Grace Presbyterian Church
December 15, 2019, Advent 3A
A conversation that happened in the church office this past week has stuck in my head while preparing this sermon. While Sherry Crane was in the office on Tuesday, she wondered aloud to Ivette Cardoso, our administrative assistant, and me whether Christmas was somehow managing to sneak up on us this year. I had to admit it felt true, and due to the nature of my job I have to think about Christmas well in advance. I could easily see how it might feel “all of a sudden” to others who don’t have to start thinking about Christmas in October or so.
But then, it’s almost impossible not to start thinking about “Christmas,” in some ways, isn’t it? Thanksgiving got conquered long ago, and Halloween put up a good fight but now it seems to be increasingly overwhelmed by the commercial build-up to “Christmas,” by which I mean the holiday shopping season, Christmas movies starting to show up on certain TV cable channels, and some radio stations starting to play Christmas music. I guess Labor Day is next to fall. Anyway, given that relentless commercial pressure that starts building up so early (far, far beyond what Charlie Brown fretted about in that famous Christmas special), I suppose it can seem like a shock when the actual holiday itself is upon us all of a sudden.
The pink candle that was lighted today on the Advent wreath almost serves as an alert signal. While the rest of the candles on the outside of the wreath are purple, befitting the liturgical color of the season, the candle to be lit on the third Sunday of Advent is instead pink. This is a means of pointing to the particular nature of some of the scriptural texts for the day, texts which contain expressions of joy at the ongoing work of God and of the promises to be found in God’s ongoing words to the people of God.
Take today’s responsive reading, for example, the wonderful song known as the Magnificat, sung by Mary during her visit to Elizabeth at that time when both were pregnant with highly unexpected and unconventional sons. The joyful tone is set right away, from the very opening statement “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The song goes on to sing of how God has blessed his servant Mary, and to describe more generally attributes of who she calls the Mighty One.
Now admittedly there are those for whom Mary’s song might not sound terribly joyful: the proud, who are “scattered…in the thoughts of their hearts”; the powerful, “brought down…from their thrones” as the lowly are lifted up; the rich, “sent…away empty” while the hungry are filled. If you’re one of those, then perhaps the pink candle isn’t for you. But as Jesus notes in the reading from Matthew, “the poor have good news brought to them” (we’ll get to that more later), so perhaps we should simply acknowledge that Mary’s song here fits quite nicely with what her son would define as part of his mission and his call. So, joyful indeed is this song of Mary, a good incipit to the Sunday of rejoicing. One might even say that it is the most Advent thing in all of the gospels, if not perhaps in the entirety of scripture; it is that strong a statement of the coming reign of God, and one of which we could stand to remind ourselves often.
But let’s get back to that Matthew reading. The little snippet quoted above comes from Jesus’ response to messengers from John the Baptist, who is in a far different state than he was in last week’s reading, when he was preaching and baptizing in the wilderness and giving religious leaders some serious reprimanding. By this time John has been arrested and thrown in prison for having the gall to tell Herod, the Roman-sponsored ruler over Judea at the time, that it was wrong for him to take his brother’s wife for his own (although we don’t get that story until Matthew 14, told retroactively).
Being imprisoned has a way of breaking a person, and John seems to have suffered its effects. Since their first meeting in Matthew at Jesus’s baptism, it was pretty likely that John had kept tabs on what Jesus was doing. In fact, in Matthew 9 we see an encounter in which some of John’s disciples ask Jesus why he doesn’t engage in regular and frequent fasting, as John’s disciples (as well as Jesus’s sometime adversaries the Pharisees) did. John had taken up a rather ascetic life in the wilderness (remember the camel-hair coat and locusts-and-honey died), while Jesus traveled freely from town to town and city to city and was known to join in a banquet or two. Feeling the strain of imprisonment, and knowing that most folks who entered Herod’s prison didn’t leave alive, he began to experience something that not at all characteristic of his public ministry: doubt. And so he sends some of his own followers to Jesus to ask, “are you the one…or are we to wait for another?”
At first, Jesus’s answer might seem to chide John or his disciples, just slightly. He gives a rundown of what’s been going on – sight restored, mobility restored, health restored, hearing restored, life restored, hope restored, when you break it all down. And then there’s that little shot at the end: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This could sound like a slight at his older cousin, but then there were probably folks in the audience of the moment to whom such statement could have been directed as well.
