3rd Sunday of Advent – 17th December 2017
(John 1:6-8, 19-28)
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be always acceptable and pleasing in your sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen
Today we have lit the pink candle on our Advent wreath, to remind us that today is a little bit different to the rest of Advent. The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday. The word coming from the Latin ‘gaudete’ which means to ‘rejoice’. Originally, Advent was a fast of forty days and was a time of preparation for Christmas. In the 9th century the duration of Advent was reduced to four weeks, but it retained the characteristics of a penitential season which made it a counterpart to Lent. On Gaudete Sunday the focus moves away from one of expectation, preparation and the second coming of Christ to one of Christian joy. The readings set focus on rejoicing in the Lord, as well as the mission of John the Baptist and his connection with Advent. The theologian Henri Nouwen described joy as ‘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’. Thus, joy can be present even in the midst of sadness.
Today’s Gospel reading, shows two ways of approaching life and the joy of God’s presence in the world. One way is demonstrated by John, the man we heard about in last week’s and this week’s Gospel reading. The other way is demonstrated by the priests and Levites, sent by the Pharisees, to ask John who he was. The two approaches are that we are either witnesses or interrogators.
John was a witness sent from God. His vocation in life was to witness to Jesus and as one who could witness to the light. The priests and Levites were interrogators sent by the religious authorities. “Who are you if you are not the Messiah,” they ask John. “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the prophet?” “Why are you baptising?” They do not know themselves or this man who stands among them. That is how it is with the interrogators. They are in the dark and nothing makes sense, so it is question, after question, after question. Witnesses, however, are different. They know the truth and talk about the truth, which is the light. They know the light.
John knows who he is and who he is not. That is what makes him a reliable witness. He speaks the truth, but he is not the truth. He has a light upon him, but he is not the light. He is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, but he is not the Word of God. Everything about John and his ministry points to the light and the life, both of the one who stands among us and the one who is coming. John will put his life on the line for the truth he speaks. That is how witnesses are. They can live and die based on what they have seen, and heard, and experienced.
So, what may be the real difference between witnesses and interrogators? Interrogators tend to demand answers whereas witnesses offer hope. In our world today, more than ever we need witnesses of hope. We do not need more answers or explanations. We have enough interrogators. We need to hear “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (John 1:23)
John’s voice is the voice of hope. With hope can come joy and rejoicing. His words echo through the wildernesses of our world and our lives. John, however, was not the first person to be the voice of hope and rejoicing. Before John, Mary was proclaiming the greatness of the Lord. She spoke of the one who shows favour to the lowly, offers mercy, and lends the strength of his arm. She spoke of the one who fills the hungry with good things and comes to the help of his people (Luke 1:46-55).
Before Mary, there was the prophet Isaiah. The Lord anointed him to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. He spoke about God comforting those who mourn and rebuilding the ruins of their lives. They will be clothed in garments of salvation and wear robes of righteousness (v10).
John, Mary, Isaiah, these were all witnesses of hope and rejoicing. They looked at the circumstances of their life and the world around them and saw a greater reality. They each testified to a life and presence beyond their own. Within each of their voices is the Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God and was God, the Word that became flesh and dwells among us, the Word that enables us to become children of God (John 1). Everything that needs to be said was spoken in that one Word. That Word, Jesus, is our ultimate hope.
When we think about the tragedies and difficulties of our lives: the death of a loved one, an illness, an addiction, family rifts or simply the sin that separates us from God or others, answers and explanations do not sustain us. How, when, what, or why questions are not what we need to hear. It is the Word of hope that gets us through it all. It is not that hope makes life easy, but it makes life possible. Hope reminds us that it won’t always be like this. There is light and life coming to us which will cause us to rejoice. It is already here among us. The interrogators of the world, however, make it difficult to hear that other voice, the witness of hope. The interrogators clamour and compete for our attention. They often speak to us the loudest, but the voice of hope has never been, or will ever be, silenced.
I wonder which voice it is we listen to? Which voice is it that we follow? Those are questions we must answer every day. The reality of humanity is that we are a people of the wilderness and the reality of God is that He is the God of hope. Do we trust the voice of the wilderness or do we trust the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness? The voice we listen to is the voice with which we will speak. We will become either witnesses or interrogators. We can choose who we want to be.
Hope is not easy. We must practice hope. As Paul says in his first letter to the Thessalonians it means we rejoice always, we pray without ceasing, we give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:16-18). These practices enable us to both hear and become the voice of hope.
The interrogators in this world will look at and question the circumstances of rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. Are the circumstances right for rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks? Is there a reason for those things? They want answers, justifications, and reasons. Witnesses, however, look beyond the circumstances to the God who fills those circumstances. That is hope. It opens our eyes to see the one who is coming. It prepares our heart to welcome the one who is already among us. It makes straight the way of the Lord. Hope is not a feeling, but an orientation and attitude of our life. It is a way of seeing. It allows us to recognise and know the Christ, already here and not yet here. Hope does not change the circumstances of our life, but it changes us and that changes everything.
So, this Gaudete Sunday let us rejoice that we too can be like John and be witnesses to the light. That we can play our part in sharing the joy and understanding of what it means to have that light and hope in our lives so that others may find the light also and rejoice. I finish with a poem by Brad Reynolds.
Because Christmas is almost here
Because dancing fits so well with music
Because inside baby clothes are miracles.
Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever
Because Santa Claus is coming.
Because of laughter
Because there really are angels
Because your fingers fit your hands
Because forgiveness is yours for the asking
Because of children
Because of parents.
Because the blind see.
And the lame walk.
Because lepers are clean
And the deaf hear.
Because the dead will live again
And there is good news for the poor.
Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus