Monday, December 17, 2018


'Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.  On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.'

--Zephaniah 3: 14-18

'Surely, it is God who saves me; *

I will trust in him and not be afraid.

For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *

and he will be my Savior.

Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *

from the springs of salvation.

And on that day you shall say, *

Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;

Make his deeds known among the peoples; *

see that they remember that his Name is exalted.

Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *

and this is known in all the world.

Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *

for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.'

--The First Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 12: 2-6)

'Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.'

--Philippians 4: 4-7

'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? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham."

And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."'

--Luke 3: 7-8, 10-17

Rejoice!  Or, in Latin, gaudete!  Long before there was a #AdventWord the third Sunday of Advent was called Gaudete Sunday, represented by the pink, or rose, colored candle that we light. The name comes from the traditional opening chant, or introit, that has been used in churches on that day, but we can also see the theme of rejoicing permeating our Scriptures.  The prophet Zephaniah says, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” and “the Lord will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you with love.”  In our canticle, the First Song of Isaiah, the prophet sings, “Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.”  The apostle Paul, writing to the church in Philippi, calls them to “Rejoice in the Lord always—again I will say, rejoice!”  And in Luke’s Gospel we hear John the Baptist, well, he doesn’t sound like he’s rejoicing, does he?  I guess three out of four ain’t bad.

How can we not be rejoicing?  I was certainly rejoicing this past Sunday when I got to share the altar with my father, who serves as a deacon in the little Virginia church in which I grew up.

With my dad, The Rev. Preston Mitchell, on Gaudete Sunday at Good Shepherd.

For so many of us this is the most wonderful time of the year, a time of great rejoicing. Our hearts are practically giddy with excitement for Christmas and that it means to us, but when we peel back the layers of our Scriptures this week and dig into them a little deeper, I suspect we will find that the voices calling us to rejoice are not doing so with the giddiness that we often experience around us this time of year, but rather they are crying out to us from a place of deep feeling, anchored to an acknowledgment of God’s love and presence in human life, which very often is not particularly joyful.

The prophet Zephaniah puts in a rare appearance today.  If you know your prophets—and I’m sure you do—you’ll know that some of the gloomiest passages in all of the Hebrew Scriptures are found in Zephaniah.  In the first chapter, starting with the second verse, we hear God say through the prophet:  “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth…humans and animals…birds of the air…fish of the sea…I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth.”  Yikes!  But today, just two chapters later, we hear a different tune being sung, one where the word of God, which began as irredeemable judgment, has been transformed into transcendent gladness, and that which once anticipated the sorrows of the people now celebrates their chorus of joy.

An Eastern Christian icon depicting the holy prophet Zephaniah.

We hear from another prophet today, as our canticle, which replaced the Psalm, is taken from the 12th chapter of Isaiah. In this First Song of Isaiah we hear the promise that God is the people’s stronghold and defense, that they should rejoice in God and call upon God’s name.  This joyful passage comes at the end of a long string of prophecies from Isaiah that warn the people against God’s wrath and judgment.  Isaiah’s message isn’t exactly a hopeful one up to this point, especially in chapters 1, t, and 9, but here in chapter 12 we have this great song of rejoicing, in spite of previous messages of calamity.

Another Eastern Christian icon, this one depicting the prophet Isaiah. 

Speaking of calamity, do you know where Paul is when he pens this powerful message to the Philippians that they are to rejoice in the Lord always?  He’s in prison!  What’s more, the church in Philippi was itself enduring great hardships and persecutions, and many more were to come.  Yet somehow out of that pain Paul is able to construct not only a message of hope but one that dares proclaim that the people should rejoice…always!

An artist's depiction of Paul writing (or dictating) one of his letters from prison.

Then there’s John the Baptist.  It’s true that unlike the other three readings, the Gospel never uses the word ‘rejoice’, but we can actually still hear some joy in his message.  He stands by the River Jordan surrounded by a crowd of tax collectors, Roman soldiers, and every sort of wayfaring stranger.  There is judgment in his voice—“You brood of vipers!” isn’t exactly a compliment—but there is hope and joy.  He gives clear instruction for what the people must do to be saved:  share your coat and food, don’t cheat people, don’t resort to forceful threats and accusations.  And as he speaks of the One who is coming we hear the excitement in his voice.  We hear him, dare I say, rejoice.

Doesn't this look like someone who's rejoicing??

