THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT – Gaudete
Introit: (Phil 4) Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men: the Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing: but in all things by prayer let your requests be made known unto God. Ps 85. Lord, thou art become gracious unto thy land: thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob. Glory be … Rejoice …
Collect: Incline thine ear to our prayers, we beseech thee, O Lord: and enlighten the darkness of our minds by the grace of thy visitation: Who with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, livest and reignest God, throughout all ages world without end. Amen.
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
OT Lesson: The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon; they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the excellency of our God. Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35)
Gradual: (Ps 80) Shew thyself, O Lord, thou that sittest upon the cherubim: stir up thy strength, and come. V. Hear, O thou Shepherd of Israel: thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep.
Epistle: Brethren: Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgement: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing against myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. (I Corinthians 4.1-5)
Alleluia. Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come and save us. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: When John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. (St Matthew 11.2-10)
Advent is a season of waiting. And we try to persuade ourselves that if we just say that often enough, it will become true. During Advent, we claim to be anticipating the coming of Christ, the Saviour whose coming was long-expected but surprisingly unexpected. But more often than not, Advent is a season of impatience, when all our anxiety and hurry and worry are concentrated into four short weeks. We are busy preparing, each in our own individual way, for something special to happen. Is this the right gift, or shall I seek another? Is this the perfect moment with my family, or do I wait for another? Is this the right way for me to serve the less fortunate, or should I find another? But always in the back of our minds lies the possibility that our expectation will go unfulfilled – that what we are waiting for will never occur. But then, what happens when God doesn’t fulfil our expectations? That is the problem that faces us in today’s Gospel lesson.
Although he was the forerunner of Messiah, the one who would “prepare the way before him,” John the Baptist had it all wrong. Like so many of his day, John thought the Messiah would be like the hero in one of those old Westerns, who, right when things seemed to be at their worst, when all hope was gone, just in the nick of time, would appear on the horizon on his white charger, and start mopping up the bad guys and righting all wrongs. When John was first introduced, we heard it: predictions of cleaning house, of axes at the roots of trees, separating wheat from chaff, and unquenchable fire! John thought that the Messiah would be a fierce warrior, a mighty king, who would come sweeping across the land, wiping out all enemies of the Jews and all who were traitors to their own faith and nation, and setting up his righteous kingdom. Then, enter Jesus. At first, John seemed to know that this strange young man from Nazareth was the Messiah for whom he had been waiting. “Behold, the Lamb of God. This is the one of whom I have been speaking.” But then things didn’t unfold quite as John expected. Jesus didn’t pick up a sword and start a holy war; instead, He went about the countryside preaching and teaching – not so much about God’s anger as about God’s love. No axes or threshing-floors, and very little fire, either. And soon John was himself arrested by King Herod and thrown into prison.
Things were not working out at all as he had expected. So he began to wonder—is this really the Messiah after all? If He really is, something must have gone horribly wrong; here is John in prison awaiting execution, while Jesus is out there sitting on mountainsides proclaiming, “blessed are the persecuted.” So John sent some of his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you really the One who is to come? Or should we start looking for someone else?” So Jesus gave them this answer: “Go back to John, and tell him what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offence at me.” In other words, the evidence is right before you, but you have just been looking through the wrong lenses. You expected overthrow of governments and great social upheavals. But the Kingdom of God comes much more quietly and subtly than that. The signs to which Jesus points hearken back to words like those from Isaiah of old: “Say to them of anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God he will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame leap as the hart, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” Or again, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the poor, he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Isaiah 61.1) He is, indeed, the One who was to come in accordance with the prophets, but in prophecies which depict quite a different image of Messiah and the Kingdom of God. Jesus is effectively saying, “What do you think?” But it is the last sentence that is the clincher: “Blessed is he who takes no offence at me.” John was expecting the mighty warrior king who would take the world by force. Jesus was something very different – the Prince of Peace, a Messiah who came not to destroy sinners, but to save them. Jesus was not doing what John expected, and definitely not what he wanted.
What about us? What kind of Messiah are we looking for? If we are honest, we should probably have to admit that we are in much the same boat as John. Our concerns about God’s apparent inaction are all echoes of John’s question. We are quite sure that God should more actively address the ills of this world. We are frustrated that the world is not shaping up according to our standards, if it were truly ruled by God as we would expect Him to rule it. That’s what a real God would do. (Of course, at some point, we must also realize that such a God would likewise sweep us away in our own sinfulness no less than He would clean up on the world around us!) But, still … why does God stand so idly by? The Messiah we have been so long awaiting, the Redeemer we sing about in this Advent season, is not the kind of Saviour we expected at all! He came in humility to the humble and downtrodden. He came for those who did not have it all worked out for themselves. He came for those who knew they needed Him.
