The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Canticle 9 Isaiah 12:2-6
December 12th 2021
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Perhaps there’s no more of an unbefitting Advent saint than curmudgeonly John the Baptist—who in our gospel is neither patiently waiting or quietly reflecting upon the coming of the Lord. And yet we spend half of every Advent season with this most unlikely prophet of the most high. Last Sunday, we heard about him, and this morning, we hear from John himself—though perhaps we wish we hadn’t! But prophets are not known for custody of the tongue, and according to Luke, people swarmed into the wilderness to be proselytized by the fire and brimstone Baptist.
As far back as the 4th century, Advent was a forty day season of fasting and self-examination in preparation for Christmas and Epiphany baptisms. But today the words “fasting and self-examination” are more likely to remind us of desert Lent, than snowy Advent, though indeed they are seasonal cousins. This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, sometimes known as Rose Sunday, and is a counterpart to Laetare Sunday in Lent; both the Latin words Gaudete and Laetare mean rejoice. These midway “Rejoice Sundays” are meant to be a respite from our seasonal disciplines and a day to simply rejoice in the Lord and sing praises. Hence, signifying joy, the pink Advent candle was lit this morning, and the altar and Fr. John are dressed in beautiful rose-colored vestments.
In stark contrast to Luke’s rather gloomy gospel, and in better seasonal form, joy resounds throughout our other lessons and readings: sing aloud, rejoice and exult with all your heart, Zephaniah exhorts; Isaiah exclaims, sing praises of the Lord, and ring out your joy; St. Paul urges, rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice. Surprisingly though, Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Paul all entreat their respective audiences to joy and rejoicing while they are suffering and in exile, oppressed and persecuted. There’s no need to wait for the perfect set of circumstances, writes Paul to the Philippians—Paul himself bound in prison chains—be joyful in the Lord now. Don’t worry about anything; the Lord is near. Rejoice always.
Don’t worry about anything, and rejoice always. Is this possible? For years a bumper sticker traveled around with me, though not on my car, which read: surely joy is the condition of life. This quote from Henry David Thoreau became fixed in my heart as I wondered and pondered—is this true? Because on many days, it seemed more likely, to me anyway, that suffering is the condition of life, as set forth by the Buddha in the First Noble Truth.
But this is exactly why we spend half of Advent with John the Baptist; as though he was no Buddhist, he knew a thing or two about suffering, which is why the crowds flocked to him, hoping for an antidote to their suffering. And though he was no transcendentalist, like Thoreau, John also knew a thing or two about joy, which is why the crowds flocked to him hoping to get a prescription for joy. In fact, John the Baptist is the less-than-cuddly patron saint of spiritual joy; for while he was still in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, he jumped for joy at hearing the voice of Mary, who was carrying Jesus in her womb; Jesus, his cousin, his Lord and ours.
Joy, and the joy of the Lord, is a Promise and fruit of the Spirit that I continue to ponder and pray for. I’ve learned that I can’t pursue or plan joy like I can a happy occasion, such a planning a nice get away, or going out for a celebratory meal. More often, joy takes us by surprise—like finding a tiny piece of sea glass amid countless grains of sand—or like God finding me—a tiny sliver of flesh in a sea of humanity.
God comes like a thief in the night, stealing away our sorrows and sin when our hands have grown too weak to wrestle and our hearts are too heavy to bear anymore. God comes amidst the countless suffering moments of our lives, turning back our enemies of fear and shame, blame and judgment, injury and burden; the Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory. God rejoices over you with gladness and renews you with his love, this rejoicing and love of God a healing and anointing balm.
The joy of the Lord is ancient, and so deep down the heart of things that it’s in-the-beginning foundational—which means it is possible!—even in the midst of hard things, tragic things, as many a saints and human souls have experienced and attested to. Surely, it is God who saves me. Surely, suffering is the condition of life. Surely, joy is the condition of life.
When we choose to place our happiness in the hands of Christ, and trust, joy arises as the deep purpose of God within. Joy springs from new life yet born; for what may look like and feel like impossibility is where Christ is, there on the cross with us. Christ is ever with us and coming to us anew, though sometimes without warning and in startling and unexpected ways; as we prayed first thing this morning: Stir up your power O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us, so that, as John the Baptist thunders in our gospel, we bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Years ago when I was first preached on our gospel passage, in a kind of theological dyslexia, I read the phrase “bear fruits worthy of repentance” as if it meant “bear sins worthy of repentance”; as if sin had to be of size and bloom and no lean venial offense to be worthy of repentance. When my brain righted itself, and I realized my misunderstanding, I had a good chuckle—because of course we aren’t to sin big just so we can repent big and God can forgive big, as if mercy and sin are transactional.
However, my momentary muddle did bear a little fruit of its own. Our thoughts, words, and deeds yield all kinds of fruit, including the rotten kind. And I think there is a tendency not to repent unless what we’ve done or left undone is baldfaced bad. But for most of us, it’s the small seemingly insignificant little-white-lie-everyday misdemeanors that should keep us turning back to God like a whirling dervish in prayer. I realized that I don’t have to secret away my faults and failings but let ‘em rip—like pulling the ripcord on a parachute—so that mercy and grace deploy. Then I had another good chuckle at myself, because of course! we aren’t to try and sin just so God has something to do and something to redeem.
I had it all mixed up, but that’s how life is: the sacred, the mundane and profane, sin and joy, and joy and suffering all mixed together, flames of the one same fire of divine love. But for the sake of clarity, yes, we are to bear good fruit, such as joy, that is worthy of true repentance; fruit that witnesses to the U-turn we have made in the middle of the badlands so that we are headed in the right direction—to the wellspring of love and spring of salvation—eastward—towards the Light.
For all the Baptist’s fervid and fiery rhetoric, his advice to the clamoring crowd was practical and down to earth. What should we do? the crowd asked him; turn back to God, he says. Go home. What should we do? asked the crowd again. Be fair, and don’t cheat. Whoever has—money, food, or clothes—share with those who have not. What should we do? they asked a third time. John said: Be humble, and for crying out loud, wake up! For one who is more powerful than I is coming, with a winnowing fork and fire in hand. Thank goodness. So prepare, and make straight the way of the Lord.
So, with many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people.
Though the good news can sometimes be hard to hear news, and even sometimes seemingly “bad” new, it is always good and of God. Because the One who is coming is here to bring you home, and gather up all of creation in joy and fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth and in heaven.
Indeed, it is meet and right to rejoice, for Love, the Rose, is on the way.*
Alleluia, and amen!
* A line from the hymn People, Look East, by Eleanor Farjeon