By Jordan Hillebert
Today is the third Sunday in Advent, which means two things as far as the Church’s calendar is concerned. First, on this day we remember John the Baptist, a man who was in many ways the culmination of all the prophets who came before him. Think of John, with his wild hair and his shabby clothes, as Advent personified — the supreme example of what it means to live now in the light of God’s future. Everything about his life and teaching points forward to the arrival of God’s kingdom.
We are given a rather arresting picture of John’s preaching in our Gospel reading this morning. It takes a pretty gutsy preacher to begin a sermon with “You brood of vipers!” The basic gist of John’s sermon is a stern reminder not to place too much stock in the past, but instead to focus on the future. God is coming to rescue his people and to restore things to the way they should be, John tells his listeners. But don’t you think for a moment that just because you have Abraham as your ancestor, you’re somehow entitled to God’s good favor.
What matters is not where you are from; what matters is whether you are prepared for what’s to come. When God arrives on the scene, will he find you living like a citizen of his kingdom, devoting yourself to acts of mercy, forgiveness, justice, and peace, or will he find you living like a citizen of your own kingdom, devoting yourself to your own wishes and desires rather than the needs of others?
It is a rather unsettling message — John is a little like the fire-and-brimstone preachers that we sometimes encounter on street corners. But notice how our Gospel reading ends: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3:18). How does a sermon beginning with “You brood of vipers” end up being good news? Because, just as our past doesn’t earn us any special favors with God, neither does our past disqualify us from God’s grace and forgiveness.
The reason people flocked to John the Baptist, the reason they gathered in great crowds to be baptized by him in the Jordan, is that he gave them a second chance. Or rather, because he pointed them to a God who is all about second chances (and third chances, and fourth chances, and fifth). It doesn’t matter where you are from, or what you have said, or what you have done. What matters is the present moment of decision. Now is the time to repent — a rather churchy and intimidating word that just means “turn around.”
Turn around, John tells the people. Start afresh. Now is the moment to begin again. Now is the time to prepare yourself for God’s kingdom.
So that’s the first thing we celebrate on Advent 3. We remember and give thanks for John the Baptist, and like John we devote ourselves to turning around and receiving anew the gift of God’s great future. The other thing we celebrate today is what’s called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is a Latin word meaning “rejoice.” It is the reason we light a rose-colored candle today rather than a purple one. Not because pink was John the Baptist’s favorite color, but because the rose color is meant to represent joy.
For most of the Church’s history, and still to this day in many churches, Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, was meant to be a penitential season. Not a season for carols and mince pies, but a season for preparing oneself for the coming of Christ. Like Lent, it often involved fasting and self-denial, a stripping away of the things that often distract us from God, so that we might be alert and ready to receive again the miracle of Christmas.
Gaudete Sunday was meant to mark the halfway point of Advent; it was the Church’s way of saying, “Listen, we know all this fasting and spiritual preparation business can be difficult, but hang in there! Christmas is coming! You’re halfway there!” It was a feast to interrupt the long fast. But more important, it’s a reminder that even as we watch and wait for the coming of Christ, we experience the joy of his presence here and now. The world is not yet perfect, our lives are not yet perfect, our relationships are not yet perfect, so we long for Jesus to return and make all things right. But even in the waiting, we rejoice.
This is the point that Paul makes in our reading this morning from his Letter to the Philippians. Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. 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. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”(Phil. 4:4-7). It’s a beautiful passage, isn’t it? A wonderfully upbeat and hopeful message — something that would go nicely in a Christmas card. It certainly sounds more like “good news” than John’s “brood of vipers” bit. Rejoice, Paul tells us. Don’t be anxious. Be thankful. Be at peace.
Now that’s all fine and good for St. Paul, we might think, but he didn’t have to turn on the news every night. Who could possibly avoid being anxious at a time like this? And how are we meant to be at peace when so much in our lives seems out of our control? Many of us are juggling impossible schedules (especially this time of year). Demands at work and at home, strained relationships, financial worries — these all have a way of robbing us of peace and security.
And how can we be thankful in the face of so much pain and disappointment? What does thankfulness even look like when we are battling illness, or when someone close to us betrays us, or when someone we love is taken from us? In many ways, I think our reading from St. Paul is even more challenging than John’s fire-and-brimstone sermon. Paul has the audacity to tell us that despite everything we ought to rejoice.
Now, lest we are tempted to think that Paul had it easier than us, it is worth noting that Paul actually wrote this letter from prison, probably in Rome. And as we learn in the first chapter of Philippians, Paul thinks there is a good chance that he will be put to death while he’s there. Likewise, Paul is writing to a church undergoing some form of persecution. According to Paul, God has granted the church in Philippi “the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (1:29). Paul is not comforting the comfortable; he is writing to men and women who have suffered, like Paul, for the sake of the good news about Jesus Christ.
To top it all off, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is being delivered by a man called Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus had been sent earlier by the church in Philippi to check in on Paul, to assure him of their prayers and perhaps to pass along a copy of the church newsletter. But somewhere along the way poor Epaphroditus falls ill. According to Paul, Epaphroditus came close to death on his journey, risking his life to comfort and encourage Paul on behalf of the church.
To summarize: Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written by someone who was suffering, delivered by someone who was suffering, to be read by a church that was suffering. So how can Paul speak so freely and eloquently about joy? How could anyone in those circumstances be joyful?
Because, writes Paul, the Lord is near. The Lord is near. That’s what Gaudete Sunday is all about. Our lives might be uncertain, but we can trust utterly and completely in the promises of God. The world around us is constantly changing, and let’s be honest, not always for the better, but the love of God is a fixed point — it is the fixed point. For Paul, then, joy has less to do with our day-to-day circumstances and more to do with receiving and clinging to the hope that we have in Christ. And so rejoicing is just as much a spiritual discipline as praying, or coming to church, or reading our Bibles.
Joy takes practice. It doesn’t just happen to us. As Henri Nouwen writes, “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us” (Here and Now: Living in the Spirit [Crossroad, 1994], 29). All of us come here this morning with our own burdens, our own pain and worries. I invite you to take this Gaudete Sunday as an occasion to place those burdens before God in prayer and to seek his peace, his comfort, and the assurance of his love. May the Lord fill your hearts with joy. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hillebert is Director of Formation at St. Padarn’s Institute (Cardiff, Wales).