'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!