Christ comes to reverse things. What was dead is now raised. What was blind now sees. What was lame now walks. When we get the gift of Jesus, our lives are transformed. The great sign that Christ has come is that people are changed. If God accomplished miracles of restoration in times past, through other people, God can certainly accomplish miracles of restoration today through us. But we must actively respond to our calling. Do we really want the gift of Christ this year? To receive the gift is to recognize that we too must change, and that we are to be signs to all who seek hope, that Jesus is, indeed, the One in whom all hope is found. Did John and his disciples realize that their world was being turned upside down and transformed before their eyes? But then, do we? If we even believe that any transformation will happen at all, we wait for God to accomplish it. We do not want to realize that God works this transformation through us.
The main theme of this day is the Ministry of the Church. The Church prepares us for the coming of our Lord “by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” But the preparation for Christ’s coming in humility is also the preparation for His coming in judgement. In the face of His coming, as “stewards of the mysteries of God,” we are to prepare His way in our hearts, and in the lives of others, that all may be found faithful at His Second Advent. Jesus Christ is our righteousness, and His righteousness is our restoration: “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” Restoration involves both God’s judgement upon our sins and His humility in coming to bear our sins. Our preparation for His coming must be patient endurance in faithfulness, and an ever-faithful watchfulness “that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight.”
Most Christians today want a Saviour who will help them forget about the ugly things in our world, a Messiah who will magically make everything all right again, and tell us we’re “OK.” And that is one reason why Christmas is such a stressful time for so many people. They expect Christmas to work its magic and solve all our problems. It is ironic that the favourite seasonal symbol is the Christmas tree, which we decorate and string with lights and make so beautiful, all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that this tree has been cut down and is now effectively dead. Just so, after Christmas people run smack into the reality that all the tinsel and coloured lights haven’t really changed the world or their lives at all.
So it all comes back to the original question: What happens when God doesn’t fulfil our expectations? We expect God to solve all our problems – all the world’s problems. But Jesus doesn’t exactly work that way. He is not to be found in the shopping malls, or gift wrapped under a tree. He is to be found in the world, as cold and ugly and troubled as it may be. He is to be found in a stable. He is to be found roaming the countryside with a group of fishermen and tax-collectors. He is to be found on a cross, executed between two thieves, scorned by the crowds, denied and betrayed by His friends. He is to be found, not waving a sword or a magic wand and eliminating all the problems in our lives, but entering into those problems and suffering right along with us, leading us through them, and bringing us victorious to the other side. Who would have expected that? This is a Messiah of Whom only God could conceive – a Messiah who became one of us, who was born like us, who lived with us, who died for us; a Messiah who lived in a world filled with sin, evil, darkness and hatred, and was willing to give His life that “the eyes of the blind might be opened, … that the poor and oppressed might have good news proclaimed to them.”
John’s prophetic question now becomes ours: “Are you really the Christ? Or is there another Messiah, perhaps an easier one, a better one, a stronger one, one more to our liking? And for us, as for John, the answer is this: If you can accept a Messiah whose strength is in His weakness; if you can accept a Messiah whose ways are love and mercy, not hatred and revenge; if you can accept a Messiah who is willing to give His life to save others; if you can accept all those things, then Jesus is your Messiah, your Saviour. But beware! For if you would accept, then you must follow. If you would accept a Messiah who loves even sinful, troublesome and unlovely people, then you must accept the task of loving them, too. If you would receive this Messiah who forgives your sins, then you must be ready to forgive. If you want this Saviour who gives His life for you, then you must be ready to give yours for another. But if you are not interested in all these things, then perhaps you need to look elsewhere, for one more to your liking. But if you choose this Messiah, and choose to follow Him, then be assured that He can do all things for you, and that you can do all things through Him. If we have eyes to see beyond our expectations, we look around us and notice new places where Christ is at work—that even now the blind see, the lame walk, the unclean are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. Blessed are they who see these things and take no offence, and who gladly receive this Messiah of Bethlehem. This is where true and lasting joy is found.
So, what happens when God doesn’t fulfil our expectations? Do we look for another, or do we readjust our lenses? But the more important question is: What happens when we don’t fulfil God’s expectations?
Collect: O Lord Jesu Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee: Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight; who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.
May Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path, that you may be ready to meet him when he cometh again in glory: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.