Rejoice Always! You’re Kidding, Right?

Sermon delivered on Sunday Advent 3B, December 14, 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to list to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28.

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin and means rejoice as in rejoice in the Lord always. Gaudete Sunday serves as a break from the heavy topics of the Four Last Things on which we reflect during Advent—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—and this theme of rejoicing is symbolized by the liturgical color of pink today. Appropriately enough, our epistle lesson begins with the apostle Paul commanding us to rejoice always. And we want to respond, “Seriously Paul?” This, of course, is the challenge the season of Advent presents us. How do we as Christians live out the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ? It is this question that I want us to look at briefly this morning.

We see today’s theme of rejoicing explicitly or implicitly in all our readings this morning and this makes us want to scratch our head and wonder what the various writers were thinking. I mean, do the family and friends of my old liturgics professor who died on Friday from cancer have a reason to rejoice? Does the Karageorge family have any reason to rejoice? How about Pat or Curt or Judy and Monroe? Or how about the rest of us with our secret sorrows and burdens? What about those who labor under cruel or tyrannical rule or who are victims of chronic injustice and/or poverty? Why in the world would they want to rejoice?

We ask these kinds of questions because we live in a world corrupted by human sin and evil. We also ask these questions because we try to create our own basis for rejoicing. But a moment’s thought will tell us how futile and ludicrous this latter attempt really is and this is one reason why so many people suffer from depression during the Christmas season. We want to tie our joy to our condition in this world and we expect life to keep serving up nothing but good things, primarily because most of us in this country have deluded ourselves into thinking we can overcome all that is wrong in our world with our money and our scientific and technological advancements. After all, doesn’t our own Declaration of Independence tell us we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? That’s why it’s easy to have a merry Christmas when our houses our brightly lit, our families and friends are gathered around us to celebrate the season and there are the perfect gifts all wrapped beautifully under the tree. But what happens when the lights go out and our family and friends are no longer around or we are incapacitated so that we are forced to celebrate the season all alone? Or what happens when economic catastrophic strikes and we can’t even afford a Christmas tree, let alone put presents under it?

Do you see the point? When we make the things and people of this world the basis of our joy, we are bound to be disappointed and become depressed at some point because all things are transitory in this fleeting life of ours. But sadly this is our preferred source of joy and our worldly pleasures are the only way we think God ever blesses us. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that material well-being or family and friends and the love involved are not important. They are hugely important and they are indeed a product of God’s rich blessings on us. But all these things are bound to fail us because of their fleeting nature.

But if we change the basis for our rejoicing to something more permanent and reliable than the fickleness of life, maybe the biblical exhortations to rejoice and give thanks always will become more relevant to us. I am of course talking about the challenge of developing a faith that is full of hope based on what God has done, is doing, and will finally do for us in Jesus to help us bear the burdens that come with living in a fallen world where bad things happen routinely, and here we see Paul laying out a framework to help us to do just that. Paul was no stranger to suffering. In fact, he suffered far more than most of us in this room. But on the basis of his faith in what God has ultimately done to rescue and heal us in and through Jesus the Messiah, Paul had a sure and certain hope that although evil, sin, and death are still with us, they have been soundly defeated on the cross of Jesus and he was further convinced we have been given a glimpse of our ultimate future in the resurrection of Jesus. Elsewhere, Paul compares living in this world to living in the darkness of night, but that each new day brings us closer to the light of the dawn of new creation and we are therefore to rejoice that God has won the day for us, even if we cannot always see how his victory is being worked out in this present dark age (Romans 13.11-14). In other words, Paul is reminding us what a true and deep joy is all about. It is about having the basis of our joy grounded in God’s promises and faithfulness. That is why we are called to have the same sure and certain hope that Paul and the other biblical writers had. And hope is not to be sneezed at because without hope we will shrivel up and die.

Likewise, Paul commands us to give thanks in every circumstance. Again we ask, say what? Paul is not telling us to develop a bizarre habit of thanking God for the bad things that happen to us (thank you, Lord, for afflicting my family with cancer, etc.). Rather, Paul is telling us to thank God because God loves us, is always present with us, and is sovereign over all the forces of this world and our lives, good and bad, even when that is not obvious to us. We believe this based on the many blessings in our lives and the consistent biblical witness that God continues to act in radically unexpected ways to demonstrate his love and sovereign power. Who, for example, would have thought God himself would become a human and enter his world as a vulnerable baby just like the rest of us do? Who would have thought God would rescue us from evil, sin, and death by allowing himself to be nailed to tree and suffer a criminal’s death? We’ve gotten so used to these stories (and others like them) that they cease to be scandalous and shock us anymore. We would therefore be wise to spend sufficient time reflecting on them during this Advent season so that we are once again shocked and scandalized by these stories because in them is the basis for our belief in God’s love and sovereignty, even when we cannot see or understand how it all is working out. Listen if you have humble ears to hear.

