Sermon for Advent 3, preached on Sunday, December 13, 2009
Gaudete! Rejoice! That is the historic name of this Third Sunday in Advent. It takes its cue from the Old Testament and Epistle lesson for today as well as the Psalm and Introit. Now few of you have probably read the book of Zephaniah – in fact the only verses you might possibly know from this book are the verses read today as the Old Testament lesson. Like many of the other minor prophets, his message is not so happy, that is, until you get toward the end of his book and then you encounter this call to joy. His words are echoed hundreds of years later in the familiar call of St. Paul call to rejoice in the Lord always and then do it again. Here in the first two readings we have two calls to joy from two servants of the Lord separated by time and circumstance but on the same page.
But we come to this call to joy with some honest questions. How can you be joyful when your life is crumbling around you? How can you heed this call to joy when you are wounded and sore from the bruising battles of this life? How can you feel this joy when loved ones are close to death or have died leaving us grieving and sore? It would be great if joy were a commodity that could be purchased or produced or even controlled – so that when you wanted or needed it, you could count on getting it. But joy is not a commodity. So where does joy come from and how do you keep this joy when troubles and trials come near you?
First of all we need to be careful – this is no call to joy in general. This is no call to be optimistic or to put a positive spin on things. I once knew a Christian Scientist and a friend we had in common came down with cancer. The news was not good. Her advice was to think happy thoughts. Is that what God is asking us to do? No, this call to joy is no call to think happy thoughts in bad times. This is no call to see a silver lining in the gray clouds of life. This is the call to rejoice in the Lord. The only joy that stays with us in time of trouble is the Lord’s joy.
Our joy comes not from the circumstances of the world around us or the stuff in our hearts. Sin still reigns there. Our joy comes from the Lord. We do no look to our selves or to our accomplishments as the source of this joy. There are many good and joyful moments in this life but they come with no guarantees. The truth is as hard as we might look for joy in the world around us, what we see are the broken promises of what could have been, should have been, had sin not stolen it and cast its long, dark shadow over it. No, we want a joy that lasts longer than these glimpses of joy the world offers.
Our joy cannot come from the things of this life, either – not in all that glitters, whose shine gradually dulls over time and usage. No, if we are to have joy that endures, it must come from someplace other than our hearts or how well our lives are going at the moment. This joy comes from the Lord.
Rejoice in the Lord, says the prophet and the apostle. Rejoice in Him who fills our empty hearts with heaven’s joy. Rejoice in the One who bleeds that we might be healed, who suffers that we might be forgiven, and who dies that we might live forever. Rejoice in the Lord – not some Lord of our imagination or our feelings, distant from our daily grind and far removed from the dirt, darkness, and death of mortal life.
Rejoice in the Lord who is near you – the Lord God who has come to You in the flesh and blood of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. Peer into the manger and you see Him – He is here in the midst of all our sorrows and has made His dwelling place among us. He is the Mighty One of heaven who has come to earth to battle our enemies as our Savior and Redeemer. He is the warrior Lord who fights for us with His own righteousness, suffering, and death as His weapons. If we are to have joy that endures, joy that is stronger than the troubles and trials of this life, it comes only from this Lord who brings to us the face of God, the face of hope, and the face of redemption.
He is the transforming One of glory who gives His own perfect holiness as the clothing we wear in baptism, the transforming One of glory who gives to us unworthy and undeserving the gift of forgiveness to cleanse us and set us free. He bestows new life to old sinners, new hope to old disappointments, new peace amid old upsets. He is the very present Helper who is with us always, the God of mercy and grace who holds us in the grip of grace while our troubles and trials, sorrows and struggles work to steal us away.
He is the giving One who bestows eternity upon those who do not deserve even today... the giving One who offers to us that which we dare not ask for –grace upon grace, hope upon hope, life upon life, joy upon joy. He is the Lord Jesus Christ who spans the great gap between heaven and today, between saintly grace and fallen sinners, between God’s creative intent and what love had to work to redeem. He does not look away from us because we come wounded and sore, dirty and disappointed. No, into our broken lives He pours grace to heal, restore, redeem, and recreate.
You cannot purchase this kind of joy at Wal-Mart or manufacture it on the assembly line or build it in your workshop or in your hearts. This kind of joy is not of earthly origin; it comes down to us from heaven. Since we cannot ascend to heaven to get it, He comes down to us to give us His joy as our gift. Listen to Him who can lead you to joy. Listen and He will quiet your anxious hearts with the peace of His presence... He will gather the mourning and grieving to give them the joy that death cannot steal... He will remove the shame of your sin and the embarrassment of your death... He will stand up for you against your enemies... He will lead you to the victory that He won just for you...
Listen to this call to rejoice in the Lord.... This is the voice of the God who came to us bearing the flesh of our own humanity and the name of Jesus, who will save His people. This is the voice of the God who will never abandon His own but keeps us connected to His peace and love through His Word and Sacraments. This is the voice of God who rejoices in our redemption while paying its cost. This is the voice of God who bestows everlasting joy even amid all our doom and gloom, trials and troubles, sorrows and struggles. If we but trust in Him, if we but let the Holy Spirit open us up to Him, His joy will flow to us... And, by the grace of God, it will flow through us to touch others in His name.
Today we heard a call to joy... the joy the prophets promised, the manger held, the cross killed, and the tomb could not hold... this joy is in the Lord, whose steadfast love endures forever, whose salvation is sure, and whose peace passes understanding... In this Lord we rejoice. Amen