Advent begins with a focus on the future: “The reign of God is coming. Prepare!” And ends a little over a week from now with a focus on the past: “The Messiah is about to be born in Bethlehem. Rejoice!” Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is named using a Latin word meaning “to rejoice” in the imperative – meaning we are commanded to rejoice.
Last week’s reading from Isaiah 40:1-11 was the Second Isaiah’s comforting of Jerusalem because the restoration from exile of both God and the people was at hand. That morning’s sermon focused on the need to prepare in anticipation of that return, to reflect upon our own failings and sin, and admit to ourselves that we needed God to heal (or fill) the gaps and holes in our own lives.
This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from the third set of prophesies in the Hebrew Testament’s book of Isaiah: prophesies that mainly concern themselves with the situation in Jerusalem after the exiles have returned from the Babylonian exile. Just as the second set (chapters 40-54) are referred to as “Second Isaiah,” scholars refer to these writings (chapters 55 through 66) as “Third Isaiah.” Like the second set, those who compiled the Book of Isaiah felt it important to include the prophesies of “Third Isaiah,” along with those of “Second Isaiah” to follow the complete (three generation long) narrative arc of exile of Judah to Babylon: from the First Isaiah’s prophesies of future doom and destruction for Judah’s distancing itself from God; to Second Isaiah’s call for compassion and redemption in the present as the seemingly impossible dream of restoration comes to pass; to Third Isaiah’s focus on the disappointment, discord and disillusionment that followed the return of the exiles to Jerusalem a generation earlier.
The story of Advent follows a similar arc: our emphasis on the future declines as our emphasis on the past increases. Our readings for Advent begin with a mature Jesus teaching us about the reign of God, and they close with the unborn Christ Child in Mary’s womb.
This movement reflects our Christian understanding that the sacred story, to be understood fully and correctly, has to be told backwards. The birth and ministry of Jesus are incomprehensible until we know of his death and resurrection. To put it another way, our understanding of the past is muddled and incomplete until we grasp the nature of the future and purpose of History. Christianity sees History as having a definite start, a definite end, and that it reflects the plan and purpose of God, reaching its crescendo in Christ. In other words, while we have (incomplete) knowledge of the past and present, we cannot make sense of what we know of them until we know the whole story, including the end.
Third Isaiah is a text that deals with disappointment, of a restoration gone wrong, of a reality that does not match up with the image that hope had inspired in the minds of the people. They thought the future was here, but now realize it will take much longer to realize the vision. So, we are forced to admit, with disappointment and frustration, that the future is still not here, yet! We are also facing doubt and division over the way forward, and finding that our vision for the future does not match that of others. The future is much cloudier than we thought. Things are not going well, and we are struggling to figure out who is responsible for failing to implement the dream. We are coming to realize that bringing the dream into reality is far harder than we we ever imagined.
The Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, highlights this divergence between the hope and the reality, and reiterates that it is not we who determine how to achieve God’s vision, it is up to God. We are commanded to rejoice because we know that it is God who is writing the story of our future, not us. (And thank God for that!) There is no need for discord or division if we agree the future is under God’s control.
As a whole, the Season of Advent binds the future and past together. It reminds us that there is a tension between hope and reality, and that this tension is where our faith is centered – not merely a conviction the hope is real, but an affirmation that it is God who writes the story – not us. We are in the middle of God’s story: the drama is building, the characters in the story are all in crisis, and we know the resolution will soon be made apparent.
Our Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Advent is the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke. In it, Mary begins by saying “My soul rejoices in God my savior!” and ends with “He has helped his servant Israel … according to the promise he made to our ancestors …” Mary is linking past, present, and future – the same narrative arc that we follow through the three Isaiahs, and reiterating the promise made to Abraham long ago; rejoicing despite her own doubt and fear, because the long wait is nearly over. She is trusting in God to complete the restoration, despite her own present circumstances.
So, in this third week of Advent, take time to consider that we are commanded to rejoice, despite our present circumstances, because our salvation is near. Gaudete Sunday does not dismiss nor minimize the pain we are facing, but it does shift our perspective: from dwelling on the pain of the present to remembering that it is God who writes the story, and so we can be sure that our story is one that will end well.
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