What is it, then, that changes the message of each of these individuals—Zephaniah, Isaiah, Paul, and John the Baptist?  In the midst of communities of pain, with dark and foreboding horizons ahead, what compels them to rejoice?  It is the promise of God’s abiding presence!  Zephaniah says, “The Lord your God is in your midst.”  Isaiah says, “The great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”  Paul says, “The Lord is near.”  And even John the Baptist’s joy and excitement picks up when he proclaims, “One who is more powerful than I is coming’ and ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’  This, brothers and sisters, is what allows these prophetic voices to cry out, ‘Rejoice!’ Even as they and their communities are engulfed in sorrow, it is the promise that God’s love is never-ending and that God’s presence is everlasting that keeps them going.  Therein lies the joy.

But how can such joy exist in the midst of such pain?  Perhaps because this joy is kindled in the moments when joy is least expected.  This isn’t some ho-hum, put on your happy face and pretend like everything is ok kind of joy.  No, no, this is the kind of joy that is born from an experience of pain, as our readings remind us.  There is a depth to that kind of joy, which is rendered all the more intense and powerful because of the hopelessness out of which it is born.  Those of us who have suffered and found joy after the fact understand that intensity, that power.  Such joy cannot truly be obtained without first enduring pain, sorrow, and loss.  That is not to say that joy cannot be attained without heartbreak, but rather that the joy that comes from heartbreak is different, it's deeper. This is what makes the Incarnation so extraordinary.  In a time when the world is left empty, God breaks through, Emmanuel comes to a people held in the grip of hopelessness and dares proclaims to them, ‘Rejoice!’  Could that have happened at a different time or place?  No one can say for sure, but the story of God and the people whom God loves, in every time and every place, always goes something like this:  even in the darkest hours there is a light (even if it's just flickering like a candle), and even in grief and pain, there is joy.  How? Why?  Because God is there!  In the middle of the tempest, in the deepest canyon of sorrow, God is there.  In the dark days of Zephaniah and Isaiah, God was there with joy in their prophecies.  As early Christians like Paul struggled to survive, God was there with hope.  And even as he saw corruption all around him, through his voice of judgment John the Baptist knew God was there, and that God was coming. God is here, now.  If you are one who is finding it hard to rejoice today, fear not.  God is with you.  And the joy will come, just as Christmas will come, just as God’s promise of love for this world will come once more.  Even when life is not joyful, God’s love and presence abide, for God knows us, knows our pain, knows our joy, and God loves us in the midst of it all and will abide with us through it all.  Those prophetic voices of old knew this, and so do we. It is what allows us to keep going, to keep rejoicing always in our Emmanuel, in God with us, through it all.

So rejoice, rejoice, believers!  Rejoice not because Christians are called to be happy even when bad things are happening to them, but because we know a God who stands with us and knows our pain.  We rejoice not in a hollow promise that everything will be ok, or that the pain will stop, but we rejoice in the saving grace of a God who loves us so much as to not only come among us, but promise never to leave us.  This is the joy being stirred up in us this Advent.  This is joy for all who long to know the peace of God that passes understanding.  The nearness of God allows us to face all pain, grief, and sorrow with inscrutable grace. For this we rejoice…always!

Monday, December 3, 2018


'The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."'
--Jeremiah 33: 14-16

'Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.'
--I Thessalonians 3: 11-13

'Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."'
--Luke 21: 25-28

During the season of Advent I am shaping my Sunday sermons and blog posts around the word of the day for the social media campaign #AdventWord.  It is an online communal Advent calendar created by the folks at the Center for Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary, whereby one can contribute pictures or stories with the hashtagged word in any social media post, allowing others to search for that word and to have a bit of Advent cheer brought into their lives.  This past Sunday's #AdventWord was #journey.  

If he ever hurts you...

As tempted as I am to make a joke about Steve Perry or to tell y'all to don't stop believin', that would be some seriously low-hanging fruit.  In truth, though, the word 'journey' is a perfect one to kick off the #AdventWord campaign, as the whole season is about journeying.

Every journey has a destination, right?  In the case of Advent we have duel destinations, which means we have duel journeys.  The first is Christmas itself, the obvious destination for Advent, and we are all caught up right now in the frenzy and excitement of journeying toward that silent, holy night.  But Advent has another destination, a look to the future in an attitude of expectancy over what God has yet to do in the life of humankind. That future, that destination, goes by many names:  the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection, the Parousia, the Eschaton, the End Times, the Second Coming of Christ, to name a few.  While we are most often caught up in that first journey toward Christmas, the Scriptures for the first week of Advent always focus on that second journey, the journey toward a future that is well beyond Christmas.  This future is foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, is the anticipation of the early Christians in Thessalonika, and is what the people in Jesus’ time ask him to expound upon in the last days of his life. Each of these audiences from our Scriptures today is looking toward that future, toward that destination of the Day of the Lord, but it is the journey, I would suggest, that the prophet, the apostle, and the Messiah are each urging their audiences to contemplate.

