Third Sunday in Advent: Luke 7:18-35
The old name for this Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent (with its famous pink candle), was taken from the introit: Gaudete. ‘Gautete’ is a latin imperative. It is a command: Rejoice! As in, Rejoice, and again I say, Rejoice! In the liturgy, just like in the bible, rejoicing is not tied up in our feelings—‘Rejoice!’ is an imperative verb. It is something to be done. And today, in this Divine Service, it is something to be done by you.
When we get to sing the Gloria once again, after Advent on Christmas Day, it won’t be because of our feelings. We may be happy that day, or not. We may be near or far from loved ones. We may be able to afford wonderful presents or not, or have our favorite meal or not. Our lives may be on the rise, or falling apart (or one of the shades of grey in between).
In our epistle, St. Paul is not commanding the Philippians to feel a certain way. Paul is not pollyanna. When he tells them to rejoice, he is telling them to do so, however they may feel. Because St. Paul knows, as well as any ever has, what it feels like to be alone, to be hungry, and to have your life fall apart.
He writes to the Philippians from prison, where he is on account of Jesus. And he writes because he very much wants them to rejoice, like he himself does. “I make my prayer with joy,” he says (Philippians 1:4); “complete my joy,” he says (Philippians 2:2); “even if I am poured out as a sacrifice…,” says the Apostle, “I rejoice with you all.” (Philippians 2:17) Our question today is, How can this be?
Henri Nouwen defines joy, true joy, this way: “(Joy is) the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.” (The heart of Henri Nouwen: His Words of Blessing) So St. Paul could rejoice always, because he knew that Jesus loved him always, and that that love could never be taken away. It could not be taken away by soldiers, confiscated by prison guards, or taken away by false apostles, or hunger, or loneliness, or any one of his sins. Because he knew that Jesus unconditionally loved him.
In our gospel for today, this is what St. John the Baptist needs to know. He, like Paul, is in prison facing death on account of Jesus, and he needs to know a love that could never be taken away. He needs to know that Jesus is truly the one who has come to love him through all things, even prison and even death.
And Jesus sends word back. He says, “John, look and listen! See how I love the world! Look at the blind and how they see; look at the lame and how they walk; look at the lepers and how pure they are now. See how the deaf can hear; see how the dead can live; and see how the poor have good news.”
Because just like joy, this love of Jesus is not a feeling. John in prison does not need Jesus to feel anything. He needs Jesus to love him with an incarnate love—a love of flesh and blood—a love just as real as soldiers and prison doors, and as real as death.
So also for you, for you to rejoice, you must look to the incarnate Jesus—the body and blood Jesus—and all he has done, to all he has suffered and all he has borne for you. Look to all he has healed and cleansed; look to his crucifixion and resurrection and ascension. Look at what he gives you now in his Absolution and his Word and his Supper.
Look at how he blesses you, how he comes for you, and see that wherever he has you right now, in whatever sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, or war he has you right now—or even if he has you near death, know that he has you. He himself has been, is, and will be in those things, to bring you through them. And in this you may rejoice.
Now, it may well be that you are looking very forward to this Christmas, that it is well with you and your family, and I hope that’s true. It may well be that rejoicing in this season is easier for you than it was for John or Paul or Zephaniah, and if so, thank God. But even so, still, remember where to look and listen. Don’t neglect the source of divine joy.
We can rejoice in a thousand things these days. The challenge for us may well be to take stock of our rejoicing. Are we rejoicing in something unconditional? or in something that—as good as it may be—will not save us? Do we think we can unwrap joy, or prepare joy and put it on the dining room table, or share joy with family, and not with Jesus?
Gaudete joy, Advent joy, is a different sort of joy. It is prison-cell joy. It is what John needed and it is what Paul needed, and it is what we all need, because prison isn’t just a place with bars on the windows. Prison is anything that tries to keep you away from Jesus and all he has to give you. And whenever we find ourselves in prison like that—even in the comfort of our own home—it is time to look and to listen again. Go to where you can hear a message from Jesus. Go to where you can find his holy touch, his Absolution and his Supper and his Blessing. Go to where Jesus’s real presence is.
So, today, it’s good news for you. It is all here, and it is all unconditional, because it is something that you did not unwrap, or purchase or prepare; it comes from his cross to his altar and to your lips; it comes through his messengers, and it is what Zechariah prophesied:
The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you with his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival...At that time is will bring you in, at the time I gather you together…for Christmas, of course.