Advent 3 / Gaudete Sunday 2020

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As you have no doubt already guessed today is slightly different from the other Sundays in Advent.  Rather than lighting a purple candle we have lit a pink, or a rose, candle and today I get to wear my fetching rose, or pink, vestments.  This represents a shifting of the mood from strictly penitential and preparational, to something lighter and, yes, more joyful.  

Today is called Gaudete Sunday, and it takes this name from the Latin introit: “Gaudete in Domino semper” – or ‘rejoice in the Lord always’.  So ‘gaudete’ means ‘rejoice’ and today is sometimes called ‘the Sunday of Joy’, which is a rather splendid name.

But, before we go too far we need to be honest.  This Sunday of Joy poses us with a serious question.  What does it mean to be joyful, to rejoice always, when life is actually pretty tough?

As we approach the end of 2020 I think it is uncontroversial to suggest that this has been an extremely hard year for most people.  Covid has cut a swathe through our country, through the world and through many pre-conceptions.  Vaccines are on the way, which is magnificent, but in this country alone around 500 people a day have been dying for some time.  Around the world 12,500 were dying daily last week and over 1.5 million have died in total.  When large numbers of people are involved there is always the temptation to de-personalise them, to deal with them as statistics and charts.  But every one of those people was a real, living, person made in the image of God and they leave behind those who mourn for them.  

In addition to those who have died or been very ill there has been a substantial shut-down of our society which has caused real damage the economy, unemployment and poverty have increased and will continue to do so for some time. Lockdown has damaged children’s’ education and social isolation has caused all sorts of mental health issues. 

On top of covid, which has affected most of the world, we are also uniquely challenged in this country by Brexit and, in Kent, we are challenged more than much of the country.  Regardless of how you voted in 2016 it is both remarkable and unsettling that we are only 2 weeks from leaving and we still don’t know what that is going to really mean for us, and it ain’t looking great.  

In addition to both covid and Brexit it is also winter.  I flipping hate the winter.  Some people seem to like the comforts of log fires and hot chocolate but I can’t stand the dark and the cold.  There was a reason I wanted to go to Africa for my sabbatical.  Which was cancelled because of covid, after only 10 years of waiting.  Just saying.

If you are familiar with Venn diagrams I have often thought of myself, recently, as sitting somewhere at the intersection between covid blues, Brexit blues and winter blues.  Vivienne says that I can be a miserable sod sometimes and, I think it is fair to say, that this year and over the last few months I have often felt pretty miserable about the state of lots of things.  

Hello, my name is Paul.  Sometimes I wear pink dresses in public and sometimes I feel a bit depressed.

But today is the Sunday of Joy and what did the reading from 1 Thessalonians say?

“16 Rejoice always,”

Surely, when it says ‘always’ it must only mean when things are going well for us, when we are feeling happy, when all the external circumstances of life are just as we would want them to be.  Right?

Not quite.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 

Wow.  Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God.

I won’t deny that this is a hard teaching for us 21st century Christians to accept.  Arabic speaking Muslims have a phrase you may have heard: “Inshallah” – this means ‘God willing’ or ‘If God wills it’ and the word Islam itself means submission to the will of God.  I would respectfully suggest that Muslims have a much more highly developed sense of accepting God’s will in their life, whatever the circumstances.

But this is not, and should not be, an alien concept to Christianity.  We even have our own Latin phrase for it, Deo Volante, and I just happen to have a framed version of that phrase which I found in a Dungeness art gallery.  

I have even stayed once in a monastery in Crawley Down called the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.

Deo Volante, God willing, the Servants of the Will of God.

How uncomfortable are we feeling right now?

Surely, as modern people living in an affluent part of a reasonably affluent country, if something is not going well for us, if circumstances are not to our liking, if we are feeling down, then there must be something that can be done about it.  We can complain to someone, we can work harder, we can take pills, we can get therapy.  Surely, we can control our circumstances and when we have adequately manipulated the world to our exact liking we can then be allowed to be happy.

But have we become so used to manipulating the circumstances of our lives to achieve our own happiness that we have stopped looking for the will of God?  The Inshallah, the Deo Volante, the Will of God which manifest themselves in our circumstances are all subjugated to our will.

How can we truly rejoice in God’s will if we spend all our time being unhappy with the circumstances that God gives us?

Perhaps we have forgotten joy in the pursuit of happiness?

Because, perhaps, happiness and joy are not the same thing, and perhaps that is the cause of our confusion, our modern malaise.

Happiness, I would suggest, is a surface emotion.  Happiness comes and goes like a wave lapping at the shore.  A bit of roast lamb may bring happiness whereas vegan hotpot may cause it to recede.  Happiness is related to our circumstances as a wave is related to the wind which passes over the surface.

But joy, I would suggest, goes much deeper than happiness.  If happiness is the ripples on the surface of the sea then joy is a deep undercurrent.  Joy is not an emotion, it is a state of being, and it is not something which changes with our brain chemistry it is a is given to us by God and, indeed, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. 

         “19 Do not quench the Spirit.”

We definitely live in difficult, troubled and troubling times.  But, here is the thing which challenges me and should challenge you, so did Jesus.  The world in which Jesus was conceived when Mary said yes to the Holy Spirit was a dangerous place; Mary only just escaped beig divorced and possibly charged with adultery because Joseph listened to the same Holy Spirit and, when he was born, Jesus only just escaped the Slaughter of the Innocents, the world in which John the Baptist was preparing the way for Jesus was a dangerous place and John lost his head and we know that the world was dangerous for Jesus as it condemned him to die on the cross.  Yet despite the abundance of danger, despite the outward circumstances of life often being less than ideal, the story of God got told because of the people who looked for the will of God in the situation they found themselves in and found their true joy in saying yes to that, regardless of the pursuit of personal happiness.  

So, on this Sunday of Joy, I think that we can learn to find joy and thence can learn to rejoice when we stop trying to bend God to our will and make Him in our likeness and start learning to look for the will of God in the world as it is, say yes to His will for our lives in this world and allow him to remake us in His image.

Rejoice always, I say to you, rejoice.