In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
In many ways, today is the most relatable day in the Church Year. We get all of the emotions running through the Readings, especially the Gospel. All too well we know that feeling of John the Baptizer and his disciples, the feeling that things aren’t going well and we’re worried about it. You know the feeling: that uneasiness in your gut, tightness in your chest, and swirling in your head. It’s the feeling that you’re in trouble, or quickly could be; that things are beyond your control; that you’ve made a terrible mistake. These extremely real emotions, feelings, and doubts are ones we know well because we feel them on an almost daily basis. As we go through this life, this life that is far from how God intended it to be, we live in uncertainty, fear of danger, fear of failure, fear that we really aren’t in control. In the midst of this swirling anxiety the Church prays that Christ would “lighten the darkness of our hearts by [His] gracious visitation.” He has and always will. He comes to your anxious heart with His soothing Gospel: Your warfare is ended, your iniquity is pardoned.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
In the middle of this advent season, a time of repentant preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth as our Redeemer, the Church breaks forth with a shout of “Rejoice.” This morning’s Service began with the Introit coming from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, encouraging us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” From there comes the name of the day, Gaudete, the Latin word for “rejoice.” Even in the middle of a repentant season, in a world desperately crying out “Come, Lord Jesus,” and as we each individually await Our Lord’s return to deliver us from this body of death and vale of tears, we are told to “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Today the Church wears rose. It is on the Altar, in the vestments, and it’s the new candle lit on the Advent wreath. Rose is a color of joy—the violet of Advent lightened with the color of white, which symbolizes Christ. Today Christ breaks into our Advent preparation with comfort, just as Isaiah said in the Old Testament Reading: “Comfort, yes, comfort My people! Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.” And what comfort is it that Jesus gives us? In joy Jesus tells us what good things are happening: “The blind see 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.”
What joy comes through the appearance of Christ! Except for that inconvenient truth about John the Baptizer, who is given that news as he wastes away in prison for daring to confess the truth and call sinners to repentance. Is this call to rejoice in the Lord always his as well?
What about those of us here today, or the people we all know who are suffering in this world—the downtrodden, the oppressed, the falsely accused, the persecuted, the sick and dying, the lonely, those suffering with chronic pain, the depressed, those with crumbling or long-broken families, those with doubt, the unemployed, those in danger of losing their jobs, and everyone else suffering from all other forms of grief and anxiety? Do they have anything to rejoice about?
What about people in other parts of this world who don’t have it as well as we do? The people who don’t have clean water or electricity or access to food; the people who live in fear of their government murdering them or civil war breaking out? What about our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East who face the evils of Islam that demands they recant their Christian faith or die or those in countries where the government bans Christianity? Doesn’t it come across as a little disingenuous for us to sit here in safety and comfort and sing “Rejoice in the Lord always?”
It would if St. Paul’s words were a command. No one can be ordered to rejoice. Like the Psalmist says of Israel’s exile in Babylon: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of those songs of Zion!’” (Ps. 137:1-3) Rejoicing is a natural response to mercy. That’s why the call “Rejoice in the Lord always” is paired with that verse from Psalm 85: “Lord, You have been favorable to Your land, You have brought back the captivity of Jacob.” And had the Introit gone one verse more we would have heard, “You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people; You have covered all their sin.” (Ps. 85:2)
Rejoicing is not a legalistic “do it or else,” but rather a reminder of the Lord’s goodness and mercy. No matter what happens in this brief life in this world overcome by sin and death, we have eternity to look forward to! We have been forgiven all our sins! Unity has been restored between us and God by the forgiving work of the Son on the cross, sealed on our foreheads and our hearts by the Baptismal waters and the Holy Spirit at work in that water and the Word of God.
That is why Christian martyrs go to their deaths singing hymns and praising God. That is why Christians, no matter how poor and hungry, can join together as a family and pray the Lord’s Prayer with joy. That is why, when Christians partake of the Lord’s Supper—no matter the circumstances, be it the deathbed, battlefield, or in any other grim situation—the Church celebrates Holy Communion and the Pastor who serves the Body and Blood of the Lord is called the celebrant. We rejoice, no matter the circumstances we face in this life, because the fate of the life to come is certain through Jesus Christ.
The worst thing that can happen to us in this life is that we will die. But we already know that will happen anyways! The good news in the face of death, the reason for rose, the reason we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, is because death will not hold us any more than it held Our Lord! All the suffering, all the bad news, all the pain and sorrow of this life will be wiped away in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. Our Lord is coming to bring a new heaven and new earth, to give us life, to bring us into full and eternal communion with the Triune God.
To remind us of this, the Lord comes into our midst week after week with His Word and His Body and Blood. He breaks into our sorrow and suffering to give us joy, to remind us that there may be suffering in this world, but in the Kingdom to come “the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; and the dead are raised up.”
Everyone of every time and place who has suffered can rejoice in that promise. Our joy is not in this life. Our joy is in Christ who made full atonement for each one of us, who has left His Church to proclaim this good news and to give that salvation through Word and Sacrament to each person who believes. The Church proclaims that in Christ war is ended and iniquity is pardoned.
So in those days that seem the darkest, when we feel like we are prison mates with John the Baptist, those are precisely the times to look up and be filled with every reason to rejoice, not just because we have a promise, but because we have a Savior who has fulfilled that promise to forgive our sins and soon will take us to an eternity of peace and rejoicing.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).