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: Behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts. Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgements. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse: saith the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 4.1-6)
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)
“Behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts.”
Although he was the Forerunner of Christ, the one who would “prepare the way” before him, John the Baptist, like so many of his day, 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, 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 the Messiah would be a mighty king, who would come sweeping across the land, wiping out all enemies of the Jews and setting up his righteous kingdom. But then Jesus did not pick up a sword and start a holy war; instead, He went about the countryside preaching and healing. 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. John was expecting the warrior king who would take the world by force. Jesus was something very different – the Prince of Peace, who came not to destroy sinners, but to save them.
If we are honest, we should probably have to admit that we are in much the same boat as John. 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. (Of course, at some point, we must also realise 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 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, for those who knew they needed Him. The Ministry of 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 within our hearts, and in the lives of others, that all may be found faithful at His Second Advent. The great sign that Christ has come is that people are changed. But we must actively respond to our calling. Do we really want the gift of Christ this year? To receive the gift is to recognise 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.
We expect God to solve all our problems, and all the world’s problems. That’s what a real Messiah—a real God—would do! But Jesus doesn’t exactly work that way. 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 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 … IF we choose to follow Him.
Today is “Gaudete Sunday,” taking its name from the first word of the Introit: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” In the watching and waiting of Advent, this Third Sunday points urgently towards the joy which is drawing near. “The Lord is at hand.” Before long He will be here, our Redeemer and our Judge. During this Advent Season we have been examining the “Four Last Things.” Traditionally, the Church lists them as Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Perhaps that order is meant to get our attention with the last one. But the biblical order, as set forth in the Apocalypse or Revelation of Saint John the Divine, is Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven. Heaven, not Hell, is the last thing, which attests to the fact that God, not the Devil, has the last word.
The irony is not lost that on this Gaudete Sunday we will be talking about Hell. Aside from some televangelists, we rarely ever hear any preaching about Hell these days. Is it even real? What or where is it? Is anyone really bound for it, or are we not all redeemed whatever we do, believe, feel or say? Have we even any time or place for Hell in our polite, socially conscious and disingenuous Anglican Church? And what has Hell to do with rejoicing? … Perhaps there is an element of smug rejoicing that we shall not be in Hell. But then, lest we become too self-congratulatory, maybe we shall! In fact, maybe some of us are already there. But no one has to be. At least up until recent times, the Church has always affirmed the reality of Hell. It would be hard not to affirm it, since it is abundantly attested by our Lord Himself. In fact, it may surprise you to know that Jesus speaks more about “Hell” in the Gospels than He does about “love.” However, while the Scriptures are certainly not silent about the reality of Hell, they are, at the same time, rather allusive.
Set aside the pictures in your mind of the mediaeval place of punishment, prancing devils with pitchforks, and the contorted bodies of the damned. These are but human nightmares: they imagine ways in which God might inflict punishment in a peculiarly human way. It is true that the ingenuity and passion we expend upon hurting each other participate in the nature of hell. But Hell is essentially that place where other people vanish from our affections. Hell is not a hot place but the place where love grows cold; where we lose our capacity for empathy; where we look around and see nothing but endless reflections of our own hungry, lonely selves.
Many in our modern and enlightened church reject outright the notion of Hell, as inconsistent with our belief in a good and loving God. But that is to misunderstand the scriptural teaching on Hell, and to project our own human notions of justice and retribution upon both God and Hell. Hell is not a punishment inflicted upon “bad” people by a vindictive God, but a state of our own making. Neither is Hell inconsistent with the love of God. One of the best explanations I have ever found comes from Alan Watts, where Hell and Love become, in effect, the two sides of the same coin:
Yet because God was infinite, because the shekinah reached out for ever and ever, the devils found no escape from his light. Turning from it they found it facing them. Above and below, and around on every side, they rushed towards darkness and found—always—the inescapable Light, the hated Love which began to burn them like a raging fire, so that the only escape lay inwards, to the solitary, isolated sanctuary of their own wills. Therefore this place of isolation and solitary confinement, where the light of God torments and gives no gladness, became the place of Satan’s dominion, the Kingdom of Hell. (Myth and Ritual in Christianity, p. 43)
“The inescapable Light, the hated Love [burns] them like a raging fire … where the light of God torments and gives no gladness.” What might it be like if every part of us were discovered: the secrets, the forgotten things, shames and struggles and failed attempts at goodness; resentments and hatreds and griefs; pride and contempt; cruelties of thought, word, or deed; hidden actions and furtive transgressions; and those stark moments of self-knowledge which are too hard to bear? But in the steady, bright gaze of this Light—this Love—everything of our lives becomes exposed as it really is, pathetic, tawdry, and small. And yet, we are still loved. And this is when the Lord does something unbearable: He hands it all back to us. He gives us a choice. “I won’t take it away if you insist on keeping it. It can be gone as soon as you choose, dissolved by the Blood of Christ, washed away in the waters of Baptism. But if you are so attached to it that you cannot let it go, I won’t take it by force. You must be willing to give yourself freely over to Me.” And at that point, you make a choice. Mercy is on the other side of your pride, your self-importance, your contempt, your greed. You can keep your hell, and lock yourself in. Freedom is always at the door, but you must choose to open it. The Lord is near, the Sun of Righteousness who turns the shadow of death into the morning, His hands ready to take the burden of nastiness from you, but you must give it.
