Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sermon: Advent 3 (Gaudete)

14 December 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 11:2-11 (Isa 40:1-11, 1 Cor 4:1-5)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

We opened this Divine Service by singing an Introit from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again will I say, rejoice.” Because of this, today is known as “Gaudete” which is Latin for “Rejoice.” Even in the midst of Advent, a time which, for the Church anyway, is a time of focus on our sins, of meditation upon our need to repent, a season of yearning for the Lord to return to deliver us from this body of death and from this valley of tears – we are to “rejoice in the Lord always.”

The rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath has been lit as a symbol of our joy. Isaiah repeats anew the oracle from the Lord that the preacher is to “comfort My people.” Our Lord Himself can hardly contain His joy at His own report of what is happening: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

And yet, where is John the Baptist? He is in a dungeon not long for this world. Can John partake of this joy?

It seems that everyone has been invited to the party except for John, the last of the prophets, the one of which our Blessed Lord said that among those born of women, no-one is greater.

So is John to rejoice as well? Is there good news for John in his prison cell?

And what about those among us who are downtrodden, the oppressed, the falsely accused, the persecuted, the sick and dying, the lonely, those gripped by chronic pain, the depressed, those with distressing family problems, those with nagging doubts, people facing medical tests, those whose jobs are in jeopardy, and every other source of grief and anxiety? Do they have anything to rejoice about?

What about people around the world who live in squalor, who are subject to civil war and military occupation, people who are decimated by AIDS or leprosy, the families facing hyperinflation in Zimbabwe and Christians staring down the sword in Saudi Arabia? What about the victims of terrorism in India and those persecuted for the sake of the Gospel in China, Russia, and Scandinavia?

Is it not an insult for us to sit here in comfortable surroundings and tell the world to “rejoice” and to “rejoice always?”

Dear friends, nobody can be ordered to rejoice on command. Rejoicing is the natural response to kindness and mercy. This is why our Introit which begins “rejoice” from Philippians is coupled with Psalm 85: “Lord… you have brought back the captivity of Jacob. You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people. You have covered all their sin.”

We are not told to rejoice in the sense of a legalistic “do it or else,” but rather we are reminded of the Lord’s goodness and mercy. For no matter what happens in this brief life, this current world overcome by sin and death, we have eternity to look forward to. We have been forgiven of all our sins! We have full communion with our loving Father through the very real forgiving work of the Son as sealed upon our foreheads by the baptismal waters which bequeathed to us the Holy Spirit.

This is why the early martyrs could go to their deaths singing hymns and praising God. This is how Christians, no matter how poor and hungry, can join together as a family and pray the Lord’s prayer with transcendent joy. This is why, when Christians partake of Holy Communion – no matter the circumstances, be it at a death bed, in a prison camp, or on a battlefield, the act of partaking of the sacrament is called a “celebration” and the pastor who serves the body and blood of the Lord is called the “celebrant.”

For the worst thing that will happen to us in this life is that we will die. And we know this will happen anyway. But the good news, the cause of rejoicing, the reason for the rose colored candle and the joy of the Eucharistic celebration, is that death will no more hold us than it held our Lord! All the suffering, all the bad news, all the causes of pain and sorrow in this life are to be wiped away in an instant, in the blinking of an eye. Our Lord is coming to restore Eden, to give us life, to bring us into harmony with the Triune God and all of creation! He has done this for us – it is as much a matter of history as Caesar Augustus and Pontius Pilate, of Bethlehem and Calvary, of the Jordan River and every baptismal font in every church in history.

The promise that brings us such joy in the midst of suffering is as tangible and solid as this marble pulpit and can be tasted and ingested in nothing less than the physical realities of bread and wine, which are truly the Lord’s body and blood, the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the One who is there in the flesh to bring you joy without end.

For what do we see surrounding our Lord Jesus? “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

The imprisoned and the falsely accused, the faithful prophet who is to be beheaded, believers of every time and place who suffer in body and spirit, those who mourn and doubt, those who struggle in vain to feed their families or strive to avoid bloodshed and violence – can indeed all rejoice. For the worse their conditions are in the present, the greater their joy when the Lord returns to create a new heaven and a new earth.

For the same apostle who exhorted us to “rejoice… always” also proclaims: “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.”

Our joy is not in this life of sin and sorrow, dear friends. Our joy is in Christ, who made full atonement for each one of us, who provides the Church with “stewards of the mysteries” to celebrate the sacraments and to proclaim the Good News, to bring comfort to you, His people, bearing the good tidings that the war is over, that our iniquity is pardoned, the messenger who holds the Lord’s body aloft and says: “Behold your God,” the God who will “feed His flock like a shepherd” and who “will gather the lambs with His arm, And carry them in His bosom.”

These holy words conveyed by stewards and prophets, by Scripture and the Holy Spirit, have comforted and filled our brothers and sisters with joy since the Lord sent His Word among us to do His work of re-creation – joy even in the most adverse conditions and cause of suffering.

Those times when we around us and we are bereft of joy because of what we see are precisely the times to look up and be filled with every reason to rejoice – because we have not only a promise, but a Savior, not only a blessed hope, but a holy assurance that we see now with the eyes of faith, but that we will see with our eyes when the time comes:

See, the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heav’n.

Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,

One and all to be forgiv’n.

So, when next He comes in glory

And the world is wrapped in fear,

He will shield us with His mercy

And with words of love draw near.


In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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