There is something beautiful and mysterious about Advent, but there is, at the same time, something unsettling, darkly anxious, almost threatening about it. The Advent mood is hard to put into words. It is often captured better by its hymns, which are often dark and brooding, sung in a minor key.
The scripture lessons for Advent set the tone with their continued prophetic calls for repentance, the dire warnings to “wait and watch,” the urgency of preparation for what is coming. We hear about those who are unprepared for God, tenants who are surprised by the sudden appearance of their long-absent landlord, sleepy bridesmaids waiting with their empty oil-lamps for the bridegroom to come.
In short, it’s an expectant season, a season of being primed and pumped, and there is a nervous edge to the waiting. Lauren Winner, in her charming book Girl Meets God says of Advent, “The waiting is meant to be a little anxious. I picture Jane Austen heroines. They never are quite sure that their intended will come.”
But the Advent mood undergoes a dramatic change today, on this Third Sunday of Advent. The lessons lose their menace and begin to dance a bit. Suddenly, the warnings turn into promises. We hear of deserts blossoming, the seas exulting, and the trees of the field clapping their hands, so that if there were one word to capture the new mood it would have to be joy!
Traditionally this Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for joy, and it is a day for rejoicing.
But perhaps some of you don’t feel like rejoicing. Perhaps your own mood is more like the rest of Advent, darker, more anxious, somewhat unsettled, for any number of reasons, not least of which might be the state of the world.
The news of the world is always a distressed word, a word full of sadness and anger, a word tinged with fear and heavy with regret. Perhaps that is why the darker mood of the Advent season speaks to us at times more authentically than its more joyous mood. Because the news of the world in which we live is so often itself such a dark unsettled word.
Whether we recognize it or not we come to church to hear a counter-Word. We come burdened by our occupations and pre-occupations, weighed down by both the demands of daily living and the larger societal and global worries that clamor for our attention. We often think we have things pretty much figured out, but there are nagging areas of uncertainty about our fate and future.
We come perhaps unsure how reliable even the words we hear in church might be. The New Yorker last week had a cartoon in which a man is shaking hands with a minister at the door of a church. “Good sermon, Reverend,” he says, “but that God stuff is pretty far-fetched.”
Yes, it is. To the ears of the world the Good News often sounds like too-good-to be-true news. And a weekly hour’s religious interlude away from the world’s worries may not be enough to get us ready for rejoicing.
Nevertheless, on this Third Sunday in Advent we are admonished to rejoice. And in its wisdom the church has placed this rejoicing season in the midst of the heavier Advent mood, has placed today’s major key joyfulness amid the plaintive longing of the rest of the season, whose words are not words of hope and promise so much as words of warning, dire words that leave us judged.
And you can see the transition in today’s Old Testament lesson, which starts out in the usual Advent minor key in the first chapters.
But then listen to these words from Chapter three:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
“Shout, O Israel!
“Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . .
“The Lord your God is in your midst,
“He will rejoice over you with gladness
“He will renew you in his love;
“He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”
So how does the story get from Chapter 1 to Chapter 3, from judgment to mercy; from wrath to tender forgiveness; from fear to rejoicing, from death to life?
The answer is that the God who comes to be our judge is the same God who comes to be our Savior. This is what holds the waiting and rejoicing moods of Advent together.
God has taken the sentence that we deserve and has taken it upon himself. In Christ our judgment has been removed and the enemy has been turned away at the gates. We can rejoice as prisoners who have received a stay of execution. The Good News is like a governor’s pardon that arrives by the last post.
Such a reprieve is cause for rejoicing. Those who would have been given over to death by the word of the law are now brought to life by the life-giving word of the Gospel. God turns our death into life, our shame into praise. No wonder St. Paul commands us to rejoice!
But the rejoicing is not just on our part. We are not the only ones rejoicing this Advent. God rejoices along with those whose sentence he has overturned. Even God sings,
Because God is a lover and invites us to love him in return. The Christian story is above all a love story. It is not about something called religion, but it is all about the love God has for us. God wants us for himself. He wants us as lovers. This is the God who heals and saves, the God who gives meaning and hope to the downcast and new life to the dead. This is God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father, the God worth waiting for, and working for, and praying to and rejoicing with.
This is the God that our ancestors have worshipped in this building since 1853 and in two previous meetinghouses on this site going back to 1764. This is the God we pray will bring many to himself in this place in the years to come, so that in this place 150 years from now people, will hear the Good News of his love.
And so we rejoice and sing.
The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Floyd.
A sermon given at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on
December 14, 2003.