This Sermon was delivered at St Mary’s Diss at the Eucharist on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 15th December 2019. This is part three of the advent sermon series. Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today let’s just start by mentioning the elephant in the room…
The Curate stands before you dressed in pink!
As someone who spent most of their teenage years, and let’s be honest, most of their 20s as well, wearing various combinations of black only occasionally broken up by a white shirt or, more recently, a couple of burgundy pieces of clothing to find myself wearing pink is something rare occasion.
There’s a good reason, or at least a liturgical reason, for it though because today is what’s known as gaudete sunday which is named after the first word of the traditional introit; Gaudete in Domino semper, Rejoice in the Lord always. This theme of rejoicing comes from the old tradition of advent as a season of penitential fasting. Having fasted for two weeks the middle-ish sunday of advent was considered a feast day to celebrate the coming of Christ. As such today has also been called the Sunday of Joy and as a day of joy deserves a lighter colour than our penitential royal purple.
This providentially resonates with the next stage of our advent pilgrimage. We’ve been immersing ourselves in Isaiah’s prophecies as first we heard the call of the peoples, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” and last week we heard ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord”. You’ll recall that we asked ourselves the question, are we ready to meet our Lord face to face; whether when we die or when he comes again? Having been inspired to undertake something of an advent pilgrimage and having pondered whether we’re prepared to bring ourselves before God it’s safe to say that we are now well on our way walking through this advent season.
Sometimes when I go on a walk around Roydon Fen and Wortham Ling I like to listen to the birdsong and the breeze while the sunshines on my face. But on other times I’ll put my headphones in and listen to music, which acts almost as a movie score to highlight my walk, and perhaps to make it seem more epic and adventurous than it really is. If I were to choose a theme song for today’s part of our advent pilgrimage it would be the Proclaimers’ song, “I’m on my way from misery to happiness today” uh huh, uh hey, aha aha I’m on my way… The song opens like this:
I’m on my way from misery to happiness today
I'm on my way from misery to happiness today
I'm on my way to what I want from this world
And years from now you'll make it to the next world
And everything that you receive up yonder
Is what you gave to me the day I wandered
The Reid Brothers aren’t necessarily Christians per se but I think this song really captures something of the mood of our passages today, especially of Isaiah:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the prophet says. More than this it shall rejoice and blossom, and blossom abundantly! You’ll recall that last week I talked about the abundance of Isaiah readings we encounter this advent and that morning and evening prayer is a wonderful opportunity for us to submerge ourselves more deeply in the words of Isaiah. And this scene of the desert blossoming into life, of the people’s rejoicing with singing and everlasting joy has been one of our canticles at morning prayer.
Each day that we’ve said it together I’ve been struck by the sense of nurturing confidence it provides us. This is not some form of naive idealism. It’s not pretending that everything is great and perfect even as we struggle in our day to day lives. No, it’s quite literally saying: “strengthen the weary hands, make firm the feeble knees, say to the anxious be strong, fear not.”
Are we not those whose hands are weary from years of work, family and church? Are we not those who find our bodies to be working not quite as well as they once did? Are we not those who face anxiety, stress and concern for ourselves, our loved ones and the future?
This message is not just for those who are doing well, this message is for those who are not doing well. As Jesus once said, “it’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick, I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
We are those who are being called, who are being strengthened and comforted by the coming of our Lord. We hear the same idea in James, “Strengthen your hearts for the coming of the Lord is near!”
Last week we heard the voice of John the Baptist echoing out as the cry from Isaiah, he was the one in the wilderness saying: Prepare the way of the Lord. However he also said that there would be one coming after him who would be far greater. John baptised with water, the Christ will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.
Between then and now he has been arrested and put in prison for speaking against Herod’s sinful marriage. While locked up he hears stories of Jesus and sends two of his followers to ask Jesus a question: Are you the one who is to come?
Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
They start to leave to return to John. It’s an interesting message. Jesus doesn’t say yes as such but rather leaves it for John to see if he recognises Jesus by what he’s doing. Jesus’ claim to be the promised one is not simply a question of whether he can talk the talk but if he’s walking the walk.
But there’s a second part to this message which it’s easy to overlook. Jesus has given his answer to John’s followers, but as they’re getting up and leaving Jesus speaks to the crowd about John the Baptist. He describes him as more than just a prophet of God, but as the one whom it is written would come before the messiah to prepare the way.
We can imagine John’s disciples standing by the doorway as they’re about to leave, hearing Jesus’ comments. And as they listen Jesus says:
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
I had a lecturer once who loved this moment in this scene with Jesus and John’s followers. Matthew continues with what Jesus went on to teach but we could imagine instead the scene where John is being visited in prison by his followers. He hears them relay all they had heard Jesus say. When John hears that Jesus called him the greatest he hears the complement of the lifetime and a reference back to his own statements about the Christ being far greater than he. Now he hears that he is the greatest, even if the least of the kingdom of heaven is greater still. This is an acknowledgement of all that John did, and a humble confession from Christ that as the one of the Kingdom of Heaven he is greater than John.
Despite being cooped up in prison, this must have been of great comfort to John; Jesus is now here with us and he is doing the things which we have longed for: the healing of the sick, the lame, the blind, and heralding the kingdom of God. We’re on the way from misery to happiness indeed!
Returning briefly to Isaiah’s canticle of abundant blooming joy coming to and transforming the wilderness, we find mention of the Holy Way; a path, a highway through the desert for God’s Holy People. They shall walk on it and be kept safe, they shall not be afraid of lions or ravenous beasts, but shall walk there with singing as they return to the presence of God, and everlasting joy shall be on their heads.
This is the Christian life which we are making our pilgrim way through together. We gather week by week to offer worship and praise to our God, to bring before him our intercessions and petitions for those things which we need and which our community, our church, our nation and our world needs. We come to confess our sins, to acknowledge our weary hands and feeble knees so that being forgiven of our sins and coming to the presence of God in the eucharist we might be nourished and strengthened not just in our faith but for all of our lives.
We walk a path which changes us.
It’s as if the shadows of who we were in our failures have been dispelled by the light of Christ so that we might become creatures of substance; of faith and integrity. Living as Christians and persisting along this holy pilgrim way of life, our very lives glimmer as if each of us were stars shining in the darkness of the world.
Let us continue on our way from misery to eternal happiness together as we come to the eucharist trusting in God’s promise to us through Isaiah that we shall obtain joy and gladness even as sorrow and sighing flee away.
Gaudete in Domino semper;
Rejoice in the Lord Always.