Year C, Advent 3 December 13, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.” Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
Rejoice my friends! That is what today is all about, rejoicing in the Advent of Jesus Christ! Rejoicing in the coming of our Savior! Rejoicing because Christmas is near!
This little snippet from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is what makes today Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice or Joyful Sunday. Well, it is actually from the antiphon to the Psalm appointed for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, but that antiphon is taken from this passage so it is same-same but different. The whole of this letter to the Philippians is steeped in joy. In 1:4 he writes, “…constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you…” In 2:2 “… make my joy complete; be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord…’ 2:17-18 “…I am glad and rejoice with all of you – and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.” And there are a others in this short, four chapter letter. Rejoice!
This little letter is really a letter for us to consider right now. Philippians is full of joy, expressing real affection and trust and good will from Paul to the church there in Macedonia and it was written in very trying times. It is a letter for this moment because it shows that even in darkness, in troubling times, in times of public and personal trials and tribulations, that joy, that rejoicing, is an excellent way to respond to the world. Not the only way, mourning could be appropriate, or lamentation, righteous anger, resolve and determination might be called for, but joy, rejoicing… that is what Paul is charging us with today, in the midst of our own storms this 3rd Sunday of Advent. So, rejoice! Again I will say, Rejoice!
Dark times. St. Paul wrote this letter from prison, and his fate, even his life hung in a precarious balance. Themes of death and opposition are throughout this letter. The Empire was at its zenith and was striking back at all opposition. And, says Paul, the response to that, the Christian response to the condition of their world in the mid-1st century, a world defined in ways by empire and environmental degradation and political strife and singling out of religious minorities for persecution, the proper Christian response is joy, we are to rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” I could use some of that. You?
Please note that joy is not the same as happiness. Distinctly not. Not that all happiness is frivolous, but nothing about joy, about true Christian joy is frivolous. C.S. Louis, one of Anglicanism’s most treasured voices, spoke of joy more in terms of “longing” than anything else. Another scholar paints a picture of joy in terms of the African-American church, and how the Black church worships. She says that yes, there is great joy at the heart of the liturgy of the black church, but warns against equating “…liturgical enthusiasm and joyful expressions of adoration and praise” with happiness or unrestrained frivolity; that is not what is happening. That joy is there, but it is a joy of “deep longing.” And this longing, she goes one, is one that often defies expression, “…that is, this joy is experienced as an ‘unspeakable joy.’” “Unspeakable joy…” That is the joy that Paul is calling the congregants in Philippi to; that is the joy he is calling us to.
We talked about prophets last week, and how communities, communities of resistance lift up prophets. One way prophets rise up is through communal memory, memory expressed in song and story, and I mentioned spirituals as one way that memory is held and communicated. I mentioned “Go down Moses” in particular. Now Bruce could speak much more knowledgeably then me about music in the black church, but have you ever sung “Go down Moses,” I mean really sung it? It is not a happy song. But those words, sung out, sung out with other voices, the longing for the freedom promised, and that knowledge at the same time that that longing will be satisfied by God, that promise will be kept, if only in God’s time… that full and rooted feeling beyond words… that is joy. That is the joy of God, the joy and peace of God, the joy and “peace of God that surpasses all understanding, (and) will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” That is the stillness, the contented longing of Advent. That is the story of today, Gaudete Sunday.
We can give “Go Down Moses” the old college try, but again, as I said last week, we are hard pressed to be a community of resistance as things are, but we can still sense that kind of joy. Our sequence hymn, the greatest (if I do say so myself) the greatest of Advent hymns, it says it… “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.” Again, it is not a happy song, but it is joyful, it is pregnant with the longing for salvation, for liberation from the darkness of this world with the holy knowledge that that salvation, that liberation is coming. It is coming. Our longing will be satisfied. Christ will come. Emmanuel, God is with us. That is the joy of Advent.
But this Advent? The world is a mess right now. (A case could be made for it always being a mess, depending on your perspective, and right now even a wide angle view is pretty disturbing). Some of us are messes, hot messes, even. Joy can be fleeting, yes of course, but it is always right there! We each can be, as CS Lewis was, surprised by joy! That is what Paul is teaching us.
“The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything…” (or in proper King James English, “The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing”) “…but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be known to God.” Ah, the worry in the world, but can any of us by worrying add a single hour to the span of our lives? Do not worry, the Lord is near. What we do when the Lord is near? Well, whether we are symbolically/liturgically nearing God as we try enact in Advent or if we are really, truly near to God, the proper response is prayer. And we are taught to pray with “supplication and thanksgiving.” Supplication meaning with humility, thanksgiving meaning with the confidence of gratitude. What Paul is saying is that you need to be honest, be open, be truthful about yourself, the world, what you need, what you need help with, where your struggle and where you are doing OK, you’ve got a handle on it. And he implores us, be humble for you do not know God’s ways; be grateful for you do not know God’s ways, we do not know why any of this is as it is. Hence, the only appropriate way to be in relation to the world, in relation with God is to assume a posture humility and gratitude; that is how we pray, and praying shapes believing, and believing shapes our lives. Who wouldn’t want to be known as humble and grateful? Who wouldn’t want to be humble and grateful? It feels lovely to feel those things, joyful even. When we are able to fully, openly, honestly encounter the world with humility and gratitude, you know the joy of that, right? I once received communion from Archbishop Tutu, he had it, a surprising joy, humble and grateful. You can imagine that. Sing it out: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come: let Earth receive her King.” That’s what I am talking about.
When we rejoice, when our presence in the world is full of joy, and we engage the world with humility and gratitude, O the peace that we will know… blessed and holy peace. Or as St. Paul puts it, writing at the top of his skill, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is a cozy fire on a stormy night kind of peace. It is a candlelit Stille Nacht sung at midnight Mass, “peace on earth good will towards all” kind of peace. This peace is the first fruit of the unspeakable Christian joy that Paul was telling his friends in Philippi about. And that peace, while it does surpass our understanding, thanks be to God, it is well with in our reach. That is the joy we are to learn in Advent. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” AMEN