If you have been worshipping with us with any regularity this Advent you will notice a slight variation this morning in our liturgical colors. The traditional Sarum blue is normally flanked by earthy green and highlights of crimson, all colors that represent the mystery of the Incarnation; that is, God becoming flesh and putting on our human vesture in the womb of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Just as future parents prepare themselves for the birth of a child, so this season of Advent is a time for prayer, recollection, and getting our lives in order in preparation for the birth of Jesus at Christmas.But today, the Sarum blue is complimented by swatches of velvety rose to signify the 3rd Sunday of Advent which is known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday. Gaudete, is a Latin word that means “Rejoice,” which is the first word we hear in both the Introit to today’s Mass as well as the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
While Advent is a penitential season, it is one full of hope and expectation for the child of promise we will receive at Christmas. Now that we are past the half-way point in Advent, the joy that we have been anticipating is almost upon us and it is difficult to contain. It reminds me of when I was a young boy, the experience of having a tree with presents slowly being added underneath for almost 3 to 4 weeks was too much to bear. Each year my parents would let me open one small Christmas present early most likely because if they didn’t they might lose their sanity. They would always hand me smallest gift bearing a tag that said: To Jimmy; From Mom and Dad. I would rip off the paper and tear open the box to find a new pair of socks or a pack of pencils to use at school.
Today, the penitential character of the Advent season is suspended liturgically, if only for a moment, to give expression to our joy. This joyful sentiment permeates our readings from the Old Testament and Epistle. Zephaniah exclaims: Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The king of Israel is in your midst! And from Isaiah: Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world. Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel. And in the letter to the Philippians St. Paul continues: The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
But while the rose color on the altar frontal points to the exciting fact that 3 out of 4 candles are lit and Christmas is almost here, the gospel lesson from Luke makes us face the sobering realitythat Advent is not over. And not only is there work still to be done, there is not much time left to finish. When John the Baptist began his ministry, he preached with great charisma and urgency that the Kingdom of God was at hand. This was music to the ears of a people who had been brutally oppressed by the occupying Roman regime. Crowds were flocking to him and listening to his message with excited anticipation of the Messiah who would save and avenge them for all the pain they had endured. But John’s admonishment was not directed necessarily against the Romans. Those who came to him to hear his message and be baptized were not greeted with warmth but rather with suspicion. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
What would you do if you came to rally with others against a common enemy and instead found that judgment was being passed against you? I have to admit in all honesty that I would probably do an about face and run away as quickly as possible. Tom Wright, in his book Luke for Everyone, describes a cartoon he once saw where a sceptic shouts to heaven, “God! If you’re up there, tell us what we should do!” Back comes a voice: “Feed the hungry, house the homeless, establish justice.” The sceptic looks alarmed. “Just testing,” he says. “Me too,” replies the voice.[i]John had no time or use for whimsical platitudes accompanied by empty gestures. John was calling people to a baptism of repentance. The word ‘repent’ literally means to turn. It is a word of action and intention. When a person repents, they actually change course and set out on a different path. If you continue on the same path you have been following all along, then you are not truly repentant. And this was John’s message: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
I was away last week visiting my family when the tragedy in San Bernardino, CA occurred. The next day, the front page of the New York Daily News showed the responses of several Presidential candidates, most of which said that their thoughts and prayers were with the victims. The headline read “God Isn’t Fixing This!”[ii] This upset many people who read into it an admonishment against prayer. But I think they missed the point. When John the Baptist implored the people to change their direction they did not shrink back in timidity or passive aggression, but rather asked the question: “What must we do?” John answers them with direct yet simple clarity. Your status and placement in life is not one of entitlement, but rather of duty. When you have two coats, give one away to a person who has none; if you have food, share with those who have nothing on their plate. Direct and simple: What must we do? This is what you do. Period. Where God has blessed you in the work you do by giving you security, don’t horde it. Direct and simple: What must we do? This is what you do. Don’t be greedy and take what is not yours from others. Be satisfied and grateful for what you have. Direct and simple. What must we do? This is what you do.
This was not the message they were expecting to hear when they came to John in the wilderness to be baptized in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah, the long awaited King of Israel. Yet they listened to him earnestly and then in conviction asked, “What must we do?” And I would say this is good news. We who claim the identity of “Christian” have much to be joyful about. We see in this baby born in Bethlehem, who is called Jesus, the face of God Emmanuel: God with us. We believe that Jesus went to the cross and died for us as the final atonement for sins and after three days by the power and grace of God was raised again and brought back to life forever destroying the power of death. And that is why we rejoice on this 3rd Sunday of Advent. We have experienced in some way this life-giving grace of God in the person of Jesus and it has given us new direction and the promise of abundant life. But we cannot stand idle and keep it to ourselves. Before Jesus ascended to the Father in heaven he gave us a direct command to go and spread the gospel, a word that means “good news.” And it is this we hear at the conclusion of Mass each day: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. This is what it means to bear the fruit of repentance. Step 12 of the Twelve Suggested Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.[iii]
How do we bear the fruit of repentance? Well I think the answer may vary for each of us but I think we can each begin by testifying to how God is working in our lives. Jesus has most likely come to us in something broken or disordered in our life; something that we clearly have no control over. How has this been true for you? Perhaps there was a time you faced something in your life that seemed impossible to get through, yet, somehow you find yourself on the other side. You may not have gotten through unscathed…perhaps you bear a scar. But here you are, a living miracle. I would say this is where you begin. Be in touch with what God is doing in your life and then share that good news, not only in word, but in action. Maybe you’re facing something difficult in your life presently and you don’t know what to do. If this is true this is where you might ask Jesus for healing. What are you carrying with you in your life that is clearly too much to handle? In a few moments when you come to the altar at communion, extend your hands to and give your burden to God and then receive the sustenance you need to begin healing. Remember that healing is a process and takes time, but with proper care, rest, and patience, God will begin the process of restoration, maybe not in the way you expect, but by something new and life giving. Perhaps you are a seeker and you have heard the voice in the wilderness but you’re not quite sure how God is working in your life. I would say do not be afraid. Stay and listen with hope and encouragement to the story of God who is coming among us in the face of the babe of Bethlehem: God Emmanuel, that is God with us. Gaudete!!! Rejoice!!!
[i]Wright, Nicholas Tom. Luke for Everyone. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001. Print.
[ii]Schapiro, Rich. “GOP Offers Prayers, Not Solutions, on Calif. Massacre.” NY Daily News. NYDailyNews.com, 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
[iii]“The 12 Steps.” The 12 Steps. 12step.org, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
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