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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Gaudete - A Sermon for the Third Week of Advent 2016

The third Sunday of Advent is named Gaudete Sunday – “Gaudete” is the Latin word “Rejoice.” Today is a day for rejoicing. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.” (Philippians 4: 4 – 6).

Today we rejoice. And this is different somewhat than happiness and good cheer. We hear a lot of songs during these extended weeks of Advent/Christmas about being happiness and good cheer and being merry and bright. But Joy is different. Joy is bigger, deeper, and less dependent upon external circumstances.

Today we rejoice – even if we don’t feel happy and gay and merry and bright. Today we rejoice, even if we don’t have the “Christmas spirit” and our hearts aren’t full of good cheer.  As Pope Francis said in his Gaudete Sunday Sermon last year, “We cannot let ourselves be taken in by weariness; sadness in any form is not allowed, even though we have reasons (for sadness), with many concerns and the many forms of violence which hurt our humanity, the coming of the Lord, however, must fill our hearts with joy.” (Francis)

Even though we may have reason to feel anxious  - world events seem as close as ever to explosive calamity – even though we may have reasons to feel worry – friends and family members in the hospital – even though we may have reasons to fear, we will choose to rejoice today. We will be joyful (if not happy and cheerful) because we know that the Lord is near.

Many biblical scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was not written by one single prophet, but that it is a composite work composed of the words of the prophet along with his students and followers who came later. They believe that our text for this morning (Isaiah 35) and the previous chapter (34) were probably written by two different authors, at different times, but that they have been purposefully arranged this way, next to each other, to heighten the dramatic contrast between them. (Kilpatrick 358) So, even though our text for this morning is a reading from chapter 35, it is good to begin by taking a brief look at chapter 34.

Chapter 34 is filled with doom and destructive gloom, with the stench of rotting corpses. There are mountains flowing with blood and the stars have all disappeared. It is the day of vengeance, burning pitch and billowing smoke. There are dangerous and wild animals in that desert, monsters and desert demons, snakes and buzzards. The land is full of thorns and thistles. And there is no kingdom there.

It is bleak. It is dark. The burning land of despair. It is the wastelands. It is apocalyptically dark, the end of the world as we know it.  It is the place of fear.

But then we turn to chapter 35 and the arid desert now blooms with new and glorious life. The wilderness rejoices and blossoms like a crocus. The Israelite people, living in Babylonian exile, looked back across the burning sand of the Syrian Desert that separated them from their homeland and saw, not the trackless wastes of apocalyptic ash of ruin and decay, but joyful hope.

“At the heart of their dream of a Messiah and his Kingdom has been the vision of the homeland and the return of the exile. Greater than the passion for vengeance on their foes, deeper than the exultation of victory has been the comfort of God’s promise that for them there would come at last a glad homecoming, the great ingathering of the ransomed and the redeemed” (Kilpatrick 358 – 359). They saw a highway leading through the desert of their despair, and they called it The Sacred Way – the road of the redeemed. And they saw themselves - the ransomed of the LORD – returning home, coming back to Zion with shouts, and being crowned with joy everlasting.  Their external circumstances didn’t speak to joy. They were captive. They were prisoners. They were exiles in a foreign and hostile land. Broken. Destroyed. But they saw a vision of joy.

Today, was we wait and anticipate the coming of our Lord Jesus, in his coming as an infant in Bethlehem – which we will celebrate in not too many days, in his glorious coming with his peaceable Kingdom, and in his everyday coming into the now-present of our lives we are standing at the in-between point – between chapters 34 and 35. We are standing between the apocalyptic ash of the burning desert and the lush blooming of crocuses and roses, between streams of burning pitch and streams of water in the desert. We are standing between the long dark nights of cold winter and the increasing light and warmth of spring renewed. We are standing between weak-kneed fear and “Be strong; fear not.” We are standing between despair and joy. Which way will we turn?

Which way will we turn? Back toward the world as it is with chaos and danger around every corner? Or will we turn toward the dawning light of hope and the joy of his coming? Toward the promise of restoration and fulfillment and the blossoming of beautiful life?

Gaudete. Rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice for the Lord is near.

Kilpatrick, G.G.D. “Isaiah: Exposition” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume V. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1956. Print.

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