The Reverend John Allison, Celebrant
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
December 13, 2020
Christ Church, Hudson
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” These words from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians serve well to orient us on this Third Sunday of Advent, what is often known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin to rejoice. We recognize this visually with our lighting of the pink candle in our Advent wreath and sometimes even refer to today as Rose Sunday. But whatever we call it, the theme is clear: we have cause to rejoice. Our King and Savior draws near. We have crossed the midway point of Advent.
Thus far, in our waiting, our scripture has urged us to prepare ourselves, to be ready, for we know not the time or the hour of Christ’s return. The imagery has been apocalyptic and the tone urgent. With today, however, we begin a shift. We are comforted with Paul's words of assurance that “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.”
Paul is writing to this early Christian community and seeking to reassure them that in their faithful waiting they will be redeemed in Christ. At the time Paul is writing it has been about twenty years since Jesus’s Resurrection, and people are beginning to be restless. They had believed Jesus’s return would have been more imminent; is the delay because of us, they wonder? Are we doing something wrong? How long can we remain in this state of perpetual readiness? How long can we live in this state of expectation before we lose hope and forget God’s promise? We might be asking ourselves the same thing. But today, Gaudete Sunday, Rose Sunday, we are reminded of God’s promise. We are reminded that in God’s promise we find hope, and we have all that we need.
“Do not despise the words of the prophets,” says Paul. And yet sometimes we do. We look around us, at our broken world, and see despair. We see suffering, disease, poverty, war and many other sorts of violence. We see these things, we recognize our sin, we hear God’s call to repent. We wait with these things, in the dark, holding tightly to God’s promise of the coming light, and the effort to open our eyes and see, to remain focused and not lose sight of Christ’s light on the distant horizon is hard.
It’s in that sort of prolonged waiting that the Good News can be hard to hear, that the call to reorient ourselves to God can be hard to hear. The opening verses of our reading today from Isaiah is perhaps familiar to some of us from Luke’s account (4:17-19) of Jesus’ public reading of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth when he was nearly killed, run out by his own people who were not yet ready: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus read these words and proclaimed that all these things are fulfilled in him. The situation to which Isaiah speaks, its original context, is of a time of restoration. Isaiah is written in the aftermath of Israel’s exile, and these words point to the beginning of its restoration. Even so, Isaiah points to groups of people that we know all too well. The oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, we can see them among us—they are us—even to this day. But in naming these groups, in calling us to see them, to see ourselves, Isaiah shows us the beginning of God’s promise of salvation that Christ comes to fulfill, and it’s in that vision that we have a glimpse of the Kingdom. We have a glimpse of a broken world made right, a vision of the Reign of Christ.
These words from the prophet Isaiah offer a future that is simultaneously coming and, at the same time, present at this very moment in the hearts of those who know Christ. In this season of Advent it is incumbent on us to make that space ready in us, to clear a place for the baby Jesus to lay his head. Essentially, we must make room for Jesus. Paul's exhortation to the Thessalonians reminds us of that: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Do we do that? Can we do that?
Years ago, when I first began feeling that gentle tug that eventually became an insistent pull to turn to Christ, I was given a book called Way of a Pilgrim, written, as the legend goes, by an anonymous 19th century Russian peasant who becomes fixated on the words we hear today from Paul: “Pray without ceasing.” How is one to do that, he wonders. What does it mean to go through life in continual prayer. He wanders the countryside as he seeks to understand just what this means and eventually meets a spiritual teacher, a monk at a monastery, who teaches him the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. He is taught to keep this prayer in his heart always, to make it as much a part of himself as his own breath. And so, he begins this practice, silently repeating these words over the miles he traverses in his journey. It’s difficult. His mind wanders and he finds himself preoccupied with many things but, when he does, he reminds himself to simply return to his prayer and be patient with himself. Over time, it becomes easier, more natural, to the point that the prayer becomes a part of who he is. The prayer is always with him, always present to him. It becomes a kind of anchor that keeps him ever present to Christ. There’s much more to it, of course, than I can cover here in this sermon, but my point in sharing it is that to be ever present to Christ as he is continually coming to us, is to make our whole lives a prayer. It is to rejoice always and gives thanks in all things. But that’s hard, and we are continually seeking to get it right, to bring ourselves back to prayer when we find ourselves straying and know that there is that place in each of us where Christ comes to dwell. It doesn’t mean we don’t have moments of sadness; it doesn’t mean we don’t mourn; it doesn’t mean we don’t have moments of fear or of frustration. What it does do is remind us that God’s will for us is peace and wholeness of being and that in Christ we have everything we need. Reading that book was the beginning for me of clearing out that space, making way for Jesus. That clearing out of space in here, in my heart, continues to this day and, I hope, will continue until the day I die. The stuff of the world accumulates in us, clutters our hearts and minds, and it is only in letting go, in clearing out that space, that we make a place for Christ to be born in us.
What do I, what do you, need to let go of, what do you need to change, to make way for Christ to come. It’s in that welcoming that we begin to allow God’s transformation in us, our transformation in Christ. That’s the transformation we take into the world. That’s the Christ that is to be born.
As we walk through these last days of Advent, let us remember that we are not waiting for something to be over; we are waiting for something glorious to begin. Amen.