Unlike prophets that preceded him—such Amos and Zephaniah, who preached doom and gloom—the prophet Jeremiah does not speak of the Day of the Lord as something to fear, but rather as good news, that God’s grace is impending, and that God will come to execute justice and righteousness, which are two things we should hope for, rather than fear.  Yet the audience of Jeremiah’s prophecyis anywhere but in a state of hopefulness, as they still find themselves in the midst of exile.  Thus, the good news in this prophecy is for God’s people to hold on to faith in God, even while trapped in a darkness for which there seems to be no end.  They must simultaneously continue in their journey toward liberation while living in exile.

Centuries later Paul’s audience in Thessalonika believed in their hearts that Jesus’ return was imminent, that that same great day that Jeremiah spoke of was coming any second now.  When that didn't happen, many folks left the community of faith out of anger and disappointment, while others stayed, having their joys and expectations seriously tempered. Paul, then, writes this letter to encourage them in their journey, to remember that everything they do is in anticipation of” the coming of our Lord Jesus with the saints.”  Don’t be disappointed that it hasn’t happened yet, Paul is saying, but rather hold fast to the promise that it will happen, and love and support one another accordingly along the journey.

Then there is Jesus preaching in the Temple during Holy Week.  This isn't exactly the place we would expect to find him in the first week of Advent, but here we find him unpacking what the journey toward the Day of the Lord looks like:  there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars, distress among the nations, the seas and waves will roar, people will faint, fear will grip the world.  It’s not exactly encouraging, but even while the journey feels perilous, Jesus encourages the people to “stand up and raise their heads,” knowing that the righteousness Jeremiah foretold is coming.

For us today we may hear these stories of a far-off day, a day that some Christians long to see, that some fear to see, and that some even believe we are experiencing right now, and we, being the logical, educated, children of the Enlightenment that we Anglicans are, might scoff at them.  Can’t we just skip this stuff and get to the more loving stories of the anticipation of Jesus’ birth, with characters like Mary, Elizabeth, or John the Baptist?  Well, no.  Because Advent invites us to ponder Jesus' second coming, not just his first, and to find ourselves on the journey.  We, like the people Jeremiah prophesied to, sometimes find ourselves in a place of exile—maybe from our loved ones, maybe from ourselves by means of addiction—and yet still, the prophet gives us a message of hope along our journey, knowing that God’s righteousness will prevail because it already has.  We, like Paul’s audience in Thessalonika, may throw up our hands in frustration, wondering when Jesus is going to come back and set things right, and yet the apostle offers words of encouragement for us, knowing that while we may very well not see Jesus’ return in our own lifetimes, the journey of abounding in love for one another and for all is the main point.  And we, like Jesus’ audience in the Gospel, live in a world filled with fear, where so many of the same problems that plagued his society—rampant misogyny, persecution of the foreigner, corrupt religious and political authorities, and economic injustice—are still experienced in our own day (make no mistake, Jesus' words in the Gospel are not so much a prediction of the future but an assessment of the world in the present moment).  Yet, the Messiah reassures us that this is part of the journey, that we will always see and experience such painful moments, all the while standing up, raising our heads, and maintaining hope in loving, liberating, and life-giving God.

The old saying goes that it is the journey that matters more so than the destination, right?  This first day of Advent reminds us of that fact.  It is not just the journey toward Christmas, but also the same journey as our ancestors; that is, the journey toward a world that knows the completeness of the power and love of God.  While we may long for that day to come right now—just as our ancestors did in their own time—we must remember to focus on the journey itself, to love and support one another on our individual and communal journeys, in spite of the fear and treacherousness of the roads down which we travel.  We must hold fast to the promise that our faith gives us, that he will come again, that his kingdom will have no end, and until that day, that he will give us what we need for our journey, namely the love of our brothers and sisters that supports us, and the bread of heaven and cup of salvation that nourish us.  So over these next four weeks, embrace the journey, brothers and sisters, wherever you are on it.  Know that as you travel, you do not do so alone, for we all journey with each other, with the saints, and with Christ himself.  As we move toward Christmas, and toward the Lord’s promised day, we do so with hope and expectation, and we don't stop believin'!  Good journey, to us all.

Sing it, Steve!!