At any rate Jesus goes on to show that insulting John was far from his point, noting that “no one greater than he” was to be found among humanity. But still, the moment of doubt is telling. Is John simply worried that his time is nearly done, or is there concern about how Jesus is going about his ministry in a very different and seemingly less, well,holy way than John had lived out his call? Was Jesus not living right enough for John?
As Jesus will note later in the chapter (vv. 18-19), both Jesus and John get picked on by the Pharisees; of John and his ascetic life they say “he has a demon,” and Jesus gets called “a glutton and a drunkard” for his non-fasting. You can’t win either way, so it’s probably best not to get into some sort of holiness Olympics with each other. But perhaps even more the point is that, for all the awfulness and injustice of John’s situation, Jesus’s ministry is still healing and restoring and bringing good news to the poor. Sadly, as long as we live on earth, we will not all know joy at the same time; one experiences true joy while another faces tragedy. But one’s tragedy does not eliminate another’s joy (again, more on that later). All of those being healed and restored are still joyful.
Meanwhile, there is a similar dynamic at play between today’s other two readings, from Isaiah and James. Isaiah brings the joy, in what might be the most over-the-top of the readings assigned for Advent from this book. Right away the image of the desert blossoming and rejoicing takes us to a place we aren’t accustomed to seeing, at least not without an astronomical amount of rainfall to set off the desert bloom. The passage also includes encouragement for the fainthearted, and a short insert that sounds a bit like Jesus’s description of his own ministry in verse five, where “the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” But the predominant images are of the desert and wilderness, with waters breaking forth, streams in the desert, pools and springs and even swampland breaking out. Imagine Palestine turning into Florida, in other words.
If Isaiah says “the desert will blossom,” James responds “you’ll have to be patient.”
If anything, the time in which we live is characterized by the opposite of what Isaiah describes; lands that once were fertile turning barren and fruitless under the pressure of a rapidly heating planet. Even normal lands, James reminds us, don’t bloom or produce fruit without water, and lots of it. James engages in his own bit of agricultural metaphor to remind his readers that patience in waiting for the coming of the Lord is a must. What he describes is not unlike what takes place in the growing of crops like wheat in the central part of this country. First you need rain – the “early” rain – to make the soil ready to bear and nourish the seeds that are to be planted. Then you need rain – the “late” rain – to enable the seeds to ripen and grow to maturity.
If you’re not that farmer, though, the coming of those rains might be more hassle that hope. It ruins our plans, maybe, or just makes it a hassle to get around town or to work that day. And indeed the rain can be bad for that farmer, too, if it comes too early or too late or too much or not enough at a time. But in God’s economy, the rains come as meant to come, and we wait patiently for them, and in this is joy. So it is with this Advent (second Advent, if you will) for which we wait.
For all that we like to toss around the word this time of year, we often have trouble with what it means to rejoice, or even to know joy. We far too easily confuse it with pleasure or happiness. Those two sensations can admit of no counterweight; the moment one feels pain, one no longer feels pleasure. Happiness is taken down by sorrow. Those two cannot endure under such pressures.
Joy is different, and rejoicing as these scriptures suggest is also different. In the words of author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (in his memoir Surprised by Joy), “All joy reminds (emphasis mine). It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” Joy knows sorrow, and does not pretend that sorrow is not there. Joy recognizes that the crazy vision promises of Isaiah’s prophecy are still in the distance, that the rains must come, and we still live in a world where injustice and cruelty have sway. Joy even motivates us to act against injustice and cruelty because joy knows that what we most desire cannot tolerate those things. Joy knows its incompleteness. That’s a thing that comes up in John’s gospel a few times, as in John 16:24, “Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be complete” – it isn’t completed now, it is to come.
It’s a complicated burden for this pink candle to bear. Joy does not rejoice only in what is but in what is to come. Pleasure is easily thwarted, happiness crumbles at the coming of sorrow, but joy endures knowing itself to be not yet finished. Like this empty stable without a nativity, like the family with the empty place at the table that wasn’t empty a year ago, like the farmer waiting for the rains, joy knows its unfinished state; and yet still joy, and those taken by joy, rejoice in the babe to be born, the manger to be filled, the knowing that in the ultimate and final coming of the Savior – that babe yet to be born to Mary, that teacher John suddenly wasn’t sure about – in that second Advent there our joy will, at last, be full and complete.
Let that pink candle be our wake-up call; let it be our reminder that Christmas is suddenly near; but let it also call us, in spite of…even though…nevertheless…to rejoice and be glad.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 1-4); #—, See, the Desert Shall Rejoice; #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout (Canticle of the Turning); #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 5-7)