What I said this Sunday – Advent 3

This Sunday was the third Sunday of Advent, or Gaudete Sunday. Here’s what I said.

Well – it’s nearly here! Christmas – a time of parties and celebration, of eating and drinking, and generally having a good time. It’s a time that everyone enjoys, isn’t it. Go on – admit it – you can’t wait. The excitement is unbearable. So why is it that Christmas is recognised as being the most stressful time of the year? If you’ve ever done one of those questionnaires in magazines to find out how stressed you are, you’ll know what I mean. Christmas heads the list, along with family holidays, losing your job. Christmas should be a time for rejoicing and yet for so many it isn’t. Applications for divorce will rise by 40 per cent in the new year, and 80,000 people will visit Casualty departments at Christmas. So much for people having a “Happy Christmas”.

Here we are, in the middle of Advent, preparing for the celebration of the coming of our Saviour – and perhaps a reason that Christmas is so stressful for so many is that they forget that real meaning of Christmas. Advent is a time when we recall why Jesus came among us, and today we hear John the Baptist reminding those of his own time about the purpose of the Messiah they were preparing to receive.

The coming of the Messiah, God with us, should be a time to rejoice. Well, someone who never seemed to do much rejoicing was John the Baptist. A few years ago I shared with you the only John the Baptist joke I could find. I had another go yesterday, searching the internet, but to no available. John the Baptist just isn’t funny. So here is the only John the Baptist joke I know: What do John the Baptist and Winnie the Pooh have in common? They have the same middle name. No, it’s not that funny, is it?

Advent is a sombre time – it’s a penitential season in the church’s year, marked by more sombre music, purple hangings, no flowers in church, readings about John the Baptist and readings about judgement. But today we have a respite from all that – apart from the John the Baptist bit! Today, the third Sunday of Advent, marks a turning point in this season of preparation, and our thoughts turn to the joy that is to come. It is known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday, from the Latin for ‘rejoice’, the first word of the traditional antiphon for today taken from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Phil 4.4-5.) I get to wear pink instead of purple. And the Christmas tree has gone up. This is the day when our thoughts begin to turn from judgement to celebration.

We mark great celebrations through the use of symbols – things that highlight for us the importance of the celebration. During Advent we have our Advent wreaths. At Christmas, of course, we use Christmas trees, holly wreaths and so on – or we might put up a crib at home. These symbols help to remind us – as if we needed reminding – of what we celebrate. We use symbols, or signs, at times of celebration in all kinds of ways. Candles on a cake symbolise time passing and gratitude for the person whose birthday is being remembered. Singing “Auld Lang Syne” marks the departure of the old year and the arrival of the new. On a larger scale we often commemorate great events by the building of a memorial – or even a great building itself. Imagine London without Nelson’s column, for example. The Festival Hall was built for the Festival of Britain and to celebrate Britain’s post-war optimism. Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition – sadly, no more, following the fire that destroyed it. The Millennium Dome, which many wish had never been built in the first place. We use these kinds of symbols when we celebrate important events, partly to remind ourselves of what is happening, but also to show other people what is happening too. They are a way of telling people to sit up and take notice.

Often, of course, the focus of a celebration is a particular person. The crowd awaits with eager anticipation for their arrival, the start of their special show. When the star arrives, the party begins.

John, the son of Zechariah was chosen to be the sign which would herald the coming of the Good News-in-action, the Messiah. Throughout Scripture the prophets had told of God’s Good News but were rarely recognised or believed with sufficient power to change the scheme of things. Sometimes something particularly dramatic is required to wake people up and make them take notice. It was as though radical action was required to bring the people to a proper understanding of God’s plan and desire for the world.

John was a powerful sign. People flocked from all over the countryside to see and hear him. He did not need candles or a party to show people he had arrived. Like most holy people his sheer presence was enough to attract attention that something special was going on and the people wanted to be a part of it. John was a sign – the sign that the Saviour was near – but John was important to God in his own right, not only as a fore-runner of the Messiah. His message started people on the road to salvation. In calling for repentance he was opening their minds to God’s presence and their obligations. Just as Jewish people wash their hands before an event, just as you and I wash our hands before a meal, so they and we prepare our souls before the coming of the Lord. We prepare for our celebrations by cleansing signs and actions, spiritual discipline and fasting. John’s baptism of repentance in the river Jordan was a sign that people were preparing themselves to receive the coming Messiah. There was a need for a spiritual washing, a cleansing from all that was wrong with their lives.

After this service today we have the opportunity to receive laying-on-of-hands and anointing as we ask God for his healing in our lives – not just physical healing alone, but healing from anything that holds us back from being completely whole, from knowing true joy in our lives, from receiving Jesus, God with us. For in preparing Jesus’ way John also prepared the people to receive him. Read simply, the Gospels present John as a rather unlikely person to promote wild celebrations at the coming of the Lord. In this age he comes across as austere, like the desert fathers who lived on little and practised a kind of holiness of life and poverty which we find hard to understand. But God called him to a special preparation which would equip him for an almost impossible task — to alert the world to the greatest event in its history. You have to be strong and determined, confident and self-disciplined to carry out this task.

So John was. And such holiness is magnetic. They could not resist him. His ability to draw crowds was what eventually killed him, the Romans found any excuse to destroy so powerful a person. But by then his most important work was done. He had unlocked the past, unleashed the future and given the Christ-of-God to his people.

We too are hearers of the Word. Do we rally to the sign coming from the wilderness? Do we listen to God’s Word and act on it, as those who heard John the Baptist did? We can choose to recognise the signs of the potential celebration or we can walk away. We can prepare ourselves as John recommends, by penitence and love. We can look towards the Christ who comes with anticipation and pleasure or we can shrug and choose what the world has to offer. Do we see Christmas as an opportunity to celebrate the reality that God’s Son has been born into our world to save us from our sinfulness and to give us eternal life – or do we see Christmas as an opportunity to swap presents and over-indulge ourselves. John came to prepare people – to give them a choice – and to challenge them to make the right choice.

Today we are called to take up John’s challenge – and to discover and share that joy that Isaiah and Paul and John the Baptist call us to. Not the kind of joy that comes from having a good time – lots of people will have that kind of joy, but it’s not real joy. We are talking about the joy that you know deep down in your heart – the joy that comes from knowing that God has fulfilled his promise to come and be with us. The joy that comes from knowing that a baby was born in Bethlehem who would die and rise again for us.

As we draw nearer to our great celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God, as we complete this time of Advent preparation, let us hold the words of Saint Paul in our hearts and pray that this time may be a time of true joy, not a time of stress: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice”. And as John was a sign to his hearers that the Saviour was near, so may we be a sign to those around us that we are preparing to celebrate the coming of God-with-us.