, no human dream unbroken stands; Yet here God comes to mortal hands, and hope renewed cries out: "Amen!"
May joy burn new in your heart this season, a greenwood stem spring forth. May hope renewed cause your heart to cry out in praise. May the God who restored his beloved from exile bring you home from your wilderness wanderings. And may the light of Christ flare forth from the center of your soul, a rose-pink candle shining in the dark, standing as a witness to God’s everlasting love and hope and salvation.
Hear the good news: Christ comes to us. Light dawns. Hope blooms. So rejoice always, my friends, and again I say to you, rejoice!