Rose Sunday is a reference to rose color of 3rd candle in our Advent wreath. Its color is associated multiple meanings, including lightening of color in reference to Mary, whose song is one of the optional readings appointed for the day - we’ll hear a musical setting of it at the offertory - as well as reflecting anticipation of light coming into world.
Probably my favorite name for today is Stir up Sunday. It comes from the opening words of today’s collect, in which we ask God to “stir up your power… and come among us”. Tradition also holds that it’s also a reminder for cooks to “stir up” fermenting batter for their Christmas plum puddings and fruitcakes.
The other name for this third Sunday of Advent is the one I’d like to reflect on this morning. Gaudete Sunday refers to the Latin word for Rejoice, which is the first word found in a text traditionally sung on the third Sunday in Advent in the Catholic tradition, taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord always. We didn’t hear this reading this morning because our lectionary has changed, but the name hangs on.
All of these designations for the third Sunday of Advent are pretty upbeat and cheery, but calling this “Rejoice Sunday” is definitely a misnomer. The gospel we’ve heard this morning does not invite us to rejoice, but rather, shows us the picture of John, the baptizer, languishing in prison, suffering painful doubts about whether the one he has acclaimed to be the Messiah is actually the one. As we know, John was eventually beheaded by Herod.
Throughout today’s readings, we are reminded of the world’s troubles, of our need for hope, our need for redemption.
Isaiah offers a poetic vision of the world turned upside down by God’s redeeming power – or perhaps we should say – a world turned rightside up:
In Isaiah’s vision of God’s realm, all limitation and all suffering will be brought to an end:
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,
And the ears of the deaf unstopped;
Then shall the lame leap like a deer
And the tongue of the speechless sing for joy….
The Psalmist, as well, echoes this theme of transformation:
(God) gives justice to those who are oppressed,
And food to those who hunger.
The Lord sets the prisoners free… [and] lifts up those who are bowed down
Advent acknowledges the sorrows of our world, but promises that the light is coming.
Advent faces us with our brokenness and asks us to believe in the light. It calls us to be messengers of hope.
Over the course of the four weeks of Advent our sacred texts have been guiding us to this conclusion.
The first Sunday of Advent confronted us with Jesus’ apocalyptic vision of a world of frightening endings – the two workers in the field, the two women grinding meal, one of whom is taken and one left.
The two middle weeks of Advent – last Sunday, and today – ask us to remember prophetic ministry of John Baptizer. John and Jesus lived in a world that took apocalyptic visions seriously: they believed a final judgment was approaching and they preached readiness.
John and Jesus both recognized corruption and emptiness in world dominated by the struggle for power over others as a means of protecting self-interest. It’s an understanding of the world that we can readily understand.
Isaiah and the other prophets of Hebrew scripture AND John the baptizer utilized two images to describe he world God is working to transform, the world Jesus lived and died to redeem: the first is the world as “wilderness”, and the second is the world as “darkness”. In our own time, both of these images need rethinking.
Isaiah spoke of one “crying out in the wilderness” to “prepare the way of the Lord’”, identifying wilderness as a place of hostility, barrenness, and danger. Heather reflected on the wilderness in her sermon last week and reframed the concept for us.
“Creation is God incarnate”, she told us, and said that it’s our responsibility as followers of Jesus to ensure “that there will be a wilderness for Christ to return to.” Rather than dreaming of being saved from the wilderness, Heather advised that “One of the first steps we can take is to follow John the Baptist’s example by spending more of our time in the wilderness.”
“Darkness” is the other biblical image I’d like to reframe.“Darkness” into which the light breaks is another way of describing the reality of the world’s emptiness without God’s presence.
You’ve heard me reflect, before, that I have grown uncomfortable with equating “darkness” with the negative, as it has it has such powerful, historic racist implications. I’m not going to give you that sermon again today, but I do want to bring it back to memory, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll be happy to explain. As a substitute, let’s talk about the broken aspects of the world.
Brokenness characterizes the world in our time, and too often is within us as well: it is not just the division and violence of our common life that needs transformation, but also the crooked, rough places in our individual lives:
Our lives are full of realities that don’t invite rejoicing.
Bur here’s the thing: even as Advent acknowledges the broken and crooked places in common life and our personal lives, it promises the coming of the light and asks us, outrageously, to hope.
Over and over again we hear these messages:
Isaiah promising that God “will bind up the brokenhearted”
That the captives will find liberty
That those who mourn will have “a garland instead of ashes”, “the oil of gladness instead of mourning”
The Psalmist, likewise:
“Those who sowed in tears will reap in songs of joy”
“Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come
again with joy, shouldering the sheaves”
In this pre-Christmas season popular culture surrounds us with sights, sounds, and tastes of the holiday season. Popular culture doesn’t want to have to wait for Christmas.
The important thing about these “signs” of the season is that they point toward and offer a taste of the true joy that is possible in God’s life.
Just as gifts we give at Christmas are not about the gifts themselves, but express how much we cherish those to whom we give, the lights, music, and delicious morsels we are preparing suggest and remind us of true gifts of love and hope, EMBODIED in the birth in Bethlehem, that we can fleetingly taste but that are hard to hold onto.
Advent promises that God has come near, that God has entered into OUR world.
That despite painful realities we can’t and shouldn’t plaster over with holiday cheer – God is working to transform this broken world.
We are in a between time – after the redeeming life of Jesus, but before the work of redemption is complete.
We are waiting. But we can choose how to wait. We can wait for God to “bind up the brokenhearted” and “transform the tears” to “songs of joy”, or we can pitch in.
Who, in your life, needs a word of love that you can bring?
Our work as Jesus’ followers is to be, as John was, witnesses to the light.
The life of Jesus taught us that when we feel sorrow and hopelessness closing in, the way to break through is by reaching out to others, especially to those whose sorrows are greater than our own. To show them, through our caring, that love exists, and that we can dare to hope.
In this Advent, let us hear and believe the promises.
Let us cry out in the wilderness, bearing and lifting up the sorrows of the world, and let us see beyond them.
Let us enjoy the pleasures of the season and understand that they are signs point toward a deeper Reality.
Let us continue to reach out in love, and offer the world better visions of what can and will be.
In Jesus’ name.
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