Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
The Third Sunday in Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday because the old Latin service for this day begins with the words, “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete” meaning “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say rejoice.” This Sunday is meant to offer a change of perspective from the seasonal themes of darkness and penitence to the joy we feel in anticipating Jesus being among us. So of course I want to talk about despair. We don’t think about despair very much, not even when we feel it, but most of us have experienced the feeling at one time or another. Hope can cast out despair as swiftly as light casts out darkness, but the good intentions of those who would comfort us don’t necessarily bring us hope. A well-meaning comforter might offer platitudes or wishful thinking, might try to minimize our experience, tell us other people have had it worse, or if we are suffering from the acts of another, might even ask us to consider our antagonists’ point of view.
So, for instance, you should never say, you think you’ve got problems? At least you aren’t like the people of Israel who had been defeated by a foreign power and taken into exile by force. At least you aren’t a political prisoner of a craven and ruthless autocrat, like John the Baptist, who knew he would be put to death, probably gruesomely, and probably on some stupid whim of Herod’s. Yet even Israel and John defied their circumstances and remained hopeful, and theirs was not a false hope.
Although the Gospels were written by people who knew how the story turned out, they show us that, apart from Jesus, nobody knew what was going to happen, and there are even some hints that Jesus himself may have known doubt. So even though John the Baptist had been proclaiming Jesus, and had been so confident about him that he balked at baptizing him, as he was rotting in prison, doubt apparently set in. Maybe he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come,” in order to assuage their doubts, but John doesn’t strike me as very subtle or indirect. I read the question as sincere, especially given the explicit second part, “or are we to wait for another.” And it was a fair question, since of all the expectations people had for a messiah — revolutionary military leader, immaculate high priest, noble sovereign king — Jesus appeared to meet none of them.
Jesus knew that we tend to believe things more firmly and deeply when we make the conclusion ourselves, so he lays out the evidence: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. That last bit really gets me. Alongside miraculous feats of healing, Jesus lists giving good news to the poor. We can easily dismiss giving hope and encouragement when we compare them to more concrete ways of helping people, but if you have ever lived in despair, you know how important, how invaluable, real hope and earnest encouragement can be. So Jesus lists them as a way God saves us, and makes God’s nature known to us, and even if we can’t offer miraculous cures, we can give hope.
Perhaps appropriately given the occasion, Jesus also adds a note of warning: blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. The Greek word translated “offense” really means “scandalized.” But what is so scandalous about healing and hope? Remember that people in those days believed that misfortunes were divine punishments, so telling and showing people that God actually loves “those people” was truly revolutionary. Not just different, but threatening to the people who thought they were on God’s side who now found themselves on the opposite side. And if suffering is not God’s punishment, who is responsible for it? Who is responsible for causing suffering, and who is responsible for healing it? Whatever people might have hoped for from their messiah, you can hear them saying, this isn’t what I signed on for! How dare he.
But of course Jesus offers a greater hope than what humanity might ask for, the same hope that kept Israel and John faithful even through doubt and hardship, the hope that is so powerful because it is not the hope of humanity, but rather the hope that comes from God. Knowing that God is loving, merciful, and mighty, they lived in the knowledge that the words of the prophets were not wishful thinking, that when Isaiah said, “Be strong, do not fear! … [God will come and save you,” and promised wonderful things to people who had lost everything, that his words came not from his heart, but from the heart of God. And so it is for all those who know who God is. In every season, always, we rejoice. And we add to the rejoicing by proclaiming these same truths to those who walk in the darkness of this life. So again I say, rejoice.