Rejoice and exult with all your heart
A sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent
There are no prizes for guessing the theme this Sunday. What is it? Joy. We celebrate joy on two Sundays of the church’s year. One is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare Sunday, also called Mothering Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. The other is today, the Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word for Rejoice. Both Sundays fall in penitential seasons, and both provide a respite, and a change of mood from the sombre to the joyful. Were we in a church that ran to such things, the clergy would today exchange their purple vestments for pink or rose-coloured ones. In our Advent wreaths, this Sunday is often marked with a pink candle.
Joy, of course, is the second of the fruit of the Spirit mentioned by St Paul in his letter to the Galatians (5:22). Isaiah promises that “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” – what a great metaphor that is for our Christian life. We recall that according to the Gospel of St John, joy is associated with the first of the signs Jesus performed when he began his ministry. I once read somewhere that during the process of canonisation in the Roman Catholic Church, one of the proofs required of the potential saint is that she or he must have shown joy during their lives. True or not, I rather like the idea that you can’t be a saint and a sourpuss.
So, must we be joyful all the time to be true Christians? The answer is no, not at all. Joy is not a moral requirement for Christian living. Many of us experience times full of sadness and pain when joy seems conspicuously absent. It doesn’t mean that we are not good disciples or true Christians. Joy is not something we have to manufacture or generate in order to experience life in Christ. Rather, it comes to us through our walking patiently and consistently in the ways of faith and obedience.
Nor is joy to be confused with happiness. Christian joy is deeper than earthly happiness, pleasure, or fun. Joy can’t be bought. The attractions of the latest car, or house, or gadget, the entertainment industry, the fashion world and the travel business certainly promise us happiness. However, it is a happiness which quickly dries up when we run out of money. Joy, on the other hand is not a commodity to be purchased. Rather, it is a product of spiritual abundance, an overflow of vitality.
Few of us have it within us to be joyous, humanly speaking. But there is something we can do to cultivate it. We can decide to live in the abundance of God, and not to dwell in our own scarcity. We can decide to live trusting in the Living God, and not in our own fearful selves. We can decide to base our lives on the God who gives lavishly and generously, and not on our own egos with their greedy tendency to grasp and grab.
Nor is joy dependent on our own good luck in escaping hardship. The saints and holy people of the Christian tradition hand down to us some remarkable insights into joy. They have learned that spiritual joy goes together with spiritual suffering. They have learned that joy does not come only at the end when the suffering is over. They have learned that laughter does not exclude weeping, that Christian joy is not an escape from sorrow. Christian joy is real and authentic in the midst of pain, suffering, loneliness or misfortune.
The prophet Zephaniah lived in times as difficult and as frightening as our own. The northern kingdom of Israel had been swept away by the dreaded Assyrians barely two generations before Zephaniah’s time. The southern kingdom of Judah had miraculously escaped destruction by the Assyrian army, but the new superpower in the area, the Babylonian empire, was about to engage with Egypt, and Judah lay squarely in the crosshairs. It was a time of constant terrorism, and fear must have gripped the land.
And yet, Zephaniah 3. 14-20 is a lyrical song of pure joy. It describes how God is always present among us to heal and to restore. And in that divine rescue, God is rejoicing:
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
Saint Paul’s call is “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Why? It is because “the Lord is near”. God is near, and God will sustain us. It is worth recalling that Saint Paul wrote these words from a Philippian prison with a trial and a possible execution ahead of him. Yet even in such circumstances he found it possible to rejoice, to be gentle, and to be at peace.
Joy comes to us as a spiritual grace, but there are some things we can do to nurture and sustain it. We can cultivate gentleness in all we do. We can practise faithfulness in thanksgiving. We can develop a habit of gratitude for the ordinary joys and privileges of everyday life. We can commit, or re-commit, to prayer whether it be petitionary or intercessory, or adoration. Most of all we can try to see our worries and anxieties in the light of God’s ultimate resolution of our lives.
Finally we turn to the Gospel passage. How does joy figure here, with John the Baptist’s speech about the “brood of vipers” and all that? Simply this, that John’s severity and his directness of speech is a witness to the incredible possibility that we can change our lives. It is possible. We can let go of injustice, selfishness, materialism and inequality. We can turn our backs on the tremendous injustice, callousness and self-centeredness that marks and mars our culture. We can choose instead to enter a kingdom of freedom, love and abundance.
Let us conclude with some words from Marilynne Robinson, American novelist and essayist. She writes:
The Lord is near. We know not the day nor the hour of his coming because he is with us always, every day and every hour. We can rejoice in the Lord because he first rejoiced in us, and because he has put his mighty blessing on every gentleness we offer one another. Let our gentleness be known to everyone. If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, let us think about these things. They are the joy of God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.[i] Amen.
[i] Marilynne Robinson. Our God-haunted World. https://www.journeywithJesus.net/Essays/20121210JJ.shtml