Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is a day for joy. It is in fact traditionally called in Latin Gaudete Sunday, Gaudete – or rejoice – the first word of the traditional introit for the day, taken from the passage from the letter of Paul to the Philippians which is one of our set readings this morning.
Rejoice! At the middle point of Advent, our season of preparation, traditionally marked by the wearing of dark blue or purple vestments to signify our reflection and preparation, today we wear exuberant rose vestments to celebrate that joy, and to remember that even in the midst of a world of darkness, uncertainty and fear, our God is near.
Not a word that immediately comes to mind to those who are coming to Canada, seeking refuge, alone or with their family, and who find themselves locked up in facilities akin to prison while their case is being processed.
Dark days when children wonder what their father has done for their family to be locked up in such a way, or when a father is separated from the rest of the family with no contact and no sense of the welfare or wellbeing of their spouse and children. Earlier this week, I met with Carolina Manganelli, the director of Action Réfugiés Montréal, who painted a vivid picture of the lives dislocated of those seeking refuge here. Jointly sponsored by the Anglican Diocese of Montreal and the Presbyterian Church, Action Réfugiés’ Immigration Detention Support Program provides some light in the darkness of those caught in this system and perhaps a kernel of joy in the depth of despair and unhappiness.
Not an easy exhortation to the families served by the Mile End Mission, many of whom do not know where their next meal might come from, or for those indigenous people and other itinerants seeking warmth and shelter in the cold of winter at the Cabot Square ‘Raphaël André Tent’, a project which the cathedral has agreed to support for its second winter. Or for those who will be lining up for our last Sunday of the month lunch on 26 December, as on so many other Sundays before.
A bit of a clanger for all those who are weighed down by life at this time and for whom the forced jollity of the lead-up to Christmas and the unrealistic expectations of family joy only compound their fear and isolation and despair at a time when the world appears on the surface so unrealistically happy.
A hard word even for all of us as we negotiate our second Christmas since the start of COVID, as we continue to be unable to plan ahead further than a few weeks, are unsure how we might see our families and friends, and continue to worry about what Omicron might mean and how many more variants are likely to impact our lives in the coming months.
When the apostle Paul writes his letter to the Philippians, he is not writing from a place of comfort and privilege. Instead, he is writing to that community from a prison cell, where he could easily have felt despondent and without hope. Yet, he is able to continue to encourage them not only because he knows that the Lord will be coming again, but also because he knows that the Lord is always near. Near him, and near us. His faith is his source of hope and joy, that knowledge of God’s near presence which makes even the darkest experiences he and we encounter more bearable because God shares them with us.
If we look back into the past, or project into the future, it is easy to have a sense of overwhelm. But as you slow your minds and become very present to the moment, and as you become fully aware of the presence of God, God surrounding you with his love, it is difficult to feel anything else but joy. I would encourage you to make this a regular practice especially when things are tough. Stop, focus on now, and know that God is here. Or, in the words of psalm 46, ‘Be still and know that I am God’.
In our Canticle today, Isaiah enjoins us similarly: ‘Surely God is my salvation: I will trust, and do not be afraid’.
And even the gloomier of prophets, Zephaniah, gives a rallying cry for rejoicing : ‘ Rejoice, the Lord is in your midst – a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love, he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival’.
‘I will bring you home at the time when I gather you’, says the Lord.
This is so encouraging for all of us at this time as we watch, and wait. But Advent is not a state that is meant to be permanent. It is a time when we repent and prepare, when we consider our lives and tweak them here and there, or make radical changes if we need to, in order to be ready for the coming of the Lord – meeting the Christ made human at Christmas, but also facing the Christ when he comes again.
John the Baptist, in the account of the evangelist Luke, does not mince his words when he calls those who come to hear him to change: ‘Brood of vipers’, snakes… It is some wonder that anyone actually stays to listen to what this crazy looking man has to say. And yet they do, because deep down they know that there has to be something better in their lives than to rely on history, ancestry, tradition. They know that they too are worthy of God’s love, and they are eager to find their own way back to God.
John’s fiery message is that God is not interested in entitlement or simply being born in the right place at the right time. Instead, he calls those who will listen to model the generosity of God in their lives to those around them – Those who have too much must share with those who have little. Those who are tempted to use their power over others – like the tax collectors or the soldiers – are enjoined to be content with what is due to them, no more.
This is radical speak in a country when extortion and corruption were rife, and it continues to be radical speak in the world which we inhabit today, marred as it is by such gross inequalities.
“Go home,” John tells them. Go home to your lives, your families, your neighbours, your friends. Go home and live your lives as deeply and as generously as you can right now. Do what the Lord requires of you and do it now. Be generous now – Be merciful now – Do justice now.”
But John the Baptist does not stop there. ‘One is coming, more powerful, who will baptize you in the holy spirit and fire’. This image sounds both elating as well as terrifying.
As is the image of the judge with the ‘winnowing fork’, not something that we might necessarily encounter everyday: a tool to separate the grain – all that is full of goodness and life-giving – from the chaff, what is now worthless and fit only to be burnt.
So what are we to do?
As ever, in our scriptures, we are confronted with two seemingly opposite, yet complementary ideas, just as in the story of Jesus’ two friends Mary and Martha.
In this season of Advent, we are invited to pause and listen, and to rejoice as you become more fully aware of the presence of God with you at this time and always. And we are also to prepare for action, to identify the part you can play individually and as a community for those who are struggling to rejoice, those who are currently unable to see God with them, or those who know God is with them and are waiting for help.
Those in Refugee detention centres, those who are cold and hungry and whose lives are upside down, those who are depressed and suffering at this time, those who wonder what more worry tomorrow will bring.
Be the kernel of God’s joy in their life.
In this season of consumerism extravagance despite the pressures of the pandemic, we have many opportunities to rise to the challenges that God highlights for us as we ground ourselves into his presence now.
Some of us will be able to do much, some little – all of us according to our possibilities and situation. Whatever we do, we must do rejoicing, because through our baptism we are all witnesses of the Good News of great joy of the coming of the Lord, and active participants in sharing the grace of God in the world.
I will finish with a poem by David Grieve
Advent Good wishes
Give you joy, wolf,
when Messiah makes you meek
and turns your roar into a cry that
justice has been done for the poor.
Give you joy, lamb,
when Messiah saves you from jeopardy
and all fear is overwhelmed
by his converting grace.
Give you joy, wolf and lamb together,
as Messiah brings worldwide peace and,
side by side, you shelter
under Jesse’s spreading shoot. Amen