Grace Presbyterian Church
December 13, 2020, Advent 3B (recorded)
Waiting With the Joy of the Lord
Last year the church’s worship committee added a new element to the visual adornment of the sanctuary for the season of Advent. A series of four banners was commissioned (made by one of our nursery workers, Carmen) each bearing one of the calls of the Advent season. You’ve been seeing these banners during these broadcasts, at the beginning and end of each service. The first week’s banner reminds us to “watch”; the second week, “prepare”; and the fourth week’s banner, to be seen next week, commands us to “behold.”
Meanwhile, the banner for week three, seen at the beginning of today’s recorded service, calls us to “rejoice,” an appropriate call for the Sunday with the pink candle in the Advent wreath being lit. In some circles it’s known as Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin for “rejoice”). As these banners were being developed last year, someone (I can’t remember who) wondered aloud why the “rejoice” banner and Sunday came before the “behold” command. I don’t remember what answer I gave at that moment, but if I had been thinking properly it would have been easy enough to point to the scriptures of the day for the answer – and that holds true no matter which liturgical year we’re talking about.
You begin to get the idea in today’s readings from the prophet Isaiah, who in this particular oracle declares that he is, under the leading of the spirit of God and the anointing of the Lord, called to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” The oracle continues in a similar vein for several verses, adds in the pointed declaration on behalf of God that “I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing,” and finally climaxes in a section of rejoicing, or seems to do so, at verse 10. Even here, though, there is a bit of a head-fake; the rejoicing seems a more personal moment than the rest of the passage, a suspicion that seems to be confirmed by verse eleven’s return to future tense. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots,” says Isaiah, “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.” The “will” of verse 11 echoes the “shall” of verses 3-4.
Things look slightly different in the prophetic words of Mary, the impending mother of Jesus, in her song in Luke 1 (echoed in our first hymn today). It also begins, like Isaiah’s oracle, with a personal statement of call or commission, and launches into what seems to be a statement in the present tense – “he has” comes up a lot. Thing is, though, it’s not uncommon for prophetic oracle to appropriate present tense for God’s future action (which I suppose makes sense in light of last week’s statement from 2 Peter that in God a thousand years are like a day, and vice versa; perhaps in recounting a vision from God it’s hard to avoid slipping into the language of God’s “eternal now.” Again, here in Luke 1, the prophetic statement (from a teenage girl, yes) is one of God’s actions to come, or to be brought to fulfillment.
In neither case is rejoicing foresworn because of the not-yet nature of the proclamation; indeed, both statements point to something about the rejoicing that is part of Advent. Although John the baptizer, showing up again this week in our gospel reading, doesn’t seem like a bundle of joy here, he nonetheless wraps himself in the words of Isaiah (last week’s reading, actually). His proclamation here is in service of the promises described by Isaiah and other prophets; as such, he is also bound up in the rejoicing of the day.
Even as John is proclaiming the imminent coming of this Promised One, it is still as yet an unfulfilled promise. As of the end of this reading Jesus – the one greater than John, the one for whom John isn’t worthy to tie his shoes – still hasn’t shown up yet, hasn’t presented himself. The Promised One is still just that: promised.
And yet the day is “Gaudete” Sunday, “Rejoice” Sunday, pink-candle Sunday. You see, our rejoicing is not contingent upon promises granted; we rejoice in the promise itself, or even more in the God who promises. Notice how both Isaiah and Mary place it that way: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord” in Isaiah 61:8, “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” in Luke 1:46. Joy is rooted in God, the God who has the whole history in here of faithfulness and provision and care and love for God’s people. The God who has done is the God who will do, and our rejoicing is in that God.
Again, it falls to the epistle reading to draw things into perspective. You might think this sounds vaguely familiar, and it is indeed a portion of the same passage that was featured in a sermon about a month ago, on November 15. For today, the key words are the very first two in verse 16: “Rejoice always.” I mean, the rest of the passage is good too, but here this simple reminder from Paul to his beloved Thessalonians, reminds us that our joy is not contingent. When our rejoicing is in God, rather than in some particular thing we think about about God or some particular thing God has done or we expect God to do, that joy is sustained even in times when joy might not seem the most obvious reaction.
But to put it bluntly, “joy” or “rejoicing” that is contingent is not joy. It might be happiness, or it might be pleasure, but it is not joy. Happiness and pleasure are not bad things themselves, but they are not joy, no matter how often we might confuse the two.
Our joy, our rejoicing, is in God, because God is God. We see the work of God; we read the fulfillment of what God has done, as witness the Son of God revealed in a low manger, and we read the promises of what God will do, keeping us “sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”; we rejoice, however, because…God.
For the time of waiting, and the joy of waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout; #—, Rejoice! Rejoice in Every Time; #96, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry