Today we celebrate Gaudete Sunday...the third Sunday of Advent in which the theme is Joy and we are told to Rejoice! If you are following along at home with the lighting of the candles of your Advent wreath, you will light the pink one. The pink candle serves as a reminder that in the waiting for the Christ child, we are to rejoice in the grace so freely given by God our Creator. As I was reading through the lessons, immediately the hymn “Prepare the Way, O Zion” popped into my head. Some of the lyrics are:
Prepare the way O Zion, your Christ is drawing near
His rule is peace and freedom, and justice, truth and love
All lands will bow rejoicing, their adoration voicing
O blest is Christ who came in God’s most holy name.
At least for me, I read the passages from the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah as being a reminder that the longed-for Messiah will be a peacemaker, even in the midst of oppression and captivity. Zephaniah’s prophecy is one that calls for all the outcasts to be gathered up in joy. Isaiah’s prophecy call for all those who have been in exile to be filled with the salvation of God’s love and grace. These are passages which tell me that no one will be left out of Kingdom. And for that, I rejoice and give thanks!
And even Paul, who I don’t always like, writing from prison, tells his friends to rejoice and to live without anxiety or fear. That they should rejoice in a “peace which passes understanding”. This isn’t “hippy dippy” peace and smiley faces...this is a deep peace, a sense of security when everything around you has fallen apart, a peace that resides deep within that only God can provide.
The peace that we are told about in today’s lessons that we should rejoice in is not a peace that’s created by walls and barriers of protection. It’s not a peace that we obtain from being “winners”. Even the best gadgets, toys and stuff won’t provide this peace. The peace that God gives us, the peace which passes understanding, can best be illustrated in the way we treat one another. Paul states, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Another way to read this is “Let your consideration of others be known to everyone.” The peace of God is found in the communal and compassionate Christian community.
But here’s the thing...this kind of peace, well, it’s hard to live into. This kind of peace means we have to let go of being perfect, of trying to be “the best” or “right”. It means having to hear the words of John the Baptist. In our gospel text, John is confronting the “brood of vipers”...those who have had some kind of power or authority in the community. He is telling them they have to give to those who have none, and to only take what is necessary. And he tells them that they will be refined and winnowed by the Messiah. To be honest...none of that seems to match this theme of “rejoicing” that the previous lessons gave us. How on earth are we to rejoice when we’ve just been told that we have to give stuff away? How are we supposed to feel knowing that we will be cleared out (that’s what winnowing means by the way...the chaff or “bad stuff” will be cleared out)? Somehow, John’s message doesn’t sound like “rejoicing” to me.
But it’s in that giving away and being cleared out that we can rejoice. It’s hard work, but a good kind of hard work. You know?
A couple of weeks ago...the Sunday of our potluck before Advent...we had a guest here at St. Mark’s. His name is Larry. Larry has been an on-again off-again guest at the Warming Shelter for several seasons. He has troubles...both mental health and addiction issues. He’s been to jail a couple of times...nothing serious. He doesn’t have good boundaries...he calls the church office a lot. Sometimes, Larry is a real pain to deal with. But he always smiles and tells you that he loves you. So that Sunday before Advent, Larry showed up here. He walked right in through the side door and motioned for me to come talk to him. I told him to have a seat, that I’d be there in a minute. Marilyn was setting the altar for communion, ya’ll were singing, the ushers noticed something was going on though. Calvin, Chris and a few others helped out with getting Larry a cup of coffee and having conversation with him. Honestly, I was a bit unsettled by Larry’s presence. Why couldn’t he have just come in through the door, have a seat, and follow along? Why did he have to disrupt my peaceful presence before the altar? Why didn’t he behave the way I wanted him to?
When the service concluded and everyone else was enjoying Betty’s cinnamon rolls and Nick’s cheesy hashbrowns, I was outside talking to Larry in the freezing cold. He didn’t want to come in. He just needed some help and he’d be on his way. By the time I got back inside and the food was gone, I was pretty miffed. Larry had interrupted and ruined my day.
So I called my friend Andy to complain. Andy is a Mennonite pastor and my partner at the shelter. Andy is more patient than I will ever be. So he let me talk, and complain, and whine about not getting a cinnamon roll. And then he said, “Today you lived the gospel. You get that, right?”
Andy. I hate it when he says stuff like that.
He said, “Today you and your congregation gave Larry a sense of peace. The church welcomed him in, gave him a cup of coffee, treated him with respect, and let him talk about what was on his mind. Today you were Christ’s hands in the world.”
Dang it Andy. I just wanted to complain. I just wanted to be perfect. I just wanted to preach the love of God...not necessarily LIVE it that Sunday.
But I think that’s the peace of God and what John is preaching about to that brood of vipers. God’s peace surpasses our understanding. It calls in the outcast. It calls us to give away what we have. And it causes those parts of us that we don’t particularly like --the parts that whine when we don’t get what we want--to be winnowed away. The peace of God is an amazing thing to rejoice in.
So this morning I’m wondering if you’re ready to be winnowed by the peace of God? What are you rejoicing in? What are you letting go of? How are you preparing the way for Christ?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.