Jesus usually references Hell obliquely, in parables, contrasting it with the Kingdom of God. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a net tossed into the sea that catches fish of every kind, with the good kept and the bad thrown away, and continues: “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13.49-50) He uses hell as a warning when He urges His disciples to watch not just their actions but also their words and hearts (Matt 5.21-22): Ye have heard that it was said of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgement; But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. He elsewhere advises: And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9.43-48) He speaks of the Son of man sitting on the throne of His glory, separating “the sheep from the goats,” bidding the former inherit the kingdom, while the latter are condemned with the words: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels … And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (Matt 25.45-46) These are but a few of our Lord’s references to Hell. What is obvious from these passages is that our God, King and Saviour believes that Hell exists, so we do well to take heed.
It is true that Jesus at times does describe Hell as what follows a sentence imposed by a judge (as in Matthew 25), but this is itself an example of Jesus using a word picture (or parable) to convey a truth. As C. S. Lewis notes, a judge in a courtroom is (or ought always to be) not a vindictive punisher, but one who weighs evidence objectively, reaches conclusions impartially, and imposes sentences equitably. The King here is not a prosecutor, accusing the defendants: their own deeds have condemned them. The King merely summarizes the case, and the grounds upon which they will be sentenced. Lewis also notes Jesus’ words in John 3.19: “And this is the judgement, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,” and comments: “We are therefore at liberty . . . to think of [a] bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is” (The Problem of Pain, ch. 8). The essence of Hell can be seen in what the defendants themselves have done, as shown by what they have not done. They have lived only for themselves—not for others, and thus not for God. Anyone who is totally self-absorbed and self-satisfied cannot seek forgiveness or even recognise the need for forgiveness, and is totally incapable of love for anyone but self. Self-centredness means separation from others, including God.
“Separation” best describes the essential idea of Hell, capturing what is conveyed by the biblical imagery of torture, destruction, and privation. To be forever cut off from God’s presence, eternally unable—or unwilling—to know God’s love and mercy, to be wholly and increasingly self-absorbed, makes that self smaller and smaller until, ultimately, that person ceases to be a self at all. For someone who has been wholly centred upon self, to have that self cease to exist would be the ultimate possible loss. Hell is also populated through degraded forms of love—jealousy, possessiveness, manipulativeness, and the like. Instead of reaching out to others in love, these souls love only themselves, becoming more and more self-absorbed, turning inward upon themselves until they cease to be. These are not punishments imposed by God, but the natural and inevitable outcome of the choices human beings themselves make and attitudes they develop and nurture. Thus, God does not condemn souls to Hell as punishment: they put themselves there. “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it,” whereas “A damned soul is nearly nothing. It is shrunk, shut up in itself” (Lewis, The Great Divorce). While God is all-powerful, He does not want drones or automatons, but children who will freely choose to grow into His love and goodness so that they may know and see Him face to face even as He knows them (I Cor 13.12). Because of this, He restricts Himself so that we are not overwhelmed or compelled to follow Him. This limitation or self-abnegation of God’s power is what creates space in His creation for the possibility of Hell. Our freedom is real. We can choose to reject the way of God.
Evil does not have an independent existence. It is parasitic. Something must first exist in order for an act of evil to erase it. Evil is the negation of good. And that is what the agents of evil do. The Devil is by no means a counterpoise to God. He is a creature, made by God, originally created to be good. The Devil cannot create, he can only mar what already is. He can bring disorder, but he cannot annihilate existence. What power he does have he uses to influence God’s creation for the worst. Once a being begins to practise evil for its own sake, in direct opposition to the God who is Good, there should be no limit to his spiritual decay unless God imposed one. Evil cannot stop itself. The boundary beyond which a creature is not allowed to get worse we call Hell. C. S. Lewis famously said that “the doors of hell are locked from the inside.” Those in Hell won’t ask for forgiveness—God has forgiven them already; their sins taken away through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. But to leave Hell and accept forgiveness they would also need to accept that Lordship. The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in John Milton’s words, placed in the mouth of Satan: “Better to reign in Hell that to serve in Heaven.”
“God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (I Jn 1.5). “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (I Jn 4.16). Love is the essential to being at home with God. Heaven is the Last Thing. The Devil and all his angels, and all who prefer darkness to light, who insist on remaining in darkness even as the light comes, all these go into the abyss of their own making. Because God is Love, He does not force any to love Him. But if we are to live in God’s love, we must be all love; there can be no more hatred, or envying, or lying, or slander, no more selfishness, pride, vindictiveness or cruelty; no darkness at all. All must be Love—the Greek word agapē, which refers to the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of Christ, supremely manifest upon the cross. So, when St Paul says that “charity” (agapē) is the greatest of the three theological virtues, he is speaking not only about how to live in this life; he speaks at the same time of how it is possible to live in the unveiled presence of God. If we go to God, and we do not love, we will not be at home; we will prefer the darkness of the other place. But if we have even a little love, God, who is Love, owns a little something in us to save and sanctify, something that can be purged and can grow to perfection. The devils believe in God (often with more clarity than we do), but they tremble, because they do not love God or anyone else. True faith and hope are tied to love, but they are fulfilled in Love’s destination, which is God.
Rejoice! The Lord is at hand. He is coming to free us and make our hearts joyful. But 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. The choice is yours—it always is. If what we want is Hell, we will not be denied it. After all, we made it ourselves. But the Light is always waiting, beside us, if we are ready to turn, and be rescued, and consent not just to know, but to be fully known. 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. And He will bring us at last into the brightness of His eternal glory. Let us pray that all may come to that Beatific Vision.
“But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings.”
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.