Paul commands us also to pray without ceasing. In other words, we are to incline our hearts and minds toward God, confident that he really is sovereign over his world and that he both hears and will act in ways that will accomplish his good will for us, even if we are unable to see how the circumstances in our life are working for our good and for the good of all creation (cf. Romans 8.28). This means that we can and must pray anytime, anywhere, and under any circumstance in addition to our regularly appointed time for prayer (you do have an appointed time for prayer, don’t you?). We are to do these things because this is God’s will for us as his people and doing these things will help strengthen our faith and help us learn to develop a real basis for having a joyful and thankful heart. But we will never know this to be true unless we are wiling to take the plunge and practice developing these holy habits. In other words, if we are going to live as Advent people, we must start acting like we believe our own story.

But Paul also reminds us that we do none of this in our own strength and power. We do it in the power of the Spirit who lives in us and who makes our Lord Jesus present and available to us each and every day we live. That is why he tells us not to quench the Spirit because to do this means we set ourselves up for failure as God’s people who live their lives in the world’s darkness but also as people whom Jesus can and will use to shine his light onto that darkness.

Having the Holy Spirit living in us will also help us test everything and cling to anything that is good. We must run away as fast as we can from any kind of evil or any kind of belief or thinking that encourages us to participate in evil because doing so will indeed quench the Spirit. We test everything by the light of Scripture and tradition, which in turn gives us guidelines to what is good in the Lord’s sight and what is not. Living holy lives where, for example, we care for each other, feed the hungry, and fight for justice, is the best way we can show ourselves and the world we are learning how to be Advent people who live with real hope.

But then Paul seals the deal. Too often we hear these kinds of exhortations and think that Paul is talking about a program of self-help where we make ourselves fit to be rescued by the Lord when he returns. But that of course is an exercise in futility because self-help in the realm of moral development is an oxymoron. And so Paul ends his list of commands with a breathtaking promise. The God who calls you will ensure that you can do all these things: rejoice, give thanks, pray, test, etc. and God will also ensure that we will be with our Lord when he returns to usher in his new creation. Not because of who we are. Not because we deserve any of it. But because God himself is faithful and he will do it. Do you want to learn real joy and give thanks in any circumstance, crazy as that sounds? Do you want to live with a sure and certain hope, even in the midst of seeming hopelessness? You can if you trust God to help you do these things so that you become someone who knows the love and power of God expressed fully in Jesus Christ our Lord at work in your life. Will you dare trust the Lord enough to take the plunge?

Let me be clear about all this. I am not suggesting that living by faith will suddenly make everything all right. Everything will NOT be all right because we still live in the darkness of a fallen world. But as our Lord himself told us, we are to take heart because he has overcome the world (John 16.32-33). Learning to live as Advent people with real joy requires that we really believe his promise and blessed are you who spend time reflecting on these things this Advent. God will surely give you the desires of your heart (cf. Psalm 37.4).

I started out by asking if some people should rejoice this Advent and I want to end by using one example to illustrate how this all works. I have lost a dear friend in Martha G., my old liturgics professor, to an evil death. So should I be rejoicing now because Christmas is coming? Well yes, but with a caveat. My heart aches for my loss and her family. But I know Martha’s great faith, hope, and love. She knew her Lord and so do I. That is why even in my sorrow I can rejoice because I know death is not the end for her. When our Lord returns and her mortal body is raised from the dead to live eternally in God’s new creation, there will be no more sorrow or sighing or sickness or death. And in light of this eternity, what she has suffered pales in comparison. That is not to diminish her suffering but rather to proclaim that God has redeemed her suffering and death and this gives me great comfort and hope so that in my sorrow I can rejoice.

This, I suggest, is a far better solution for facing the world’s darkness as we approach Christmas than trudging through malls in search of the perfect gift to cheer us up (or whatever else we try to do that will ultimately fail us). We’ve already been given the perfect gift in Jesus our Lord, God become human, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, and when we fully appropriate this gift, we too will know with Paul and all the other saints of God what it means to live with a real Advent joy because it is all about God. God is faithful and he will do it. Do you believe this? However you answer this or wherever you are in your faith journey, I plead with you to start or continue to do the things we have talked about today in the power of the Spirit. When we learn what it means to have real joy, it means we also know we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.