— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (NRSV).
So, I present to you a little liturgical trivia. Now there’s a first line for a sermon. I can see I captured you right off; you’re on the edge of your pew. “Yes, pastor, give us some liturgical trivia; that’s why we have come today. That is why we left coffee by the Christmas tree and put on jackets to face the December cold… liturgical trivia, yes, please! Bring it on.” All right then, if you insist, here we go!
In some churches, denominations, the third Sunday in the season of Advent has a special name, color, and mood. Advent, you remember, is a season of preparation for Christmas. The Advent season, unlike the cultural mood of happy, happy consumers buying presents for Christmas, is a season of penitence. We look to the future consummation of history and ask how then shall we live. We listen to the voice of John the Baptist calling us to repent. We listen to the prophets calling us to prepare for the coming day of the Lord when we will be taken through the refiner’s fire. That mood of serious self-examination is the mood of most of the Sundays of Advent. This Sunday, however, some churches move from the color of blue or purple of serious preparation to the brighter, sunnier color of rose, and the mood changes from penitence to joy.
Here’s the trivia – this Sunday is called in some traditions “Gaudete Sunday.” This term comes from the Latin word gaudete, which is the term used for “rejoice” in the Vulgate rendering of verse four of the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Paul wrote – Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. “Gaudete” in the Lord always; again I will say, “Gaudete.” The readings on this Sunday of Advent take us to a place of joy and celebration of the nearness of the Lord; so, some churches make a visual change in the worship space by introducing a new color candle
in the wreath and by changing the mood of worship from serious to joyful.
For the most part Presbyterians have wanted little to do with this change of mood on the Third Sunday of Advent. As a people, Reformed people, we used to be by nature very somber. It was a cruel joke but folks used to refer to us as “the frozen chosen.” To some degree we earned the designation by our collective demeanor. I don’t think the moniker fits us any more, and that somber does not immediately spring to mind when you hear the word “Presbyterian” is a good thing!
It may be, however, that the pendulum has swung a little too far over from somber to amusing. If we ere in worship these days it is in the direction of avoiding difficult things and downplaying any difficult claims the faith might put upon our lives. The idea that one of the Sundays in Advent could be called “Gaudete Sunday” does not really make much of an impact. We tend to want to put a happy face on everything so it seems unnecessary to do anything differently on the Third Sunday of Advent.
Is that what Paul was doing in this letter? Was Paul, when he wrote the letter to his beloved church in Philippi, wanting to stamp a smiley face on the front of the house church with the slogan “Come in, we are a people who accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative!” Was Paul being naive about the harshness of life? Was Paul offering a Polly-anna religion that ignores the tragic dimensions of existence? Was Paul ignoring the fact that many people who drag themselves into church are
broken and hurting and the last thing they need is for someone to tell them that their sadness is evidence of a lack of faith?
Of course I do not think Paul is offering such a shallow understanding of joy and rejoicing and the Christian faith. It helps to put Paul’s admonition in perspective to remember that Paul wrote this letter to the church at Philippi from a jail cell in Rome or Ephesus or Caesarea! Paul of all people understood that life can be difficult. Paul of all people understood that just because a person follows Jesus that does not mean that all things in life will be easy or go as one desires. Life, even life with the peace of Jesus in one’s heart, can still be filled with setbacks and tragic outcomes. Paul of all people knew this, and yet he wrote: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
At one level, and I don’t think this Paul’s deepest meaning, but at one level Paul’s advice is proverbial and about attitude. It is true that our attitude makes a difference in terms of how we experience the world. If our attitude is “woe is me” and “the world is out to get me” or “what a bunch of idiots I have as neighbors” then the world will be a rather unhappy place. We do see what we train our mind and spirits to see.
It is an old story: A man has packed his wagon with all his possessions and he is on the road leaving the town where he had been living. After journeying for several miles he sees a farmer. “Hey Mister,” the man in the wagon says “I am moving from the town back that way. What kind of people live in the village up the road?” The farmer says to the traveler: “What kind of people lived in the village you just left?” The traveler says, “They were no good, lying, cheats who were dumb as fence posts.” “Well,” said the farmer “then that’s just what they are like up the road.”
I think part of the wisdom of this passage from Paul is a reminder of the fact that we do tend to see what we expect to see. If we expect only sorrow and misery then quite often that is what we will find. If, on the other hand, our hearts and minds are in training to see the depths of joy and beauty in the world, then quite often even in the most difficult of circumstances we will still have eyes to see joy and beauty.
Sometimes we can rejoice in the Lord by remembering things. There is a scene in a novel I am reading right now between two people who have suffered much. One is in the midst of the suffering and the other, who has suffered much too, is visiting. He says …
“And what do you love, Isabelle?”
Gamache closed his eyes and raised his face to the ceiling.
“White plates and cups, clean-gleaming/Ringed with blue lines;
and feathery, faery dust; / Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the
strong crust / Of friendly bread.”
His opened his eyes, looked at Isabelle, and smiled, deep lines
forming at his eyes and down his worn face.
“There’s more, but I won’t go on. It’s a poem by Rupert Brooke. He was a soldier in the First World War. It helped him in the hell hole of the trenches to thing of things he loved. It helped me too. I made mental lists and followed the things I love, the people I love, back to sanity. I still do.”
(From Kingdom of the Blind, by Louise Penny, p.79.)
But this proverbial wisdom of positive attitude and remembrances of things we love as a way into rejoicing always is not the pearl of great price of this passage. Digging deeper into the passage what we find is that Paul — who invites us to gentleness, prayer, supplications, thanksgivings — is leading us to a divine word much deeper than simply a positive outlook on life. As we are gentle … as we pray … we open our hearts to … God’s presence. Paul wrote: Rejoice in the Lord always; again
I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The Lord is near. The word at the bottom of Paul’s life-changing message is this:
Emmanuel — God is with us! The Lord is near!
Paul said — the Lord is near!
The point is — God is with us!
That is why we can rejoice!
Come what may, God is near us!
No matter if we are locked in a jail cell,
we can rejoice because we are not alone.
No matter if we are locked in the jail cell of illness,
we can rejoice because God is our companion in pain!
No matter if we are burdened with an uncertain future,
God in Jesus is near to us walking with us
down the road of unforeseen difficulties.
We are not alone! Emmanuel — God is with us!
God is with us in spirit and sometimes we have only our faith and our prayers to access that presence. The presence of God is also made known to us through other people….
After an intruder killed 11 people at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Eric. S. C. Manning, pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, flew to Pittsburgh to show his support directly to Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi at Tree of Life. Emanuel AME was where nine people were killed by a racist intruder in 2015. (Rabbi) Myers invited (Pastor)Manning to speak at one of the funerals of the slain. (Pastor) Manning had the bells at Emanuel toll for the Pittsburgh victims, just as they had for Emanuel’s lost members.
(As quoted from the New York Times, November 3, 2018, in Christian Century, December 5, 2018.)
May the peace of God which surpasses all understandings, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Amen.