Third Sunday of Advent Year B 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
For several days now, anytime I’m out driving and I have the radio on, I hear a Christmas song or two as they slowly creep in to being more frequent on my favorite station. It’s fun to sing along, get into the holiday feeling a bit. None of that seems entirely problematic for living in an Advent season. What I don’t particularly appreciate is the daily reminder of how many days are left before Christmas. I’m not sure they understand how unhelpful that is for clergy. No matter how much planning you do, there is invariably a scramble and stress to get everything put together. Mostly after I grimace I just have to laugh as an overly cheery voice announces, “Twelve days left until Christmas!” Not exactly what we consider a voice crying out in the wilderness.
Today is Gaudete Sunday, the infamous Third Sunday of Advent where we light the rose candle and some churches use rose colored vestments. The old joke I hear is that it’s rose, not pink, because Jesus rose from the grave. He did not pink from the grave. Or as Shelby Latcherie in the famed movie ‘Steel Magnolias’ would say, “My colors are "blush" and "bashful", Mama!” Regardless of what you want to call it, the shift in color marks to us a difference in how we treat the day from other Sundays in this season. Advent is full of apocalyptic imagery as we focus on the waiting for Christ’s return, but on this day the traditional Latin introit, think of the opening hymn, of the mass would begin with the words ‘Gaudete in Domino semper’ or ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ from Psalm 85.
The focus on rejoicing centers on God and his mercy and grace. Rejoicing in our salvation, in the glory that awaits us. Our readings also focus around joy. The reading we have today from the Prophet Isaiah is taken from the portion of the book where the prophet is telling the Hebrew people about the good news of their liberation. He is explaining what awaits them and hopefully offering them glad tidings of what is to come.
Our canticle is the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, which we hear again next week. Often folks mistakenly think that this is ‘Mary Sunday’ because of the pink candle and the sometimes use of this canticle. But today is not focused particularly on Mary, that’s next Sunday. The canticle does reflect joy though. She says, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” It reflects the joy of what is to come, the vision of God’s justice and what the Kingdom that Messiah brings to God’s people.
The epistle reading, archeologically the oldest written part of the New Testament, offers us St. Paul’s teaching to the church in Thessalonica on how to live awaiting Christ’s return. Living with joy, rejoicing always, praying ceaselessly, and constantly giving thanks. The idea of Christian joy is far more than happiness. It isn’t just being happy or being grateful. On this subject, Henri Nouwen says that this particular joy is, “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that love away." Imagine how joyful we might be if we really could fully grasp that and embody it.
So before we move on, let’s recap: Gaudete Sunday is about joy. Our readings so far have been about joy and rejoicing in God’s great mercy and justice. We even change the color to reflect that we aren’t in the somewhat doomy gloominess of the rest of Advent. So on this day of joy and festivity who better to hear about in our Gospel than John the Baptist. The bringer of Advent joy, calling people broods of vipers and proclaiming a time of repentance.
In reflection on this Sunday and its focus in the Gospel on John the Baptist, Fleming Rutledge writes, “Advent is not really the season of preparation for Christmas. It is the season of preparation for the second coming of Christ. The aura of the last days hangs over Advent. John the Baptist is the central personage of the season because he is the unique figure who stands at the juncture of the ages, the one who, even before his conception, was called into being by the divine purpose to declare the apocalyptic arrival of God on the world scene.”
The importance of John the Baptist to our Christian story cannot be underestimated. He is the last of the Hebrew prophets, come to herald the arrival of the messiah. From the very beginning of his ministry he is clear as to his relationship with Christ. John knows he is not the messiah, he is not Elijah. He is the voice crying in the wilderness. I think often John is also seen as a slightly odd figure, occupying the fringe of our faith narrative as much as he lived and ministered in the wilderness.
Consider the descriptions we have of John that we heard last week. Wearing a camel’s hair shirt, tied with a belt. He ate locusts and honey. He stayed in the wilderness, and often he is depicted with crazy dirty hair, a wild beard, a generally unkempt appearance. He’s the sort of guy that when he walks into a room the rest of us exchange side-glances. Or is he?
A few days ago I read a statement by Bishop Rob Wright, the Bishop of Atlanta, who said, “John the Baptist is not the wild religious zealot some in the church made him out to be. John is the faithful believer most of us are afraid to be.” That got me thinking about John the Baptist, how we really perceive him, and how he fits into this time of Advent.
We are preparing for Christ’s return, quite really the end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God. A joyful, beautiful, and terrifying moment. John is willing to be derided, to be seen as an outcast and questioned by those who would wield social authority. Willing to do what is necessary to herald the messiah and everything that means change in the world. So the question is… are we afraid to do the same? Are we willing to risk being the outcast? Are we willing to risk derision? Are we willing to risk our mortal safety to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ? For Episcopalians I probably should add are we willing to risk embarrassment for talking about our faith? Certainly seen as a fate worse than death itself for us.
David Bartlett writes, “We cannot read the story about John the Baptist without remembering the world regularly offers resistance to our witness. Though the Fourth Gospel never directly alludes to John’s fate, we know from our reading of the Synoptics that he was beheaded for his faithfulness. In polite North American society, resistance is often far more subtle. The danger is not that we will be executed but that we will be ignored. The Word made flesh turns into the word made papier-mâché, displayed on the lawn with all the charm and all the power of Santas, elves, and red-nosed reindeer.”
Advent is a beautiful and terrible time. It calls us to prepare for the end and to proclaim the Good News. It really does call us to work, and I don’t mean by decorating trees and baking cookies. We cannot afford to lose the meaning and importance of this season in the constant din of canned Christmas music. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, but they are too often our distraction from the actual faith we proclaim and cling to. No doubt Christmas can be a time of joy, much like this Sunday is. But that joy is about our salvation, about the Good News that accompanies the birth of the messiah. Advent beckons us to remember that Christmas is about the fulfillment of the Law, the promise of God to his people. So perhaps…maybe when I hear those radio announcers telling me there are only 12 days left until Christmas… what they’re really trying to do is warn me that the end is near. ‘Gaudete in Domino semper’.