Third Sunday in Advent
The recent events of injustice surrounding race in our country – nay, so many events in our recent news which embody a quality of brokenness capable of tearing any attentive heart – have perhaps eased the challenge of entering into Advent as a season of waiting and crying out for the presence of God in our midst.
The first Sunday of this season came just days after the most recent occasion for protests in Ferguson, MO and with those waiting for justice, we could stand in solidarity and cry like the first line from the Isaiah text for that week, “O that you would rend the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!”
Perhaps anguish and an impetus to long expectantly have come more easily this year than others…
But as with any season of long anticipation, the temptation to despair lurks just outside our door, and without attentiveness to what we hold as true – that Christ has come and is coming – we risk a loss of heart. Like John the Baptist in this week’s gospel, the church’s prophetic vocation is to be “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
But sometimes our wilderness is truly wilderness, with a quality of brokenness that threatens to rend us completely. We cry, and sense that nothing happens. Our help does not come, or not in the ways we expect. Like a child without comfort, we risk hardening to hope.
But then here, mid-way to Christmas, our texts for the third week of Advent confront our temptations to despair and loss of heart, and demand that we rejoice.
Not a suggestion, not a request, but a command. The epistle reading from Thessalonians is full of such imperatives. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. These are words which sound familiar to our ears; perhaps we even have them memorized.
However, less likely to be memorized are the following two verses, these which don’t lend themselves to easy cliché:
“Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise the words of the prophets.”
These are precisely what we risk unless we remember the story handed down to us.
Scriptures which name our world rightly, as it is, no more and no less, can be trusted as the Word of God which also proclaims our hope. Just as the psalms give us words to cry out and the prophets offer us hope in return, the gospels testify to us that an answer to our cries has come – not apart from our suffering, but through it in the person of the incarnate Christ.
The church, made in His image and charged with the vocation of being his body while we wait, also suffers. From our place of solidarity with the anguish of the world, we can proclaim the beauty of the inbreaking kingdom – a beauty not divorced from suffering, but penetrating and flaming out through it.
We stand as a voice crying in the wilderness not only “Make straight the way of the Lord,” but in the voice of Isaiah proclaiming the shape of the Lord’s way: good news, the binding up of the broken-hearted, liberty for the captives, comfort for those who mourn, sight for the blind, God’s favor.
In the face of human anguish, such gospel proclamation takes on the quality of robust challenge. Does this vision of what will be sound too good to be true? But Gaudete Sunday demands of us our participation in the coming restoration, through the act of rejoicing. We “re-joy”, joy once more in the goodness of the gospel, this good news that our hope comes.
The Isaiah text begins this week by reminding us that we are not on our own to get ourselves into a posture of joy. The Spirit of God is upon us, indwelling us and producing joy as fruit of the Spirit’s good work.
Rejoicing is not a human act, for at times it is not within our capacities to do so. Rather, to rejoice is to submit to a divine act within us. In the same way the Spirit prays on our behalf with groans too deep for words, can it be that when we ask, the Spirit prays within us a lavish joy unspeakable, beyond our limited capacity to rejoice?
The language of our Psalm captures well the space the church inhabits this Gaudete Sunday. Looking back, it names what we have together lived in Christ’s first advent, the already of our life with God:
“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’ The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”
We have had reason to joy. Our way of submission to the Spirit’s work of rejoice within us will require us to remember, not as an act of mere nostalgic recall of a historical Jesus, but as an encounter with the living Christ who points us, longing, toward his second advent.
“Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
Our embrace of the waiting, the longing, perhaps even the anguish of brokenness this Advent, perhaps shares in the weeping of the world.
But we, the weeping, go out. We go out, fingers clasped over a seed of memory fit for sowing in dark soil for a time, while we dream of a harvest coming.
Advent’s anticipatory character is an invitation to be again like those who dream – to move into an imagination which differs from what the world on certain days seems so obviously to be, and to rejoice over what will be. We name truthfully the nature of our lives while we wait, but then we go out and sow, opening ourselves to the Spirit who makes all things new.
Sowing our tears is an act of profound trust that our suffering, placed in the Ground of Our Being who has suffered with us, can sprout glorious new creation, a harvest from our loss.
That the Spirit will till and tend while we wait for harvest is truly cause to rejoice.
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”