Presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC in Brattleboro, VT
December 15, 2013 (Advent, Week 3)
This is Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent; and tradition tells us it is “…a day to be joyful even in the midst of long waiting and keen awareness of suffering.”
Our Advent readings started two weeks ago with a focus on the future: “The reign of God is coming. Prepare!” They end next week with a focus on the past: “The Messiah is about to be born in Bethlehem. Rejoice!” And, as I said earlier, the word Gaudete is a Latin word meaning “to rejoice” in the imperative – meaning we are commanded to rejoice.
As Advent progresses, 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.
Advent binds the future and past together. It reminds us that there is a tension between them, and that this tension is where our faith is centered – the conviction that there is a known end to the road we are called to follow through History, and that God is continuously involved, even though the path that our feet tread at the moment is never clear to us. You see this tension in each of our scriptures for today.
In the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke (much of which we sang as our first hymn this morning) Mary begins by saying “My soul rejoices in God my saviour!” and she ends with “He has helped his servant Israel … according to the promise he made to our ancestors …” Mary is linking past, present, and future – naming the promise made to Abraham long ago; and rejoicing because the long wait for its coming fulfillment is over.
In our first reading, in his Epistle to a Church that wonders why the Messiah has not returned, and why the suffering continues, James tells us to be patient and take comfort, in the same way that a farmer waits for the crop to mature, and warns us that the Judge is standing at the doors. In other words, the time is at hand, and God is waiting to see the results of the work of the Messiah.
All of this comes to a head in this morning’s Gospel reading, where the Baptist’s disciples confront Jesus. But first, let’s consider the setting of the story.